Sometimes I watch a game and just marvel at what all a fullback has to do. They have to cover massive amounts of ground often and are relied upon as key players in attack and have to try and keep the wing locked down behind them after moving forward. Some systems provide plentiful cover but if you have a do-it-all guy, it can really open up your options. So I went scouring around Europe to try and find a few guys who can do that: guys you can set and forget and let them attack and defend up and down the wing freeing you to try and mix and match elsewhere without as much worry.
Now of course this would simply be a preliminary list, heavy scouting and diving deeper would be involved in a team situation, this is simply a rough step one. And of course it is rougher than usual as I am using just current season data, but hey life changes fast, what have you done for me lately? And it’s guys to keep an eye on going forward, which gives me a little wiggle room.
Step One: Finding Guys Who Can Defend
This of course is the difficult part. I decided on three ways to try and figure out defensive responsibility: 1) how efficiently teams progress through the fullbacks zone, 2) how often opponents pass in and through the fullbacks zone, and 3) how effective the fullback is at hassling opponents and winning the ball back.
-To measure 1) I simply looked at completion% in the typical fullback zone and compared it to league average and team average. I did not do a different zone for each fullback based on where they play but assumed each one is supposed to roughly stop attacks down their side, most responsibility closer to goal fading out to zero to just past the halfway line.
-To measure 2) I simply looked at how relatively often opponents played passes toward the fullback defensive zone.
-To measure 3) I looked at tackles/interceptions as a % of passes played into the zone.
I didn’t eliminate anyone as out of the picture for being bad at one number, but they needed to be above average overall.
Step Two: Finding Guys Who Can Contribute Offensively
I looked at three ways of measuring offensive impact. 1) how good of a completer of passes they are, using my passing model (x,y data + time in possession, speed of attack and more to find an expected passing %) to see if they are completing more than expected passes, 2) are they progressing the ball forward as a receiver and passer? and 3) are their passes leading to shots relatively quickly? Again, I didn’t eliminate anyone just for being bad at one category but they needed to be above average overall.
Combining The Two
A sanity check: some of the players who made it in on one side and didn’t quite qualify as do-it-all fullbacks. These guys are often great players, but we are looking for a specific and balanced player in this experiment, guys who are dominant on one side of the ball maybe better players overall, but that’s not what we need right now.
Offensive Aces: Aleksandr Kolarov, Marcelo, Antonio Valencia, Jose Gaya, Alessandro Florenzi.
Defensive Aces: Filipe Luis, Junior Firpo, Marcelo Sarrachi, Ben Chilwell.
Now We Get To The Payoff
The two-way fullbacks, the guys who give us total flexibility in how we set up our teams, that’s who we want. What we have here is a list that we should guard carefully. It’s a (preliminary, yes) list of players who are currently doing both at the top level of European football. I’ll break it down into different tiers as there are quite a few different groups of players here.
These guys are not going to come to your club, sorry. No matter who you are really. They are doing it for top teams in Europe and playing a ton.
Joshua Kimmich, Benjamin Mendy, Dani Carvajal
These guys are currently doing it, but man fullback is a physical position. Michael Caley showed the age that plays the most fullback minutes is 26. These guys are too far above that to be realistic transfer targets for any team looking toward even next season.
Danilo D’Ambrosio, Kwadwo Asamoah, Ryan Bertrand, Kieran Trippier
Trippier is the one guy I might make an exception for. If you are in win-now mode, he’s best two-way guy there is
The Barely In The Group Guys
These guys are in the group, but just barely. They have a flaw that is not big enough to keep them out, but enough to raise a yellow flag at least.
Mario Rui, 27 (Napoli)-A defensive wizard, no teams successfully move down his side at all. His passing leaves much to be desired though.
Aarón Martín, 21 (Mainz)-defensively, teams seem to go to his side often
Jonathan Silva, 24 (Leganes)
Trent Alexander-Arnold, 19 (Liverpool), offensively his passing looks just average and the wonder that he is just a part of the Liverpool system and might lose a bit out of it keeps him from the very top.
Louis Beyer, 18 (Gladbach) Only played 3 matches but defensively made it extremely difficult for opponents to complete passes in his zone while being active (4.4 tackles) while being a great progresser and above average passer and shot contributor. Only 18 years old and pushed into lineup due to injury, maybe even a surprise to Gladbach fans. He might be in a separate “keep an eye on this guy category” as he’s so young and played so few minutes, not even established in his own lineup, but as I have a soft spot for Gladbach in my heart, he goes here.
Achraf Hakimi, 19 (Dortmund)-the best ball progresser of all the players on the two-way list. One of two starts was against Nuernberg in a laugher so maybe dock him a bit for that, but what a start.
Nordi Mukiele, 20 (Leipzig)
A Look At The Dirty Work
Example using Louis Beyer: I looked at how often teams pass to the right-sided zones against Gladbach in the games he has played: this is about 5% above average. I looked at how efficiently they complete passes, which was about 18% below average, and not something that is common for Gladbach (relative to team is a factor also). I looked at his tackles/interceptions, and to be honest I did not filter out the passes specifically for his games in this part. He is active.
Offensively to get his progresser number, I looked at how often he received the ball when it moved 5 yards closer to goal and how often he passed the ball successfully 5 yards closer to goal. He came out 27% above average there as roughly 27% of passes involving him moved the ball forward vs 17% for most fullbacks/wide midfielders. He completed 4% more passes than average and the team took quick shots (within 15 seconds of a pass) 2% more than average. Mixing all these together is obviously more art than science, but I wanted to show the messy process.
How to make it better?
Include runs progressing the ball.
Fully separate minutes played and area covered and if a rangy CB/great defensive player in front of them is helping a lot. Something like PATCH would help here, but it is honestly beyond my skills at the moment.
Look more specifically at end product (key passes/shots), that is too early to look at now in my opinion.
Look at how often a team quickly takes a shot after entering or exiting the players defensive zone.
Look a bit more at volume offensively, this was heavy on rates and not really looking at involvement much.
Would love thoughts in the comments or with a message. Enjoy!