The role of fullbacks over the last couple of decades has changed significantly both around the world and in the A-League as teams have become more attack-oriented in the 21st century.
In and around the 1980s, fullbacks were defenders in the most literal sense – they would rarely pass the halfway line, and there was barely any notice of their capabilities on the ball, let alone their ability to move forwards.
Fast forward 30 years to 2021, and fullbacks are fundamental to the way teams attack, and in some cases are judged for their attacking quality before what they can cope with defensively.
However, this description of the past mainly applies to European countries and Australia – South America had a completely different look.
Adelaide United legend (and attacking fullback) Cassio Oliveira explains.
“For me, I had a different view because in Brazil most of the fullbacks were attacking since I was a kid playing in the youth system,” he said.
“I used to watch a lot of attacking fullbacks when I was young. Not many people know that, but that’s why a lot of Brazilians, especially in my generation, are so attacking.
“We used to watch players like Roberto Carlos, Cafu and players like Felipe that I used to play with.
“These guys are like mirrors for all of us when we’re younger, and these guys created an identity and benchmark about fullbacks attacking.
“But coming to Australia was a different experience because there was a completely different view about fullbacks.”
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When Cassio first arrived in Australia, he was one of, if not the only attacking fullback in the league.
When asked about whether Adelaide United signed him to be an attacking fullback, Cassio responded.
“To be honest, I still don’t know!” he said.
“They signed me as a fullback, but I believe my first conversations with the coaches were about attacking.
“Straight away when they saw me playing and training, they didn’t hold me back in terms of pushing forward.
“Obviously you have to defend as well, that’s your first job as a fullback, but at the same time they never stopped me and said you have to stop going forward or anything like that.”
Cassio’s attacking nature was a major benefit to his team, and he confused oppositions wingers with his engine and ability to go forwards.
“Initially when I got here, in my first year especially I think I had a lot more time on the ball”, said Cassio.
“I was coming from over the other side of the world and people didn’t know me, so they didn’t expect me to be an attacking fullback so that can create problems to the opposition.
“To be honest, it was a very hard job for wingers to play against attacking fullbacks who can make a difference and create chances for the team.”
Much has changed since he first arrived in Adelaide in 2007.
“Since I stopped playing (in the A-League), fullbacks have developed so much, in terms of attacking, moving forwards, scoring goals”, said Cassio.
“I’m so pleased to watch so many young players in the last seven-eight years playing so well.”
In the A-League this season, fullbacks have been at the forefront of attacking play.
In most cases they have been storming down the flanks, overlapping at pace to provide support and options for the winger.
In a simple 4-3-3, this is what it looks like:
It essentially allows the winger to either hold possession and then play the ball wide, or drive inside as the defender is caught choosing whether to follow the winger or the onrushing fullbacks.
The partnership between Milos Ninkovic and Joel King on the left for Sydney is a perfect example of this.
While not a winger, in Sydney’s 4-2-2-2 system Ninkovic will often come wide to receive the ball.
King will make an overlapping run and Ninkovic uses his vision and ‘pausa’ to hold off until the last possible moment before playing a pass to the fullback, allowing King time to measure his cross.
However, Ninkovic will also occasionally use King as a decoy and cut inside, allowing him to thread passes through to the forwards or find his fellow attacking midfielder with space centrally.
King becomes extremely important – whilst maybe not in possession, but in his decoy run to confuse the opposition, while more often than not Ninkovic does play the ball through to King.
And King’s clever attacking play hasn’t gone unnoticed by Cassio.
“The one that’s really caught my eye is Sydney FC’s Joel King,” he said.
“He’s a very modern fullback, he defends well, he plays the basic game but he does very smart, penetrating runs, he’s a very reliable player.
“You can trust him to do the work defensively and when attacking, and he’s a very good crosser.”
Cassio also mentioned Nathaniel Atkinson as the other best young attacking fullback alongside King, although Atkinson’s role is very different to the one King plays at Sydney.
Melbourne City requires their fullbacks not just to be fit, fast and good in attacking play, but comfortable on the ball under pressure, particularly in midfield areas.
When in possession, City will invert one of their wing-backs, essentially meaning that they create a 3-2 build up with one remaining in the defensive line and the other joining the deepest midfielder.
