MY mates would tell you I’m too much of a knob to be a full-back, they’re usually a quiet bunch who keep themselves to themselves and keep things ticking along, not causing any trouble or getting drunk. I think my dark side comes from always wanting to be a centre midfielder, but I just didn’t have the legs for it so I repressed my desires and started playing right or left-back for my school teams and, at my peak, a couple of Merseyside teams for different organisations through the years.
A group of us now meet every other Monday in a garden shed to share our memories of playing the least glamourous role on the pitch, while the ex-strikers and centre-backs meet up at the Buzz to get off their faces surrounded by beautiful women, laughing and scrawling “do another shuttle, lads” on the wall of our shed on their way home.
I always enjoyed playing full-back but accepted it wasn’t as sexy as playing pretty much any other position. Centre-backs are the heart of the defence, centre midfielders control the game, strikers get the glory and wingers get to do the things that full-backs do but with more excitement and flamboyance. Even goalies get to be the heroes but, as Jamie Carragher once said, who grows up wanting to be Gary Neville?
My full-back career was based on my organisational ability and concentration. I was the Steve Finnan of my level, giving each manager a steady seven out of 10 every game with few mistakes made and limited goals scored. I’ve always been capable of a worldie, but you’d only have to watch me playing with the Anfield Wrap lads following my most recent comeback to know that goal poaching has never been my strength.
When we were at school and they first introduced the possibility of getting a player’s name and number on your shirt there was no doubt who I’d get. While the rest of you were rushing out to get the sexy positions, I told my mum and dad that I wanted “Jones 2” on the back of mine. I’ve still got that top somewhere.
So, when The Anfield Wrap asked me to write an article about full-backs I was more than happy to oblige. I might talk lots about other things, but this is my specialist subject. When I criticise Nathaniel Clyne, James Milner, Alberto Moreno or Trent Alexander-Arnold it’s with an image in my mind of what I’d be doing if I had a yard more pace (okay, maybe 10 yards more pace) and my joints weren’t made of balsa wood.
At the start of the season, I was intrigued by Jürgen Klopp’s decision to transform Milner into a left-back, and rather than lambast the manager for his decision before seeing any evidence of what might ensue, I went down my usual path of giving the man with far more knowledge of the game than me the benefit of the doubt and waiting with anticipation to see what came next.
On the other side of the pitch, in 2015 Clyne became my favourite right-back signing since Finnan. I’d watched him at Southampton and couldn’t believe that we were unchallenged in nabbing an England international for £12 million when rivals like Manchester United seemingly needed a right-back at the same time.
Six months on from Milner and Clyne becoming our regular full backs in the same team, what are we to make of their respective contributions compared to their predecessors, their stand-ins and the lads playing in the same positions for our main competitors?
Until fairly recently, I think it’s fair to say that most of us would have considered both Milner and Clyne to be successes. Milner went from being held aloft as a clear sign of FSG’s lack of willing to back the manager in the transfer window and/or a sign that Klopp was naïve in not signing a new left-back in the summer, to being lauded as the best left-back in the country by some of our supporters.
On the other side of the pitch, Clyne was “doing a Cope” in giving a seven out of 10 performance every week, with most of us declaring that the right back position was sorted for the next five years at least (barring injury and catastrophic loss of form).
Behind them, Moreno is still being Moreno and my view is that while Klopp and his team are clearly experts at coaching players to become far better than they ever thought possible, they’re not Harry Potter, Derren Brown and David Blaine combined, so unless they can add the Wizard of Oz to their coaching team by the summer in order to summon a new brain for our cheeky Spaniard, we’ll need someone to take over walking his dog on a hoverboard (I am still available, Jürgen).
At the opposite end of the chain to Moreno is the highly rated and hugely promising Alexander-Arnold. More on him shortly.
The issue that has arisen with our full-backs since the wheels started falling off our bandwagon at the turn of the year though, is that they’re simply not contributing enough to our ability to break down stubborn defences. As a caveat to that, despite my mourning above of having to play as a less than glamorous full-back during my less than glamorous football career, the one consolation is that I played there before it became the least forgiving position on the pitch.
At least when I played there were times when you could just stand still as a full-back and get your breath. These days, God help the right or left-back if they’re not overlapping the winger in front of them to help their team score goals while simultaneously providing solid cover to their centre-backs in the event that the other team dares to oppose what we’re trying to do by nicking the ball and having an attack of their own. I should be clear at this stage that any criticism dished out below should be read with the understanding that I think playing full-back in the modern game, especially in a Klopp team, is a bit of a thankless task.
Having considered all of the above though, I started to contemplate what I think is going wrong with the lads we’ve currently got, and the first thing I thought about were triangles.
Some of you will remember appearances of mine on historical TAW podcasts, mainly from seasons in which Manchester City were very, very good, in which I often talked about them playing triangles in the final third of the pitch, between the penalty spot and corner flags, and whenever we struggle to break down deep lying defences, all I think about are those triangles and our full-backs.
It might be hard to picture what I’m talking about here, so take a look at the goals that City scored against us in that game in 2014. I remember that period of play by our money-bags neighbours for a few reasons, including David Silva being a magician and a certain James Milner coming on as a substitute at half-time and completely changing the game from a right midfield position. I’ve watched those goals and numerous others like them and I’ve longed for our team to do the same every time I see a wall of opposition shirts lining their own penalty area, usually followed by a series of hopeful punts into the box from our full-backs and midfielders.
