Premier League 2021/22: The Year of the Fullback

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“No one wants to grow up and be a Gary Neville,” Jamie Carragher lambasted on a 2013 episode of Monday Night Football before Liverpool’s game against Swansea City. And he was right at the time. No player grew up wanting to play the most inglorious position in the footballing world; a position known since the dawn of time to be vacated for a player we’d all rather come up against, rather than play with. Yet, eight years after that fateful statement, Chelsea’s top goalscorer is a fullback; Liverpool’s source of creativity is a fullback, and one of Manchester City’s most technically gifted players is a fullback.

The position has gone from the bottom of the pile in the hierarchy of football positions, right to the top three – of course still not coming over the number 10, and striking positions. But, it now involves more glory than that of a centre-back, or central midfielder. In 10 years time – when Neville and Carragher are ultimately still arguing in noises so high-pitch you’d assume you were listening to the squeaking of shoes at a silent disco – the narrative will be spun. It will not be a case of a potential fullback extinction. If anything, there will be an overpopulation because most players will grow up wanting to be the next Trent Alexander-Arnold; the next Reece James or the next Joao Cancelo.

Premier League 2021/22: The Year of the Fullback

From Backstage Role to Main Protagonist

Fullbacks have quite possibly had the biggest promotion in any industry worldwide. They have gone from backstage crew members, with barely a credit to their name, to the main protagonists – the poster boys alongside the goal scorers. The change in role represents how football as a whole – in England, at least – has undergone a major transition since the arrival of Jurgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola.

The two technicians engineered systems no one had previously seen in the Premier League. All of a sudden, the role of a fullback was not as simple as what the title suggests. Their primary function was no longer to just defend. In fact, it became the total opposite. Take Alexander-Arnold – the most obvious example here. The Liverpool man is the creative source at Anfield; the game is dictated through his distribution. Meanwhile, it is down to Jordan Henderson or down to Fabinho among others to provide cover for what is now one of the main men.

Alexander-Arnold has been fulfilling the role for four years now, but this season has seen the academy graduate take a bigger responsibility than ever. And, with that responsibility, he has not shied away – recording nine assists in 13 games so far to accompany his one goal. Add onto that the fact that he has recorded more assists than any other player since 2018 (37), as per Sky Sports, and you begin to realise the extent of Alexander-Arnold’s impact. His partner in crime, Andy Robertson, is not far behind, either. The Scotland captain sits third on the aforementioned list with 31 assists.

An Emerging Battle

When naming Player of the Year candidates – no matter how early – including fullbacks in that list always seems slightly out of character. Yet, almost halfway into the 21/22 season, and we can all comfortably name not one, not two, but three fullbacks deserving of that prize. Alexander-Arnold has already been given plenty of the limelight here, so it’s only right that Joao Cancelo and Reece James share some praise – two players with such contrasting styles, but such similar impacts.

On a technical level, it becomes increasingly difficult to single out a better player than Cancelo. In a Manchester City side filled to the brim with awe-inspiring talents, the former Juventus man has become the man to watch. His curved pass into the feet of Raheem Sterling to finish against Everton epitomised his current form; it defied physics, whilst sending yet another message to his fellow fullbacks that anything they can do, he can do better. So far this season, the Portugal international has been involved in eight goals.

And then there’s Reece James, the goalscorer of the trio. The Chelsea man has netted more goals than anyone else in blue this season. In just 186 minutes of action, he has been involved in 10 goals. Those are numbers most strikers are failing to match right now to put into context just how impressive the Englishman has been.

The battle we have on our hands summarises the transition we’ve had in English football, and the sudden change in importance in the fullback role. From passes previously found on an Andreas Iniesta highlight reel, to goal involvements similar to that of a star forward, the role of the fullback has never been more central staged.

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