I have always thought that the key to success in the World Cup is being “strong up the middle” — i.e. at goalkeeper, center back, central midfield, and center forward. But on reflection, I can’t think of a team that has won the World Cup in the last few decades without a good pair of fullbacks (the members of the defensive back four who patrol and protect the flanks).
The U.S. has often had a terrible time finding fullbacks. In 1998, we naturalized a Frenchman, David Regis, just in time to play in our ill-fated World Cup campaign. Talk about jobs Americans won’t do. 250,000 million of us, and not one decent left back.
This year, we have had to scrounge a bit to come up with our fullbacks. On the right side, we have a German, Fabian Johnson, who, being left-footed, has played left back for much of his career (notice how he’s always trying to shift the ball to his left foot when he’s in scoring position). At left back, we have Demarcus Beasley, a converted winger. But it hasn’t been a bad pairing so far.
Traditional powers Germany and Italy, and aspiring power Belgium, should be so lucky. Germany — the land of Bertie Vogts, Andreas Brehme, and little Philipp Lahm — has rarely been short of star fullbacks. But this year, the Germans are playing a pair of center backs — Jerome Boateng and Benedikt Howedes — at fullback.
Boateng, who has also played left back for Germany, is getting by at right back so far. But poor Howedes, an outstanding center back and decent right back for his club Schalke, looks like a fish out of water on the left side. Center back Mats Hummels has had to provide plenty of cover for Howedes, but this creates gaps, which could become a problem against top opponents.
Ironically, Lahm — who has excelled for Germany at both fullback positions — is still on the team. But he’s being used in central midfield. Has he lost a step or two? Perhaps. His club, Bayern Munich, moved him to midfield this past season. I assume that Germnay’s manager Joachim Löw knows what he’s doing. But it sure looks strange to see two plodding fullbacks out there while Lahm motors with great energy around the middle of the park.
Like Germany, Italy has a strong tradition of quality fullbacks. Antonio Cabrini starred for the 1982 World Cup winners. 24 years later, Gianluca Zambrotta played brilliantly on both flanks during Italy’s march to World Cup glory.
This year, Italy found a serviceable right back in Matteo Darmian. But each of its three matches featured a different left back — Giorgio Chiellini (normally a center back), Darmian (switched to that side for the Costa Rica match), and Mattia De Sciglio (playing as a wing-back). Each seemed inadequate.
In the 1980s — the heyday of Belgian soccer — Belgium featured Eric Gerets, one of the best right backs I’ve ever seen. George Grun provided plenty of quality on the other side.
But this year finds Belgium using four pure center backs. They look like Walter Smith’s Everton.
The inability of any of the would-be fullbacks effectively to support the attack is a major reason why Belgium has had trouble scoring against weak opposition. And the vulnerability of Jan Vertonghen at left back has caused Belgium to look uncomfortable on defense.
Things seeem less problematic for South American giants Brazil and Argentina, but their fullback situation could be better.
Brazil has a highly-regarded set of natural fullbacks in Dani Alves and Marcelo. One stars for Barcelona; the other for Real Madrid.
But Alves, now 31, looks to have lost a step or two, and neither fullback has impressed so far. Since both are attack-first fullbacks, any loss of speed creates a problem because it places too much pressure on the center backs to cover when the fullbacks are caught up field. This has been a problem for Brazil in its recent World Cup campaigns.
Fortunately, center backs Thiago Silva and Davis Luiz are athletic and energetic, as is Luis Gustavo, the defensive midfielder. But Brazil could use another midfield dynamo to help cover for its fullbacks. Look for Manchester City’s Fernandinho to replace Tottenham’s Paulinho.
Coming into the tournament, Argentina seemed more than set at right back with Manchester City’s Pablo Zabeleta. The left back position, manned by natural center back Marcos Rojo, looked like a problem.
So far it has worked out just the opposite. Rojo has looked fine, but Zabeleta has struggled. Argentina’s center backs are good, but not outstanding, and the pressure is on defensive midfielder Javier Mascherano. He’s been up to it so far.
But in the latter stages of the tournament, Argentina’s forwards will have to track back to support the fullbacks. It was their failure to do so in 2006 (when coach Diego Maradona reportedly told them not to) that paved the way for Spain’s big win over Argentina in the quarterfinals.
For Colombia’s rampaging Juan Zuniga and Pablo Armero, fullback is basically a mailing address. They are more like wingers than defenders. This puts enormous pressure on 38 year-old center back Mario Yepes.
Colombia relieves some of the pressure with its pair of tough-tacking midfielders, Carlos Sanches and Abel Aguilar/Alexander Mejia. But it will be interesting to see whether, further down the road, Colombia encourages its fullbacks to play more defense and, if so, whether they are capable of complying.
France has a pair of decent, natural fullbacks — Mathieu Debuchy (Newcastle United) and Patrice Evra (Manchester United). Evra, age 33, is no longer a star and Debuchy has never been one. But together, they look like a solid pairing.
Four well-regarded teams — Mexico, Chile, Costa Rica, and Holland — have mainly used three center backs. This formation eliminates the fullback position and replaces it with wing-backs, a hybrid winger-fullback position. I don’t recall any team winning a recent World Cup with this formation, but it’s not written that this can’t happen.
Still, my money is on the teams playing a traditional back four, as they seem more talented overall. And the teams among that group that solve the fullback position will have an edge.