Explaining the Inverted Fullback – Player Role Analysis

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April 2022 marked the launch of our new Player Role Evaluation System, where footballers are assessed by what they offer a football team – taking into account relevant metrics for their position and role, and minimizing less important factors that may not matter in the grand scheme of their role. We identified thirty-two different roles that a footballer may adopt on a football pitch, that can then be conceptualized to better understand how to evaluate each player’s performance. This series breaks down each of the thirty-two roles, contextualizing the tasks, function and job description within each – that can allow us to better measure their performance, without solely relying on menial statistics.

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Fullbacks are not always the flashiest of players, nor do they garner the greatest attention, even despite their importance to creating and generating chances in the modern game. That is precisely why a system like our Role Continuity Evaluation System works on so many levels, as we are able to adequately assess the important characteristics to a player’s performance, while minimizing the scrutinization over less important facets of the player’s game. Within the system, we break down full-backs into three broad categories: ‘Wide Warriors‘, ‘Wing-Backs‘, and the topic of today’s article – the ‘Inverted Fullback’. So with that, we explain the tasks, functions and role of an ‘Inverted Fullback’ and outline some of the very best in the position in 2022.

JOB DESCRIPTION

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An inverted full-back, as the name suggests, is a full-back who inverts into central areas, particularly in build-up and progression phases. In doing so, they help their team overload central avenues, whilst maintaining width through other players (usually wingers) that can stretch the field, and push central midfielders into advanced positions. Unlike many of our player roles, the ‘Inverted Fullback’ envelops a wider over-arching tactic, and therefore only becomes a role at specific, possession-based clubs. Just about every club on earth will have a mix of full-backs that would resemble either ‘Wide Warriors’ or ‘Wing-Backs’, but very few play with ‘Inverted Fullbacks’. Even some of the best at the art are best categorized into one of the other two Player Roles – such as Manchester City’s Kyle Walker (Wide Warrior), or Liverpool’s Trent Alexander-Arnold (Wing-Back).

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Statistically speaking, inverted full-backs are likely to make a high number of passes, progressive passes, and even take a high number of touches in central channels and half-spaces. Upon turnovers, they may even be responsible for defending these areas immediately, and then retreating and “falling back” into their position if possession is not swiftly regained.

Best served in possession-based teams, most ‘Inverted Fullbacks’ transcend into the role after spreading their wings and changing positions. Benjamin Pavard for example played as a centre-back throughout his time at VFB Stuttgart, and then emerged as a fantastic full-back for the French National Team en route to a 2018 World Cup triumph. Since then, he’s continued more within the mold of a ‘Ball-Playing-Centre-Half’ for Bayern Munich, despite not actually playing centre-back. Given Pavard’s importance in possession, whether that be inverting as a third centre-back or pushing ahead in attack, he is best classified as an ‘Inverted Fullback’.

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Then you have Oleksandr Zinchenko – a wonderfully versatile player who performs in a number of different positions for both club and country, but has made the ‘inverted-fullback’ tactic his own as the left-back for Manchester City. While fullbacks are normally associated with physicality and dynamism up and down the wing, the ‘Inverted Fullback’ encapsulates a player who is abnormally astute in possession, more than any other trait they may possess. They must be able to operate in a possession-based, high-functioning team, that prioritizes meticulous build up out from the back. As a result, this already eliminates the vast majority of football clubs from our search.

It would be easy to simply narrow full-backs down to attack-minded ‘Wing-Backs’ and defensively-minded ‘Wide Warriors’. But given the importance of ‘Inverted-Fullbacks’ as an emerging tactic to most modern day possession teams, the role must stay within our system and be given the credit it deserves as an important player function. The difference then is in assessing players that occasionally invert but hold higher importance in other facets of the game (e.g. Marcos Alonso, Trent Alexander-Arnold, Kyle Walker, etc.), and players who, more than anything else, come to life upon inverting into central areas. This can range from full-backs who join a back-three in build-up phases (like Benjamin Pavard or Aaron Cresswell), to ones that continue inverting all the way into the attacking third (like Joao Cancelo or Raphael Guerreiro).

