90min

The Evolution of the Left Back Role

Tom Gott
Roberto Carlos was one of the greatest ever
Roberto Carlos was one of the greatest ever / Cancan Chu/Getty Images
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Ah, the left back. It's one of the most underappreciated positions on the pitch, yet has still brought us some of the greatest players to ever play the game.

We've already taken a deep look into how the right back role evolved over time, and in what is probably the least surprising thing you'll ever hear, the left back role actually followed a fairly similar path.

Back in football's dark ages, 'left back' wasn't a position. You might well have been a left-sided 'full back', but even that wasn't what you might think. Contrary to the modern interpretation, the full back of yesteryear was a centre back who sometimes drifted out wide to deal with wingers.

Players like Andy Robertson were rarities in the past
Players like Andy Robertson were rarities in the past / Robbie Jay Barratt - AMA/Getty Images

The problem was that if you were a centre back, there was a good chance you were huge and heavy, so as soon as an agile winger came at you, it was game over. If you could catch him, you'd stop him, but you definitely weren't catching him.

To combat that, we saw managers turn to football's outcasts to save the day. Those who were too small to be a centre back were given a chance to reinvent themselves as a full back as they usually had a competent combination of physicality and speed.

The full backs did well as auxiliary defenders, so their job remained the same for years. Stay back and defend, and only head forward if it was safe.

There were a few attacking stars, such as German Paul Breitner, but they were still in the minority. However, in 1995, life changed for left backs, and there are two men who can take credit for that.

The world took notice of Carlos' rise
The world took notice of Carlos' rise / Ben Radford/Getty Images

The first is Roberto Carlos, the diminutive Brazilian who arrived at Inter a year earlier to find himself thrust into an attacking role because of his size. Standing at 5'6, there was simply no way he could be relied on at the back, and Inter boss Roy Hodgson was so confident of that that he shipped Carlos off to Real Madrid after the Brazilian voiced his desire to be a left back.

As we all know, Carlos' historic success with Real helped reinvent the left back role, but one person who perhaps doesn't get enough credit is Arsène Wenger, who moved to Arsenal in 1996 to try and build a dominant, attacking force.

The Frenchman wanted every attacking advantage possible, and he identified that left back Nigel Winterburn had the potential to offer that if he would only attack for once. While all the other left backs were defending, Wenger wanted Winterburn to change the game.

Arsene Wenger with Nigel Winterburn
Arsene Wenger with Nigel Winterburn / Mark Thompson/Getty Images

"Under George Graham, I would never get criticised for not joining up with attacks enough - but that all changed," Winterburn told The Telegraph. "When Wenger came, we were given more license to get forward and told to quickly get high and wide. Suddenly Lee [Dixon] and I were tasked with both going forward at the same time. Previously if he went forward, I stayed back."

Wenger focused on improving Winterburn's stamina to ensure he was physically capable of flying up and down the left flank all game, and after some arduous training sessions, the results became clear on the pitch.

Once Winterburn began to age, Ashley Cole was brought in to replace him, and the Englishman was the living embodiment of what a modern left back needed to be - fast, powerful and dangerous at both ends of the field.

Cole is seen by many as England's best ever
Cole is seen by many as England's best ever / Gary M. Prior/Getty Images

The success of Winterburn, Cole and Carlos showed managers around the world that left backs were more than failed defenders. Not only was it perhaps the most physically challenging position on the pitch, but it was now a position which required immense skill at both ends of the field.

Kids around the world rose to the challenge of replicating that trio, and there are now countless examples of world-class left backs on show. The likes of Andy Robertson, Alphonso Davies, Theo Hernández and Robin Gosens all bring that unique skill blend week in, week out, and there are plenty of teenagers around the globe looking to follow suit.


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