There haven’t been many positions that have changed over the years as much as the role of fullback has. 20 years ago, their job was to defend, and very little else, but that has all changed now, and so much more is expected of them.
Although the main job for a fullback is still to do the work defensively, many people judge them on what they offer going the other way. It is now all about how good fullbacks are in more advanced positions, and how much of a threat they offer in the attacking third.
Of course, we have seen this in the past, just not to the same level it is at now. Most notably it was something used by Brazil in the 1970 World Cup, in a team that revolutionised the way football was played. Carlos Alberto was their flying fullback, and is remembered mainly for finishing off the tremendous move to score Brazil’s fourth goal in the final against Italy.
But back then, it was just the Brazilians who were doing it, and it was almost bought back into the game by Brazil’s Roberto Carlos, who was constantly on the front foot as a defender. Now, that is expected of everyone, and many players are picked solely on their attacking talents.
Here are the top ten left backs in the world right now.
#10 Andrew Robertson (Liverpool)
It has been a rapid rise to prominence for Robertson over the past few years. As recently as 2013 he was playing in the third division of Scottish football for Queen’s Park. Now, he is the first choice left-back for one of the top sides in Europe, and was named captain of his country earlier this week. It hasn’t been an easy journey for Robertson, he had to prove himself at Dundee United, then Hull City, then dislodge Alberto Moreno in the Liverpool side, though, in all fairness, that was never going to be too tough a task.
Robertson was superb for Liverpool last season, and played a massive part in their run to the Champions League Final. He is a fullback capable of doing his job at both ends of the pitch. He is a very good defender, and you don’t see many wingers getting the better of him, and he often pops up with an assist at the other end. He is still only 24, so should get better in the coming years.
#9 Faouzi Ghoulam (Napoli)
Ghoulam is one of the lesser known names on this list, and had he not suffered an anterior cruciate ligament rupture playing against Manchester City in the Champions League last November, his name would probably be higher on this list. In fact, he may have been playing for City, as it was rumoured that Pep Guardiola may have been interested in bringing him to the Etihad Stadium to replace Benjamin Mendy after his injury.
The fact that Guardiola was interested in him tells you everything you need to know about him. He was part of Napoli’s impressive passing system before his injury, and he certainly does his best work going forward. He is fast, energetic, and delivers a very good cross when he gets into the right area. He is close to returning to full fitness now, and it will be hoped that he can rediscover his best form.
#8 Layvin Kurzawa (PSG)
The first thing worth saying about Kurzawa is that he is the only defender to score a hat-trick in the modern Champions League, having netted three against Anderlecht in October 2017. This very much sums up what Kurzawa is like as a player, and that he is a very much an attacking fullback. He likes to push on as high as possible, and have as much of a role in the attacking third as he has in the defensive third.
This works for Kurzawa in this PSG side, because there are very few occasions where they are forced back into their own half for long periods of the game. Kurzawa also benefits from the fact that it is usually Neymar who plays out on the left wing for PSG, and the Brazilian likes to come central to impact on the game, meaning there is a lot of room for the 26-year-old to bomb on down the left flank.
#7 Filipe Luis (Atletico Madrid)
For many fans in England, they remember Luis for a being a bit of a flop in the Premier League, having seen the Brazilian spend one season with Chelsea, where he was never more than a rotation option. Either side of that spell he has been with Atletico Madrid, where he has really proved his worth, and looked like an excellent fullback.
As someone playing in a Diego Simeone back four, you know Luis is going to be solid defensively. He reads the game very well, and is a very strong one-on-one defender. He fits in well in a back four who pride themselves on discipline, and concentration, and that is what makes that side so special. He isn’t bad going forward either, and has a very good left foot, so is capable of delivering from wide areas.
#6 Jordi Alba (Barcelona)
Alba is almost the exact opposite of Luis. Not to say he isn’t a good defender, but his game is entirely built around his desire to get forward and have an impact in attacking areas. For years, Barcelona had Alba and Dani Alves as their full-backs, and the pair were a constant threat on their opposing flanks, making them a vital part of Barcelona’s domination of Europe.