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Further, the physical characteristics of ‘Inverted Fullbacks’ can at times be pinpointed by their ability to utilize their technical quality to contribute to the attack far more than their physical quality. Wing-Backs typically possess a range of speed, strength, dribbling power and physicality to get up and down the wing, whereas ‘Inverted Fullbacks’ may even be slower and smaller, or perhaps a better way of putting it – more composed and more astute in picking out the right passes at the right moment.

The role is likely to grow with greater importance as the game continues to evolve, and teams identify new strategies for unbalancing an opposition’s press. But as of 2022, you can only identify a handful of players that fulfill the mold.

QUINTESSENTIAL INVERTED FULLBACKS

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The most well-known examples of ‘Inverted Fullbacks’ come from the man credited for inventing the tactic – Pep Guardiola. Guardiola first used Philipp Lahm as an inverted fullback in Bayern’s build-up and progression, and then took the tactic to Manchester City to enhance his side’s dominance and control. Kyle Walker is the man most synonymously associated with the approach in the modern era, but Walker’s game has since evolved as he’s aged to become more about the defensive presence and solidity he provides, particularly in recovering and speeding in behind to catch up to onrushing attackers. Both Oleksandr Zinchenko and Joao Cancelo would perhaps provide better modern-day examples of wondrous inverted-full-backs, for their ability to pull the strings from deep and compound misery to the opposition’s defensive block through their positioning. Dani Alves of Barcelona provides another excellent modern day example, for his role in shifting inside to spray long diagonals – often toward a ‘wing-back’ on the other side in the form of Jordi Alba.

Lucy Bronze of Manchester City Women is another standout for her role in Man City’s build-up, ensuring the likes of Jill Scott and Georgia Stanway can prepare to position themselves higher up the pitch and closer to the front three. Finally, Noussair Mazraoui made the role his own in Erik Ten Hag’s Ajax, with Ajax opting for natural wide-men out on the wings, and building out from the back through the use of their full-backs to create central overloads. He could easily continue the role for Nagelsmann’s Bayern Munich after his free transfer to the team, supporting the fantastic wide rotations the German coach uses to get the best out of his team in attack.

In the Canadian Premier League, we’ve only seen one clear-cut example of an inverted full-back so far – in the form of Forge FC’s Aboubacar Sissoko. Carrying on from the trend, Forge boast the highest possession in the league (64.1%), and continue to hold their own even when faced up against MLS sides like Montreal and Toronto FC.

Where they sometimes ran into trouble at the start of the 2022 CANPL season, as opposed to a team like Manchester City, was in maintaining that width. Kwasi Poku generally held the width on the left side, but both of Forge’s wide-men typically inverted into half-spaces. This meant that sometimes the Hammers lacked the necessary width to exploit the opposition (such as through switching play quickly to the opposite side), even despite attempts to create wide overloads in the creation stage. They’ve since fixed that in recent matches, particularly in deploying Sissoko into more of a central midfield position, where he can use his excellent ball control and passing range to spray diagonals over to Ashtone Morgan or Tristan Borges on the left side.

When looking at the less famous example of Sissoko, many of the obvious ‘inverted full-back’ qualities bursting within him take centre stage. He’s a phenomenal passer of the ball, an intelligent progressor, and crucially – a former central midfielder. In many cases, inverted full-backs have buckets of experience playing in midfield throughout their careers, or have the neat and tidy skillset required to play the position. Oleksandr Zinchenko himself is often deployed as a central midfielder for his national side in Ukraine, whilst Dani Alves shifted into central midfield in his recent spell in Brazil.

Like his predecessor in Elimane Cisse, Sissoko himself frequently shifts into a true central midfield position for Forge, as Bobby Smyrniotis makes steps to change his team’s fortunes around. You can imagine that with the loss of Cisse, part of the recruitment process was in finding a player who could play both right-back and in central midfield, whilst offering the technical and physical requirements of both positions. In many ways, Forge hit the nail on the head with their signing of Sissoko – finding the league’s best (and only) ‘Inverted Fullback’.