This gives City a midfield overload, while the two wingers hold their width while staying on the touchline, waiting to receive the ball.
Once the ball moves into the final third, the wingers will rotate positions with the fullbacks and central midfielders, maintaining triangles for passing options.
“Melbourne City are a team that sometimes play a fullback in midfield,” said Cassio.
“On that, you can already see a change from fullbacks that can only overlap – fullbacks can now come in and create an overload in midfield.”
The grand final underlined the importance that fullbacks have in City’s system.
Nathaniel Atkinson, a fullback by trade, started at right-wing, and consistently rotated with Scott Galloway (the right-back) to confuse Joel King and Alex Baumjohann, with the latter not exactly being revered for his defensive work rate.
If you are to count Atkinson as a fullback, then all three of City’s goals came from their wide defenders, with Atkinson, Scott Jamieson and Galloway scoring in their 3-1 win over Sydney.
It underlined the importance they present in the system and the rapid growth of a standard fullback over the past three decades.
Rhyan Grant is perhaps the best example of the template of a modern fullback in the A-League.
He finished the A-League season with the most interceptions of any player (46) and the 10th most tackles won (34).
His attacking numbers are also exceptional – he created 30 chances for his side and played in eighteen accurate crosses.
Despite being a right back on paper, you often find him on the furthest line forwards of Sydney’s attack, and a constant feature of Sydney’s structured offences has been Luke Brattan receiving the ball with time before lobbing it over to Grant on the far touchline – it was how they won the grand final in the 2019/20 season.
Grant has firmly established himself as one of the league’s finest defenders, although in reality, you can only describe him as a defender in terms of his starting position – he’s always playing on the front foot and looking to go forwards.
Heatmap from Sofascore
This has become the norm for wide defenders, and in the increasingly attacking A-League (there were 471 goals this season, an average of 3 goals per game), fullbacks have often been the key cogs in their offensive lineup.
Brisbane Roar was another team that excelled in the use of their wingbacks, although in the back three system Warren Moon played, their starting point was further up the field.
It had major beneficiaries for Corey Brown, who was first in his position for expected assists, in the 100th percentile, and in the 86th and 83rd percentile for progressive passes and passes into the box respectively.
He has been a key outlet for Brisbane this season, who have essentially designed an attacking system whereby they move a lot of players and crowd the right, before finding O’Shea on the ball to switch it to Brown.
Brown is one of the many attacking fullbacks that have shined in the A-League this campaign, using his width and crossing ability to be a key threat for Brisbane.
Although, many coaches have developed interesting strategies to approach defending attacking fullbacks in a game.
“I remember playing against Ange Postecoglou’s Melbourne Victory in 2012/2013, and he used to have Archie (Thompson) and Marco Rojas on the wings”, said Cassio.
“I remember as a fullback, I had a hard time with both, because I remember Ange saying ‘just stay’.
“This is the hardest thing for a fullback, especially attacking fullbacks because he told them not to track, so if I went up and we lost the ball, in transition we were stuffed.
“I remember in a few games we got caught on that.
“That’s why I think smart coaches can see what you’ve got in your hand, especially these two wingers in Archie and Thompson and Marco Rojas, two quality players and they didn’t track back.
“But at the same time, if you concede two goals and score three you still win the game.”
Cassio also opened up on the mentality an attacking fullback should have when approaching a game.
“One thing I always thought when playing was that the winger had to defend me, not the other way round”, he said.
“In Australia, people thought the fullback’s job was to defend the winger but for me (back when Cassio was playing), it was the other way round.
“In a lot of games I played, the wingers were off at halftime or at the beginning of the second half, especially the younger ones. That’s why being a young coach, I am very careful about wingers tracking fullbacks all the way.”
Fullbacks have undergone a monumental development in the last decade within the A-League.
More and more attacking fullbacks are entering the youth ranks, and they are quickly becoming the position for players with the most consistent and diverse skillset out there.
Cassio remains humble when speaking about his role in the development of attacking fullbacks in the A-League, but there’s no question that he was one of the deciding factors in the immense change of fullbacks in their style in Australia over the last ten years.
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