Ranking the 5 greatest full-backs of all time

The full-back position has undergone an evolution over the past few years
The full-back position has undergone an evolution over the past few years
David James

The role of a full-back has changed drastically over time and has seen numerous transitions over the years. It’s not the most attractive of positions – everyone always wants to be a midfielder or a striker. Even goalkeepers sometimes find themselves ahead of full-backs in that particular pecking order.

Despite its distinct lack of appeal, the modern-day full-back is one of the most pivotal players in a football team. The 1990s witnessed the evolution of the role, with full-backs venturing into midfield and dropping back into position depending on the match situation.

The 4-4-2 was a very common formation in the 1980s, and full-backs were more reserved in their attacking endeavors than they are today. There are a couple of names from this era that I haven’t included in my top five, but they do need an honorary mention.

Phil Neal was absolutely staggering for Liverpool. At one point in my career, I’d played 117 consecutive games and I thought that was quite commendable. It pales in comparison to Neal, who played over 400 consecutive games for his club. The game is different now in so many ways and you can’t really draw comparisons across generations, but to think he could play for eight years without missing a game is stunning. To me, he’s the Godfather of all full-backs.

Rob Jones is another Liverpool player who deserves a mention. He was one of the first full-backs to be a part of the transition we speak about today, and was adept with his forward runs and crosses. Had it not been for his injury record, he could’ve been highly acclaimed for what he achieved.

This is an incredibly difficult list to make because there have been several names who’ve changed the way we see the game. Here is my take on the five greatest full-backs of all time.

#5 Cafu

Foot : Final / Germany - Brazil / Wc 2002
Foot : Final / Germany - Brazil / Wc 2002

On an international level, Cafu is one of the most decorated players on this list. I’ve played alongside him occasionally in the past few years, and he’s still incredibly fit. If this is what he’s like in his 40s, he must’ve been a nightmare to play against in his prime.

Cafu was a part of the evolution of the modern-day full-back in the 1990s and 2000s. He was a brilliant watch on the pitch, both as a football fan and as a player. He would bring a certain Brazilian-ness to the role of the full-back, and his skill and grace on the ball was impeccable.

With two World Cups to his name, Cafu enjoyed incredible success with Brazil on the international stage. I’ve never come up against him as a player, but the time I shared with him on the pitch after my retirement gave me a glimpse into his incredible prowess as a full-back.

#4 Dani Alves

FC Barcelona v Sevilla FC - La Liga
FC Barcelona v Sevilla FC - La Liga

Dani Alves is the only active player on my list. With him, there always was a question mark – is he really a defender, or is he a defensive-minded winger? What a player. Nine league titles across Europe, three UEFA Champions League victories with Barcelona – he is one of the most decorated players of all time.

Dani Alves burst onto the scene when the game of football was evolving. A full-back couldn’t get by with only defensive work, and his dribbling and crossing skills made him a formidable force on the right flank. You won’t get very far being an attacking full-back with a smaller team, and the fact that Alves was playing with one of Europe’s behemoths did help his cause.

There was something more to the Brazilian that set him apart from the rest. He had plenty of character and his steely determination made him the ideal player to have on your side in a big game. That’s the beauty of being a football fan watching Dani Alves in action – there was something about him that was lovely to witness, something beyond the football he played.

Also Read: Jim Beglin column - Ranking the 5 greatest central midfielders of all time

#3 Gary Neville

Manchester City v Manchester United - Premier League
Manchester City v Manchester United - Premier League

You often hear commentators and pundits say, “cross the ball between the goalkeepers and the defenders.” When you’re defending a set piece or a cross, there’s always a space between the defender and the goalkeeper that is prone to havoc. Gary Neville was exceptional with these crosses, and you’d often find defenders sprinting back and goalkeepers in two minds trying to defend his deliveries.

He had a brilliant early cross, and could find his teammates in the penalty area from the halfway line. He was a smart player, and knew exactly what he was doing. The number of goals that Manchester United have scored from his early crosses is quite scary.

I can’t say much about Cafu and Dani Alves because I didn’t know them very well off the pitch, but Gary Neville was a solid teammate. I can see why Sir Alex Ferguson relied on him in the changing room, particularly when there were issues that needed sorting out. I didn’t agree with him with all the time and he used to wind me up a fair bit, but I love Gary Neville both as a player and as a person.

#2 Roberto Carlos

Roberto Carlos of Real Madrid
Roberto Carlos of Real Madrid

When we’re talking about the role of a modern-day full-back, it has now become almost prosaic to say that they get forward more and put in their crosses. Roberto Carlos was so much more than that. He was so strong as a player, and was extremely difficult to play against.

He was capable of the occasionally phenomenal free-kick, and that goal against France is certainly the highlight of his career. There was a certain air about him on the pitch – he was physically intimidating, and you could understand why his opponents were wary of taking him on.

Roberto Carlos was also brilliant defensively, and his powerful physique and stocky frame made him a nightmare to play against. He won three Champions League titles and thrived in a star-studded squad at Real Madrid. I’m putting Roberto Carlos ahead of Gary Neville on my list simply because he was more dynamic as a player and enjoyed an incredibly successful career.

#1 Ashley Cole

Chelsea v Everton - FA Cup 4th Round Replay
Chelsea v Everton - FA Cup 4th Round Replay

Ashley Cole is a better version of Dani Alves, in my opinion. He has over 100 international caps for England, and the things he could do were simply astonishing for a defender. I remember watching him in training with the national team, and he was as good on the ball as anybody else in that squad.

If you wanted an outball to build an attack, Ashley Cole was the player to look for. He’s bailed his side out of trouble on numerous occasions and was one of the most well-rounded defenders of his time. I’d say the only thing missing from his career was a major international trophy.

Ashley Cole evolved through an intriguing melee of transitions as a player, and excelled at both defending and attacking. His goalscoring record is not particularly great, but his skills in training made me wonder why he didn’t take more free-kicks and set-pieces. I think Ashley Cole could still play at the highest level if he came out of retirement today – he’s easily the best full-back I’ve ever played with and seen.

Honorable Mentions

Liverpool v Burnley - Premier League
Liverpool v Burnley - Premier League

In addition to the legendary Liverpool duo of Phil Neal and Rob Jones, I’d say Manchester City’s Kyle Walker deserves a mention here. He could still theoretically be a part of an England squad that actually wins something, and we could be talking about one of the greatest full-backs of all time.

With Kyle Walker, you’re always wondering how you’re going to get past him. He’s blessed with extraordinary pace and could easily play for another five years at the top level. He has a decent goalscoring record and his ability to get back and defend makes him a valuable asset.

Looking to the future, I’d definitely have Trent Alexander-Arnold on my watchlist. In such a short career, he’s achieved so much. His career at Liverpool has been on a virtual fast-forward - he already has a Premier League title and a Champions League trophy to his name!

It was only natural that his form was going to take a dip at some point – all the greats of the game have phases when they’re not at their best. It’s now time for Trent Alexander-Arnold to get back on the springboard, and from what we’ve seen in Liverpool’s first few Premier League games this season, it seems that he’s getting back to his best.

He is a tremendous threat when it comes to set-pieces and his crosses yield frightening results. I do hope he can add a World Cup medal to his already impressive trophy cabinet and from an English perspective, I’d say he’s a future hall-of-famer.

Also Read: Paul Merson's predictions for Liverpool vs Chelsea and other Premier League GW3 fixtures

Edited by Vishal Subramanian


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