Chelsea’s crazy 4-4 draw with Ajax was not so much a game of two halves, but a game of three defenders. It’s not very often that a full-back can be substituted on at half-time with his team 3-1 down, concede a goal and then still find himself in contention for Man of the Match, but this is just what 19-year-old right-back Reece James did.
Reece James Proves How Important Fullbacks Have Become
The Changing Role of Full-Backs
The role of a full-back has undoubtedly changed more than any other outfield position on a football pitch.
Formerly expected to only defend for a team in a 4-4-2 every week, full-backs are now judged just as much on their attacking abilities, meaning that they are almost certainly the fittest players on a team.
The tactics regarding the wide defenders have also changed. They are now the first place that managers look to exploit. It is often the case that we hear the phrase ‘get the winger in behind the full-back’. Now, it is a case of the full-back overlapping the wingers.
The top managers find ways of pushing teams back and forcing them to defend. The positioning of the full-backs is paramount to the quality of the desired sustained attack – press from the front, as they say.
It is perhaps possible to look at Chelsea’s captain, Cesar Azpilicueta, as a prime example of how the role has adapted.
Azpilicueta has been one of the world’s best right or left-backs for six years now. His defensive reliability, work rate and solid one on one play has been a staple of Chelsea’s sides since he joined in 2013.
In spite of this, his performances in the past two seasons have seen him get criticism, something that he would never normally receive.
After being used as a centre-back under Antonio Conte, Azpilicueta looks like a player whose legs are getting tired. Having missed only a handful of games since joining, this is unsurprising, but as a modern-day full-back, the role has quickly become a young man’s game.
Immense levels of energy and fitness are required to be effective in all thirds of the pitch. At the age of only 30, Azpilicueta is not old, but it is clear that he is losing the skills to perform the role of a complete full-back. He is caught out of position more often, unable to make ground like he used to and doesn’t have good enough end product to be a danger in the final third.
How This Worked in the First Half
In the first half, it was clear to see that Ajax left-back Nicolas Tagliafico had pushed up the field to stop Chelsea from getting forward. His high position on the pitch meant that Chelsea’s Azpilicueta couldn’t risk moving up himself as to not expose the space he would leave behind.
The other important result of this high start position is that the attacking side then have a 2 v 1 overload of that side. The defending side is then faced with a winger and an attack-minded full-back to cope with.
The importance of this position was evident as Ajax’s full-backs pushed on. Therefore, they restricted Chelsea’s wingers from moving forward themselves. Subsequently, Ajax’s defenders were comfortable in stopping counter-attacks down the flanks and therefore kept a sustained attack and forced Chelsea back.
However, the very best full-backs are able to turn this, yet again, on its head. At the top level of football, the full-backs will always find themselves with opportunities to get forward and therefore push back the opposition.
Unfortunately, Marcos Alonso and Azpilicueta were unable to help their side build this pressure in the first half. They both provided poor quality on the ball and didn’t allow the Blues to move forward.
Chelsea’s Full-Back Deficiency
Not only were Alonso and Azpilicueta ineffective going forward, but they were also very shaky in their own half.
Azpilicueta gave away the free-kick which resulted in Ajax’s early goal, while Alonso did the same for the Dutch side’s third.
The problem was summed up by Ajax’s second goal. Alonso was too slow to stop Hakim Ziyech crossing the ball, while Azpilicueta was too slow and lost Quincey Promes at the far post.
Past the halfway line, they were also far from adequate. Alonso didn’t look like keeping hold of the ball and was incredibly poor with it at his feet, let alone him getting into a position where he has become known for being dangerous and producing a good cross.
On the other side, Azpilicueta looked tired and struggled massively to break forward and support Willian. It left Chelsea looking very unbalanced. Ajax took full advantage.
Introducing Reece James
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Frank Lampard introduced young full-back Reece James into the game at half time. He came on in place of Alonso and saw Azpilicueta shift to left-back, a position he has previously played a lot for the Blues.
James was a shining light. His introduction energised the team, offering a spark to the Blues’ play.
Despite Ajax adding a fourth while James was on the pitch, it was still him that proved to be the catalyst for the comeback.
James epitomises everything a modern full-back needs. He has the full package: pace, power, strength to be up and down the line. James posses a wicked cross and is extremely effective on the ball. His close control means he can start attacks and finish them.
It is not usual for a full-back to have such an impact on a game, but we are seeing it much more often. Liverpool’s Trent Alexander-Arnold recorded the most assists for a defender in Premier League history last season. Kyle Walker for Manchester City has shown how a rapid full-back can give solidity all over the team. Full-backs can now do the job of more than one position and it shows.
Once described as being a position that nobody wants to grow up to do and also being told that full-backs are either failed wingers or failed centre backs, they have very quickly become the most important position in any team.