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In terms of a more famous example, Joao Cancelo frequently performs much of his best work out wide. But he intelligently understands when to invert into central areas to support the wide positioning of a player like Grealish or Sterling down the left, and complete passes into the penalty area off his right foot as he drifts inside. This extends beyond just build-up and progression phases, all the way into the final third. No player made more passes into the penalty area than Cancelo’s 2.65 per 90 in the 2021-22 Premier League season, and the Portuguese play-maker also ranked second in the league in passes into the final third, and progressive passes. Operating excellent up and down the left wing makes him in many ways similar to a traditional ‘Wing-Back’ player-type, but he particularly excels when drifting into central areas or play-making from a deeper position rather than a wider one. But the examples of top level pros fulfilling the role don’t stop at Guardiola’s lab-creations.

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In the NWSL, there are two notable examples of full-backs inverting into central areas in attacking phases. Most prominently, Camryn Biegalski fulfills the role for the Washington Spirit, coming inside on the left as the right-back holds either a deeper or wider position in build-up phases. Portland Thorns meanwhile utilize Meghan Klingenberg in central areas during the creation stage, where she can cross the ball from the half-spaces rather than out wide – positioning herself closer to goal in the process. Often starting at left-wing-back role, she still holds more of a true ‘Wing-Back’ position for her team, but remains relevant to the discussion.

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The same could be said for Borussia Dortmund’s Raphael Guerreiro, who fantastically inverts into central areas during much of his team’s right-sided overloads, before being used as a mechanism for switching play and driving the team on. He also selects moments to advance into the final third in the half-spaces and scan for shooting opportunities – a hallmark of his career with the Black & Yellows. Guerreiro may be best served as a true wing-back, galloping up and down the left to support more of an ‘inverted-winger’, but he doesn’t possess the same physical characteristics to ever be a true ‘Wing-Back’ in the way we think about with the best of the art. In fact, he spent much of his first season at Borussia Dortmund playing central midfield.

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In many ways, AC Milan’s pairing of Theo Hernandez and Davide Calabria both showcase moments of inversion and steadiness in possession. Napoli’s pairing of Giovanni di Lorenzo and Mario Rui smartly recognize how to best support the movement of a winger ahead of them within the realms of positional play, and both may hold reserved roles in the build-up, either one at a time, or together. Again, it’s a rare breed, and more difficult to conjure up a top twenty list on the best in the business. Nevertheless, we attempt to do exactly that, first by developing criteria as to how the performance of an ‘Inverted Fullback’ can be measured against their peers.

MEASURING INVERTED FULLBACKS

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Within our Role Continuity Player Evaluation System, players are first measured by what they are expected to do in their position and role first, with any tasks associated with a secondary role coming second. Particularly imperative, when assessing who quantifies as an ‘Inverted Fullback’, we are using more than just data but the eye test, in assessing how and when a player inverts into central areas or half-spaces, and how successful they are in aiding their team’s build-up. We can then use data to more adequately assess their player positioning and movement around the pitch, the areas in which they frequently pick up possession, and the success at which they progress the ball up the pitch. So with that, here is how we measure ‘Inverted Fullbacks’.

1. POSSESSION & DISTRIBUTION

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Inverted Fullbacks must be sound progressors, and make intelligent decisions about when to drift in-field, when to play forwards, and how and when to contribute to the attack. What they do with the ball at their feet, and what they do off-the-ball to receive, holds the most significant importance when assessing ‘Inverted Fullbacks’. This includes scores and data within the following metrics:

  • Frequency of inversions into central channels or half-spaces per build-up or progression phase.
  • Involvement in build-up (including importance, average position and movement)
  • Touches + number of times targeted with a pass during build-up to progression phases.
  • Control (miscontrols, dispossessed, passes received %)
  • Decision making in supporting the build-up and progression
  • Passing %
  • Long passing % + switches of play
  • Progressiveness (progressive passes + progressive carries)

As you can see, this category includes a range of easily identifiable on-the-ball metrics, without detracting from the eye test and the off-the-ball decision making processes of our full-backs in question.