Barcelona don’t play out and out wingers, meaning when they are in possession, it is left for the full backs to fill that role. This suits Alba, as his pace and crossing ability perhaps suit him more to being a winger than a fullback. He isn’t a bad defender, but his best work certainly comes in attacking areas, and that is where he has a greater impact on the game.
#5 Marcos Alonso (Chelsea)
Fans of Bolton and Sunderland may be surprised to see Alonso appear on this list, because he appeared for both of those sides earlier on in his career, and although he wasn’t too bad, he didn’t really set the world alight. It has been a different story since he returned to England though, under Antonio Conte at Stamford Bridge. Conte must take a lot of credit for this, because he identified Alonso as the man to solve his problems at left wing-back, and he was absolutely spot on.
He has the engine to get up and down the pitch, and he plays a role in both penalty areas. He is a good defender, and proved that by helping Chelsea win the Premier League in 2017. He also has one of the best left foots in the world, and showed this off against Tottenham at Wembley last season, netting a stunning free kick. He has started well again this season, but he will be tested more this year, because he is now playing in a back four under Maurizio Sarri, and has greater defensive responsibility.
#4 David Alaba (Bayern Munich)
It seems strange that Alaba is still only 26, because it feels like he has around for a long time. The Austrian probably isn’t as high on this list as he would have been a couple of years ago, but that is more down to injuries, rather than a drop in performance levels. Even when he has been fit though, he hasn’t been as important to this Bayern Munich team in the last couple of years as he was under Pep Guardiola.
There is no doubting his ability. He is excellent on the ball, to the extent that he plays in the centre of midfield for his national side because he is their best passer of the ball. He reverts to left back for his club side, however, where he is still one of the best in the world. He is a very intelligent football, and reads the game so well, which is undoubtedly something that made him a favourite of Guardiola’s.
#3 Alex Sandro (Juventus)
Sandro has probably missed out on the credit he deserves over the years. At Juventus, it is usually the centre-backs, and in particular Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini, who take the credit when they defend well. At an international level, Sandro has barely appeared for Brazil, as he isn’t his country’s best left-back. However, worldwide, there aren’t too many better than the 27-year-old.
He is another man who has spent a lot of time playing in a left wing-back role, which suits his athletic style, and his ability to cover a lot of ground over the 90 minutes. He has regularly been linked with a move away from Juventus over the past few years, and that is because of his impressive level of performances.
#2 Marcelo (Real Madrid)
For so long, Marcelo has been seen as the best left back in the world, and he has been. He is quite brilliant going forward, and has been a crucial part of Real Madrid’s considerable amount of success over the past few years. However, defensively, he isn’t one of the best. We have often seen him beaten by quality right-wingers, and he has been vulnerable at times, which has caused his side problems.
His talents going forward are unquestionable, and he showed this most notably in the 2013/14 Champions League Final, where he was probably Real’s best player. Going forward is where he does his best work, and that is probably why he suits Real Madrid. He wouldn’t do as well with a team constantly on the back foot and having to do a lot of defending, but in a side where he can almost play as a left winger, he looks like a bit of a world beater.
#1 Benjamin Mendy (Manchester City)
He may not have been the most familiar name in football a few years ago, but everyone knows who Benjamin Mendy is now. Manchester City paid more than £50 million to bring him to the club, making him the most expensive full-back in football history, but he looks like the real deal. He may have suffered from a serious injury that meant we didn’t see him too many times last season, but he is back fit and firing now, so expect to see him at his brilliant best.
Much like Marcelo, he does his best work in an attacking position, but he is more than capable of doing his job at the back. His pace means he can get back and provide cover, while he is also a big part of City’s play in attacking positions. He is an option out on that left side, and has the ability to provide an excellent delivery into the box. However good City were last season, he will make them even better this year.