The four faces of EPL right-backs

Those long, peripheral arrows. Obscure, but essential.

Overworked. Underrated. Forced to run further and longer than anyone else. Glued to the byline without much prospect of ever scoring a goal or even getting into a highlight reel with some dazzling play. The full-backs. In the most physically demanding, exhausting, fitness-based league in the world, it’s them who decide the games. It’s time to do them some justice. Looking at the most outstanding performances of eight prominent Premier League right-backs, it’s plain to see that they’re displaying various, but often similar characteristics – the characteristics occasionally so alike, they emerge and form a style of their own. I’ve determined four trending styles out there. As it turns out: even that particular job is not just about pace and hard work anymore.

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Watchful Protectors: Matthew Lowton and Antonio Barragán

The old-school approach to right-back’s duties is still alive and well – especially among the managers, whose sole focus is to keep their teams above the thin, red, relegation line. Sean Dyche and Aitor Karanka are definitely the two bosses with such goals in mind. In order to keep things quiet at the back, their RBs are expected to remain in the defensive zone, leaving the transition and attacking phase either to a wide midfielder (Clarets’ Stephen Ward) or a pacey winger (Boro’s Adama Traoré). Therefore, regardless of the venue or the opposition, Matt Lowton and Antonio Barragán are more or less fulfilling the same tedious duties: clearing loose balls and intercepting passes played in-behind their teammates.

The heat maps below have been taken from two standout shifts put by players in question: Barragan’s October home performance against Bournemouth (7 interceptions, 2 dribbles won, 2 clearances, 1 tackle won, 1 shot, 69% pass accuracy; Boro won 2-0) and Lowton’s battle against Sunderland (3 interceptions, 2 dribbles won, 5 clearances, 2 tackles won, 63% pass success; Burnley won 4-1). Uncanny resemblance:

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Relentless Attackers: Antonio Valencia and Kyle Walker

Calling those two players ‘wing-backs’ would be a misnomer. Valencia and Walker are proper wingers: so much that most of their involvements take place in the opposition’s half. And their attacking presence is crucial: so crucial, that Mauricio Pochettino has tweaked the entire Tottenham system towards the 3-4-2-1 formation just to unleash the aggressive potential of both Walker and his left-wing counterpart, Danny Rose. Thus far, José Mourinho wouldn’t dare to follow that example: but fielding the natural central playmaker Mata down the wing is a clear sign that the Portuguese manager is leaving lots of flanking leeway for his Ecuadorian star. Get forward, dribble, cross: that’s his (and Walker’s) weekly routine.

The English lad (recently likened to Dani Alves by ESPN commentators!) had his standout game against Burnley (1 assist, 5 aerials won, 5 clearances, 3 dribbles, 3 tackles, 71% pass success; Spurs won 2-1) while Valencia impressed in a away, 0-0 draw against Liverpool (5 interceptions, 4 dribbles, 2 aerials won, 2 tackles and 75% pass accuracy for the MU player in that match). Their heat maps panned out as follows:

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Roaming Assets: César Azpilicueta and Craig Dawson

Unlike right-backs with clearly defined roles, the roaming defenders do perform tasks on both ends of the pitch – but their objectives are heavily defensive. Their main role is to use superior positioning and foresight in order to win the ball back wherever it happens to be at the moment. Since the roaming defenders are not carrying the creative burdens, their jobs are similar to ghost-writing: showing up, reclaiming the ball and quickly giving it to the teammates. Azpilicueta and Dawson might be playing for different goals this year, but so far, they’ve both been turning such approach into a form of an art – which is probably why their teams are performing way above the pre-season expectations.

The Spaniard had a handful of masterful games this season. The pinnacle has been a difficult, 2-0 Chelsea win at Southampton (9 tackles, 7 clearances, 2 aerials won and 1 interception with 92% pass success for Azpi). Dawson, on the other hand, excelled against Bournemouth (1 goal, 1 tackle won, 5 clearances, 3 aerials won, 2 interceptions and 87% pass success). Take a look below: aren’t they playing wherever they want?

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Wing Engines: Nathaniel Clyne and Seamus Coleman

The most heavily involved right-backs on this list, Clyne and Coleman are expected to be doing virtually everything: from providing defensive cover, through participating in patient, attacking buildups, up to using pace and intent on the counterattack. Since their teams normally enjoy controlling the games and attacking down right wings, the two Liverpool rivals are absolutely essential for each phase of the game, allowing more freedom both to the players in front of them (Ross Barkley and Sadio Mané) and behind them (three Toffees sweepers or two LFC centre-backs). As Clyne himself remarked: “(Klopp) likes his full-backs to join in with play whenever they can”. And so he does.

For Liverpool player, the resounding 3-0 win at Middlesbrough was a good sample of what he can do (1 assist, 3 tackles won, 2 aerials won, 2 key passes, 96% pass accuracy). Against the same opponent, at Goodison Park, his Irish colleague has won 5 dribbles, 2 tackles, 2 interceptions, 1 aerial duel and made 6 clearances – all while scoring a goal. Add the staggering 92 touches in 90 minutes for each of them and you’ll get some serious dedication.

Credit to whoscored.com – the site that provides players’ heat maps (& many more stats!)

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