2. DEFENSIVE IQ

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The sheer number of defensive contributions allows us to assess a player, but more vitally is their IQ – taking into consideration aspects like the timing and decision making behind their challenges and contributions. While inverted fullbacks don’t hold as imperative of a defensive role as ‘Wide Warriors’, they still bear important and immediate responsibilities in stunting counter-attacks and defending out wide. This includes…

  • Tackle % and decision making when tackling
  • Pressure % and decision making when pressuring
  • Positional awareness and positional discipline
  • Awareness of own strengths vs. strengths of teammates
  • Discipline (e.g. fouls, bookings, and positional discipline)
  • Leadership and organization
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By first assessing decision making, we can then more appropriately analyze the statistics a defender may acquire in any given match. A player is given a score out of 10 in each ‘IQ’ category, using both statistical metrics and the eye test, which is then averaged together to create an overall ‘IQ’ score.

3. ATTACKING THREAT & IQ

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The quality of inverted full-backs may shine through more in the build-up to progression, but how they contribute to the creation stage remains an important part of their game. This may include…

  • Crosses + crossing %
  • Passes and carries into final 1/3
  • Key passes
  • Dribbles + dribble %
  • Shots + shot on target %
  • Shot-Creating-Actions
  • Progressive passes received
  • Decision making in attacking phases

Again, the sheer number is often less important than the player’s success and/or timing of decision making when it comes to the attacking side of the game. In most cases, both are measured to better understand a player’s ‘IQ’ and ‘Contribution’ within the overall umbrella of ‘Attacking Threat’.

4. DEFENSIVE CONTRIBUTION

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Whilst what they do in attack for a possession-based team holds greater importance, defenders are still expected to contribute to the defensive side of the game. This includes their number of…

  • Tackles
  • Interceptions
  • Aerial duels won
  • Aerial %
  • Clearances
  • Blocks
  • Pressures
  • Recoveries

Inverted fullbacks may make a higher number of defensive actions in the middle third and final third than ‘Wide Warriors’, which is one key way of helping decipher between the two roles. It’s also worth noting the difference of this category from the ‘Defensive IQ’ section, which aims to measure and gain greater insight into decision making, rather than sheer numbers.

5. ABNORMALITIES

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Fullbacks may also be given additional boosts or retractions for any abnormalities that they perform in a match, including the following…

  • Goals
  • Assists
  • Penalty kicks given away
  • Errors leading to shots or goals
  • Own goals
  • Red cards

While these metrics may affect a player’s rating in a given match, they don’t tend to change a player’s score over the course of a season, unless repeatedly conducted.

So with that, based on the five key evaluation metrics, here are some of the very best ‘Inverted Fullbacks’ in Men’s Football across Europe’s top leagues.

TOP 15 INVERTED FULLBACKS

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Inverted Fullbacks would be expected to accumulate higher than average statistics in possession of the ball, whether that be in the form of progressive passes, progressive carries, number of times targeted with passes, or simply passing percentage. We’ve chosen to include a few of those in the table created below, helping to showcase some of the specific strengths of the players in question. It’s also worth noting that we have excluded players who we’ve categorized into other roles, meaning no Trent Alexander-Arnold, Kyle Walker or Marcos Alonso.

After scouring the databases, and scrutinizing over statistics from both this season and the last 365 days, these are the best ‘Inverted Fullbacks’ in the world at this time.