It’s interesting that a key member of the triangular patterns of play in that excellent City era and those goals mentioned above was Milner. When he signed for us I was delighted, expecting the patterns I’d so yearned to be replicated before our eyes on a weekly basis at Anfield and on our travels as a key tool to knock down those barriers of lunging legs and flying torsos. While there have been glimpses of that happening, it doesn’t look to me as though there’s a clear aim to isolate full-backs in opposition teams and take them out of the game in the same way that City so expertly did during their peak.
Milner seems to be struggling for that spark of energy that he had at the start of the season, possibly compounded by the lack of a viable alternative which would allow him to be rested more frequently, and the same could be said for Clyne albeit that he’s a few years younger than Milner and didn’t appear to be fatigued prior to his injury.
For me, the problem on both sides of the pitch now is that when we come up against these deep lying defences, we need more from our full-backs. We need goals and assists but more importantly, from a team contribution viewpoint, we need penetration. I watched Chelsea against Hull and the difference for their first goal was their wing-back, Victor Moses, squaring up the full-back, driving past him and driving a low, hard cross into the box. Despite that not being quite as refined as the City triangles I’ve mentioned, when was the last time we saw Clyne drive at his opposite full-back, beat a man at any point or even make a surging run without the ball that pulls his counterpart out of position? I spoke with a Spurs fan at the weekend who was raving about Kyle Walker, and we agreed that Clyne is much better defensively than Walker but their lad has that extra yard of pace and desire to take on his opposite number which adds so much to their attack.
For all of Milner’s qualities, we’ve seen far too many lofted crosses into the box of late. Even in watching the Hull game back on Sunday, the number of times we had the ball on the left side of their area with acres of space for Milner to overlap into, yet ended the move with a basic cross from the corner of the box, was alarming. Whether that’s caused by fatigue in Milner’s legs, tactics or something else remains to be seen, but we currently seem to be struggling on both sides of the pitch.
As I said earlier, I don’t envy Clyne and Milner in the current set up. They both attack in the knowledge that all it takes is one long ball from the edge of the opposition box and we can end up with a lad who had his security pass deactivated at Goodison running through the heart of our defence to score. When you compare that to the attacking contributions of the likes of Moses and Marcos Alonso at Chelsea (who arguably have even more demanding roles than a standard full-back), it’s difficult not to have sympathy for our lads who don’t have three centre-halves and two holding midfielders covering for every surge forward.
In further defence of our boys, I was making noises a few weeks ago that Clyne’s position could soon be under intense pressure from Trent because of the youngster’s attacking abilities. Some of the goals I’ve seen him score for the younger age groups are phenomenal, and his delivery into the box can be of the highest quality, both no doubt originating from the fact that he’s played as a midfielder and winger in his younger years. Yet the stats earlier in the season showed that Clyne had some of the best chance creation and assists numbers of any full-back in the league, which can’t be dismissed and show that he can be effective with the right movement around him. It’s his ability to influence games by himself that concerns me.
In the context of our main rivals, I’m not sure I see too much that I envy. Pablo Zabaleta is long past his best days of surging past full-backs to create those triangles I so long for, and City’s other full backs are no better than ours in my eyes. Hector Bellerin and Nacho Monreal at Arsenal possibly have more pace than our lads, and Bellerin in particular is arguably better, but there’s not much in it. So, aside from Moses and Alonso at Chelsea (who I think history suggests are thriving because of the system they are playing in rather than anything they necessarily bring to the table as individuals), I’m only looking at a lad who I’d have signed as a winger many years ago as a full-back I’d have in our side now.
Antonio Valencia is, to me, the template for a modern full-back, given the demands placed on them. He’s made of muscle and iron, is quick, can defend (as we saw to our detriment at Old Trafford) and, as a converted winger, contributes hugely to United as an attacking force (again, as we saw at Old Trafford).
There’s been a lot of talk lately about how we need an alternative (or two) for Sadio Mane for when he’s not available or not in form. I’d argue, however, that to play football the way Klopp wants us to play, against teams who will sit deeper and deeper knowing that they can frustrate us and hit us on the break, we may need four Mane’s on the pitch at the same time. Picture Valencia as the player assisting Mane down that right hand side and you’ll have an image of what I mean. The full-back trying to face them up and keep his well-drilled shape entering 90 minutes knowing that he’s effectively got two pacey wingers to keep quiet all game, with the same thing happening on the other side of the pitch, pulling their back line all over the place.
At the moment, we have Milner and Clyne being very dependable and contributing a reasonable amount to our attacking exploits, but neither of them are explosive and I can’t imagine either of them causing too many sleepless nights for full-backs and wingers setting up to frustrate us, unless the City triangles become a common theme in our attacking patterns.
Alvaro Arbeloa made his debut seven years ago this week, and he went on to be a full-back in the Steve Finnan mould, solid and dependable with a steady contribution to our attack, but we can’t avoid the fact that Arbeloa and Finnan both played in a different system under Rafa Benitez, with far more emphasis on defence and team structure. While Rafa would push his full-backs high up the pitch, his two holding midfielders were positioned in a way to ensure that they could assist the attack and cover for their full-backs with the same level of ease. I once watched him demonstrate as much with videos and salt and pepper pots at the Empire Theatre in Liverpool.
So, while discussing our full-backs and the effectiveness of Clyne and Milner in particular, we might have to accept that if we want whoever occupies those roles to contribute more to an attack that takes more risks in the future, we’re likely to need a greater level of protection for those lads to avoid pundits and fans pointing fingers at them for being out of position when a quick counter attack exposes their absence from alongside their centre-backs.
The conclusion? There are no easy answers in football, but Trent in the gym over the summer building himself up as an alternative to Clyne in the games in which we need a second winger on the right, and a new, quick, powerful alternative to Milner on the left sounds like a title winning combination for next season.
If only I was 10 yards quicker.