Over the past few years, full-backs have become increasingly important to a team. A mixture of defensive and offensive qualities has become necessary for pretty much every modern-day full-back, irrespective of a team’s playing style. The 2019/20 Premier League season provided the football world with yet another opportunity to analyze the performances of the established and lesser-known full-backs.
The following analysis focuses on the first choice full-backs (right-back, right wing-back, left-back and left wing-back) of all 20 Premier League clubs. All full-backs included in the data analysis have featured at least 15 times in the Premier League last season. The full-backs were evaluated based on two main performance categories: defensive metrics and offensive metrics.
Watch: Are Andy Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold the best full-back pair in the Premier League?
The best defensive-minded full-backs
Firstly, we look at the defensive duels (aerial + ground) metric which evaluates a full-back’s one-on-one defending and ability to command his area. A defensive duel can be regarded as a challenge imposed on the opposing player in order to win the ball back, either on the ground or in the air.
In the graph below, we can see some of the standout performers highlighted in green. Crystal Palace’s right-back Joel Ward and Everton’s Seamus Coleman are the two best-balanced full-backs in the defensive duels metric. Last season, the Englishman won, on average, 65% of the ground and 64% of the aerial duels. Additionally, Coleman was only marginally behind Ward, winning 63% of the ground and 59% of the aerial duels.
Others worth mentioning are Brighton’s Dan Burn, Everton’s Lucas Digne and Manchester United’s Aaron Wan-Bissaka. The first two were very imposing in the air throughout the campaign, winning, on average, 73% and 68% of their areal duels. Wan-Bissaka was second-best regarding ground duels won (average of 64%).
Players highlighted in red were among the worst when dealing with opposing attackers in duels. Liverpool’s Trent Alexander-Arnold, Manchester City’s Benjamin Mendy and Norwich duo Max Aarons and Jamal Lewis are the players at the bottom end of the spectrum.
The following combination of metrics (tackles won + dribbled past by an opponent) continues the assessment of the full-backs’ one-on-one defensive abilities. The names that showed the most balanced values for the two metrics were Wan-Bissaka, Serge Aurier, Cedric Soares and West Ham’s Ryan Fredericks. It means that they got passed by an opposing player quite rarely during the game and subsequently won a good number of tackles denoting their defensive solidity. Adding to it, Kyle Walker, Sead Kolasinac, Aarons and Coleman were less impressive at successful tackling, but at the same time were very solid at stopping opposing wingers getting past them.
On the other hand, Ben Chilwell, Kiko Femenia, Ricardo Pereira and Alexander-Arnold did not impress that much. The Liverpool’s full-back was dribbled past rather frequently during games (1.44 times PG) but did not manage to recover by making successful tackles (0.71 tackles won PG). By contrast, Leicester’s Pereira won the most tackles per game last season (2.43 PG), but in spite of that was also the most often dribbled past full-back in the league (2.32 times PG).
Just like for the centre-backs, reading of the game and defensive intelligence are the crucial playing qualities needed for every full-back. Thus, the following graph displays the relationship between interceptions (stealing the ball) and blocks made (blocked shots + passes).
As we can see, the three highlighted players in green, the most balanced for the two metrics, are Wan-Bissaka, Frederic Guilbert and Matt Targett (both Aston Villa). The Man United full-back comes to the fore once again, averaging the third-most defensive blocks (2.96) and fifth-most interceptions per game (1.91).
In contrast, Walker, Mendy, Kolasinac and Femenia made the least number of defensive blocks and interceptions. In the case of Walker and Mendy, a video analysis would add the so needed contextual information explaining whether the Man City full-backs are bad in this regard or are simply not involved in so many defensive duties due to City’s constant domination.
The best offensive-minded full-backs
It can be argued that a modern-day full-backs are even more valued for their attacking contributions than defensive qualities. The graph displayed below presents the contribution made by the full-backs in terms of goals and assists.
The clear outliers here are two and they both play for Liverpool. Alexander-Arnold and Andrew Robertson are miles ahead of everyone else, having a made a total contribution of 31 goals plus assists combined. Liverpool’s preference to attack down the flanks and use both full-backs as attacking assets is clearly evident in this case.
The closest to the Liverpool duo are Chelsea’s Cezar Azpilicueta, Wolver’s Matt Doherty and already mentioned Everton’s left-back, Digne. Nevertheless, all three of them are still quite behind and do not contribute in the same manner as the Liverpool duo.
The above findings are reinforced further by the following metrics. Shot creating actions and goal creating actions (both include dribbles, passes and drawn fouls) are the selected performance indicators with which to assess the full-backs’ offensive contribution.
Once again, Liverpool’s duo, and especially Alexander-Arnold, lead the way in this category. Last season, the Liverpool right-back created, on average, 4.28 shot and 0.68 goal actions per game. His colleague, Robertson, was not far behind with 3.12 shot and 0.58 goal creating actions per game. Doherty, Digne, and Chelsea’s Marcos Alonso were their closest rivals.
Best defensive full-backs: Wan-Bissaka (Man United); Coleman (Everton); Soares (Southampton)
Best attacking full-backs: Alexander-Arnold (Liverpool); Robertson (Liverpool); Doherty (Wolves)
Best all-rounded full-backs: Digne (Everton); Azpilicueta (Chelsea)
Before You Go
Football Quiz: Which player has scored more goals in the Premier League?