Thursday, 30 June 2011

What about the inverted full back?

With the development of inverted wingers over the last few years, the problems they can bring about for oppositions are well known. An inverted winger (someone who plays on the opposite side to the side of their preferred foot) often cuts inside onto their preferred foot, causing problems for conventional full backs who are forced to defend on their weaker side, while it also drags them inside, leaving space out wide.

One way teams have tried to deal with the inverted winger is by playing an inverted full back. An inverted full back is the equivalent of an inverted winger except in the full back position. Back in 2007, Lionel Messi playing on the right of a Barcelona front three, despite his favoured foot being his left, was kept quiet by the right footed Alvaro Arbeloa on his Liverpool debut playing at left back. Liverpool won the game 2-1. Inter Milan have done it regularly in in the past with Zanetti also playing on the left to keep the defence compact, a big feature under Mourinho and many teams have employed it in one off games to deal with the threat inverted wingers bring.

However inverted full backs have mainly been used in a defensive capacity to buck the new trend of inverted wingers instead of in an attacking role. With the new use of inverted wingers, the importance of attacking full backs has gone up dramatically.  If you see the balance Manchester United have, they usually play an inverted winger, be it Nani or Park, on the left with the attack minded Evra spreading the width. This gives them more options in attack.

Therefore, it is very important that full backs are able to attack, especially as they are the ones who generally have the most time on the ball.

The main player who you could say has attacked in an inverted full back position is the German, Philipp Lahm. Still currently acknowledged as one of the best full backs going, he has had tremendous success playing on both sides of the pitch even though he is right footed. At Bayern Munich and also for Germany he has played left back extremely often and has been able to link the play up well by cutting inside and pushing forward. His attacking strengths on the ball cannot be understated and it is a reason why he has been successful attacking from the full back position but that can't take away the fact that he has shown that it is possible to attack as an inverted full back.

In the attacking phase of play, an inverted full back brings a number of strengths to a team.


Let's say the green left back with the ball is an inverted left back. He cuts into the middle with the ball.

As he cuts in, his direct opponent, the opposition winger on that side, tracks him inside.

Meanwhile the green winger stays out wide stretching the play and offering the pass. The yellow team has a number of problems.

First of all, their right winger is completely out of position in the middle of the field whilst having to defend there. They're therefore cramped up and tight in that position yet the green team still have the option to play it out wide to their conventional winger on the left.

If the yellow team wins the ball, they are effectively too close together. As is often said in football, when you have the ball, you have to make the pitch bigger, when you don't you have to make it smaller. If your players are too compact in possession, then it is difficult to keep the ball particularly against aggressive pressing. Thus the green team can press quickly, closing down the space and winning it back.
With the inverted full back inside, it is the green winger's job to stay out wide and keep the pitch big. He is there for a pass to stretch the play. If the ball is played to him, then the full back either goes to meet him and leaves space behind, or the winger tracking the inverted left back goes to meet him, leaving the 3v2 in the middle:

The winger for the yellow team goes to pressurise the winger for the green team. This leaves a 3v2 in the middle of the pitch.

Going back to the original position, with the inverted left back on the ball, it could also allow an interchange of positions with a centre midfielder, allowing the inverted full back to stay in the middle, while the centre midfielder moves out wide, dragging teams all over the place. Manchester United have used this recently with Ryan Giggs in the middle swapping to the left hand side with the inverted winger. Inter Milan have also done this on occasions when Samuel Eto'o has played on the left by letting him cut inside while Wesley Sneijder moves to the left. Many other sides do the same when playing inverted wingers. It allows good interchanging and movement off the ball and opponents have to be well organised to deal with this unorthodox threat.

Of course there are problems with inverted full backs. Because of an obvious tendency to cut inside, they don't generally offer the overlap which is a problem espeically if you are using inverted wingers. It leaves space at a mimimum and makes it harder to break down a defence.

