Unconventions of the Modern Game

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Have you ever wondered why managers play some players at certain positions but not others? Or have you ever felt uneasy when you saw your team play with four left-footed defenders? FF will be bringing up three player positioning un-conventions that you are likely to see or have seen in football.

Two Left-Footed Centre-Backs

In today’s modern game, a manager would ideally want his centre-back pairings consist of one defender who is right-footed and the other who is predominantly stronger on his left. This somehow gives managers and fans more confidence, as the two central defenders seem to feel more natural and comfortable if they are playing on the same side as their preferred foot. A few examples include Liverpool’s first-choice pairing of Martin Skrtel (right-footed) and Daniel Agger (left-footed), Vincent Kompany (right-footed) partnering Matija Nastasić (left-footed) in Manchester City’s defence for the most of last season.

Still, managers might not always get two central defenders with different preferred foot to form their centre-back pairing, or that some defenders are arguably ambidextrous, even as they may still be stronger on one side. Prominent pairings like Chelsea’s John Terry (both sides) and Gary Cahill, or Arsenal’s Per Mertesacker with Laurent Koscielny (both sides) prove this point.

Managers, and fans, seem to be comfortable with two predominantly right-footed centre-backs in the centre of their defence. However, why is it that managers, and fans, are unwilling to field two left-footed defenders in central defence?

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Liverpool have this particular issue. Their most expensive centre-half Mamadou Sakho and arguably their best ball playing centre-back Agger are both left-footed, but it would be a big surprise to see Brendan Rodgers partner each other in the centre of the Reds defence. It just seems that managers do not trust left-footed centre-backs playing on the right side of central defence to defend on their weaker right side, yet managers are all too willing to trust right-footed centre-backs deployed on the left side of defence to defend on their weaker left-hand side.

Left-Back to Left-Midfield

This week’s Champions League match between Manchester City and FC Barcelona saw Manuel Pellegrini deploy left full-back Aleksandar Kolarov at left midfield, in front of left-back Gael Clichy. Arsenal’s Arsene Wenger also likes to close matches by bringing on Spanish left-back Nacho Montreal at left-side midfield, in front of left-back Kieran Gibbs. In the past, Liverpool manager Rafa Benitez preferred to place left-back John Arne Riise in front of the left-back, whether Djimi Traore or Stephen Warnock.

Would you see Pablo Zabaleta deployed ahead of Micah Richards on City’s right flank? How often do you see Carl Jenkinson playing in front of Bacary Sagna? Admittedly, Benitez’s early Liverpool days saw full-back Steve Finnan playing ahead of Spanish defender Josemi on the Reds’ right side.

It seems like left-footed left full-backs are seen to be more adept at playing left midfield than right-sided full-backs are at being deployed on the right flank. The examples are endless: Jose Enrique has seen action on the left-wing before, more than Glen Johnson as a right-sided attacker; Real Madrid duo Marcelo and Fabio Coentrao has played both at full-back and left midfield before too; Everton’s Bryan Oviedo, a left full-back, has played left midfield for the Blues this season as well, contributing with a couple of goals and assists; in Chelsea’s victorious Champions League final, back-up left-back Ryan Bertrand played ahead of then-first choice left-back Ashley Cole against FC Bayern. It seems that left-sided players are seen to be more flexible and adaptable, while right full-backs in particular are more specialised in their role as a full-back, and less able to play as a wide midfielder.

Left-Back at Right-Back

Barcelona vs Liverpool 2007 in the first leg of the first knockout round at the Camp Nou was probably best remembered for how right-footed full-back Alvaro Arbeloa made his first start an utterly neutralised a young Lionel Messi, then playing as an inverted right-forward. Arbeloa’s stronger right side would help in his defending against predominantly left-footed Messi, who tended to cut in from the right flank.

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There have been and still have many instances of right-footed right-backs being deployed at left-back. Young Jon Flanagan, predominantly a right-back, filled in at left-back to much praise at the end of last year. Chelsea’s Spanish right-back Cesar Azpilicueta has been keeping previously undisputed first choice left-back Ashley Cole out of the team.. at left-back. At Tottenham, right-footed Kyle Naughton had to fill in at left-back when Danny Rose and Jan Vertonghen were both injured.

Similar to the situation of having a lack of trust with two left-sided centre-backs, managers tend to not trust left-backs to play out of position on the right side of defence, unless absolutely necessary or in an emergency, like some occasions when Clichy had to fill in for Zabaleta at right-back this season.

Whether it is a mindset spanning generations, there just seems to be some aspects of football, especially so in the positioning of players, that seem to be some type of rule that managers must adhere to. Still, forty years ago, who would have thought of inverted wingers?

I certainly wouldn’t be surprised if the next decade sees the emergence of inverted full-backs.