Rank #Player TeamProg. PProg. CTarget #
1Joao CanceloManchester City7.709.6576.88
2Oleksandr ZinchenkoManchester City8.029.0371.81
3Benjamin PavardBayern Munich 6.566.7574.24
4Raphael GuerreiroBorussia Dortmund7.316.5364.92
5Giovanni di LorenzoNapoli4.816.1757.85
6Noussair MazraouiAjax 6.447.4051.37
7Davide CalabriaAC Milan 4.403.9638.05
8Dani AlvesFC Barcelona4.928.7767.30
9Marcos AcunaSevilla5.236.4462.73
10Aaron Cresswell West Ham United5.294.1352.00
11Mario RuiNapoli4.154.7859.70
12Alessandro FlorenziAS Roma 4.925.4348.50
13Alex Sandro Juventus 4.056.4846.93
14Leo DuboisLyon5.126.9355.54
15DaniloJuventus4.654.0756.08

First, it must be noted that far more statistics have been considered in this ranking than the three shown above, but all three help to exemplify the role of an ‘Inverted Fullback’ in the modern age. Of note, Aaron Cresswell plays for a team averaging less than 50% possession, but holds one of the most important roles during possession phases of the entire West Ham team, allowing him to receive more passes than the likes of Calabria, Florenzi and Alex Sandro. His ability to shift into a back-three and hold a withdrawn role in attacking phases, led to his inclusion as an ‘Inverted Fullback’, going against the typical mold in many ways.

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The players included in this category may not invert into central/half-spaces every single time their teams build out from the back, but all of them see either a predominantly lower role in possession than a ‘Wing-Back’, or a more centralized vocation. Nevertheless, some are more prototypical within the mold than others, and that is where we assess who exemplifies the role best of all.

PERFECT PROTOTYPES

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Among the top twenty names listed above, these are the most prototypical ‘Inverted Fullbacks’. To rank high on this list, a player should boast a high influence in possession, particularly in central channels and half-spaces. The height of their role can vary, so long as their role generally occurs in creating and orchestrating from positions closer to the centre than strictly out wide. Players that would rank closer to the wing-back mold rank lower, as we’re looking for players that would best be described under this prototype over any others.

Rank #Player TeamLong Pass C. Passes 1/3Touch. Mid 1/3
1Oleksandr ZinchenkoManchester City6.687.7352.35
2Dani AlvesFC Barcelona 8.448.2859.43
3Joao CanceloManchester City8.197.3554.35
4Noussair MazraouiAjax5.344.9335.62
5Giovanni di LorenzoNapoli4.864.4139.19
6Benjamin PavardBayern Munich8.377.6755.18
7Leo DuboisLyon 7.063.7541.51
8Alessandro FlorenziAS Roma 7.964.2736.97
9Danilo Juventus 12.186.4846.93
10Marcos AcunaSevilla11.394.8342.21

We’ve gone for Oleksandr Zinchenko as the man to best exemplify the player role, as he inverts into half-spaces and central channels more than any other City full-back, even often playing central midfield for his national team. The remainder of the list features a range of players who hold varying roles in their team’s build-up phases, sometimes as a deeper member of the build-up than the prototypical implications of Pep Guardiola’s implementations. So while the ‘Inverted Fullback’ remains a rare breed, these are the players worth scrutinizing over when studying the tactic in the modern game.

CONCLUSION

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Over the last few decades, fullbacks have evolved from being the furthest down the pitch, to one of the highest and most important to any team’s attacking structure. The game has taken even more unique turns for the betterment of team tactics, as managers continue to work out the best ways to build out from the back and beat an opposition press. One of those emerging facets of the game has been the introduction of ‘Inverted Fullbacks’, whereby the widest defenders drift in-field to receive the ball, supporting their team’s progression through the thirds in the process. The player role may be a rare one, normally existing only in the highest functioning possession-based teams, but is bound to only grow as the game continues to evolve. For now, the likes of Oleksandr Zinchenko and Joao Cancelo remain some of the most unique players in the modern game, not only for their quality, but for their multi-functional abilities spread across the pitch.


So there it is! Explaining our ‘Inverted Fullback’ type within our Player Role Evaluation System. Be sure to check out more from this series as we detail all thirty-two roles, and follow on social media @mastermindsite to never miss an update. Thanks for reading and see you soon!

More in this series…
-> Explaining the Shot Stopper – Player Role Analysis
-> Explaining the Sweeper Keeper – Player Role Analysis
-> Explaining the Wide Warrior – Player Role Analysis

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