As said earlier, a good attacking side tried to make the pitch big to stretch the play and make space to work in. If the winger used on the same side of the inverted full back happens to be inverted as well, then the middle of the pitch becomes tight and there is less space to split a defence open. For example, Real Madrid have looked a far better team going forward when they've had Marcelo at left back. With Cristiano Ronaldo cutting inside from the left, Marcelo has the space to add the width and provide the overlap. When Arbeloa has played there, they have looked less of an attacking force.

It is also harder to play direct football with an inverted full back. Part of the reason why a lot of smaller teams haven't converted to a 5-man midfield, espcially in the Premiership is that you often need good ball players to make it work and take advantage of the extra man in midfield. Many smaller teams don't have these players so go with a 4-4-2 because it adds the extra numbers up front and if you're going to knock it long or hit it to the flanks then you are not making the best use of the 3 central midfielders. Instead they reinforce the other areas of the pitch where they are generally going to attack.

With an inverted full back you don't have the direct option of a full back getting crosses into the box. They will cut inside and it leaves you with less opportunities to hit it long because of less bodies in the final third. Hence teams who played with attacking inverted full backs would have to be more patient especially as their wide men may be forced to stay deeper; at points they would be the only player out wide on that side. With the inverted full back inside, it is also handy to make best use of that instead of playing it direct which wouldn't suit the shape of the team.

Defensively a problem will arise if the inverted full back comes up against a convetional winger. A conventional winger will obviously try to run at them out wide, onto the inverted full back's weaker foot and causing the opposite problems to a conventional full back against an inverted winger. In possession the full back can be closed down and shown out wide.

Even considering these problems though, there are still good reasons to include inverted full backs in both the defensive phase and the attacking phase. Perhaps now, in the time where inverted wingers are becoming a bigger feature, inverted full backs will become a new feature of the modern game, stopping attacking patterns from opponents and causing problems in possession. Of course the right players and training as well as a balance would have to be used but inverted full backs may become a common feature sooner than you think.

Like this? Follow me on twitter @lankyguyblog Comments much appreciated below.


  1. Dear friend,

    Really good article. Didnt Mexico played with inverted full back at WC? I can not remember and now can not search archive.

    However, as you pointed, I think that will you play with inverted fullback depends do the oposite team play with conventional winger and do your team have committed winger. I also believe that this winger should be conventional, not the inverted winger.

    Which means, that there is too much if to build attacking game around inverted fullback. In my point of view, you give him a chance only if he is good as Lahm is, or have special task to close inverted winger, as Arbeloa had not only in Liverpool but this season in Real vs Barca.

    Once again, great article, keep up the good work.

    Aleks, Serbia @acastop

  2. Thanks Aleks

    I agree, inverted full backs will be more of a issue than inverted wingers simply because they are defenders and if your full backs are being turned inside out then you're in trouble. It almost doesn't matter as much for wingers because they are further away from their own goal.

    It may be that, as suggested to me on twitter, players become more versatile at using both feet. With the amount of inverted wingers and conventional wingers it may be that teams start training harder on dealing with both so they don't have to change every game or change certain things if the wingers switch in the middle of a game.

  3. Interesting article
    We might see one at Madrid this year if the rumours connecting them to coentrao are to be believed with Ramos going into the centre ,marcelo would be more than likely on the right as he is more two footed and likes to cut in so much anyway

  4. gr8 article,although people like zanetti nd lahm can do it,defensively i think many full backs cant do well on the opposite side.
    can u see evra or alves playing at rb nd lb,they mat be good going forward but defensively will struggle

  5. Fabio Da Silva is an inverted left back for United, although he has been given a lot more time on the right these days. The reasoning being that if he is playing against an inverted winger, he is still tackling naturally.

  6. Nice article. I was working on something similar about Phillip Lahm because he has moved back to left back this season. Then I came across your article so I decided to throw mine in the garbage.

    This doesn't work as well when Ribery plays in front of Lahm because they both cut in and deny Bayern right-sided width. Lahm would be devastating if he played with a proper left winger.


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