Pep Guardiola has made some questionable, yet unarguably bold, choices in his first season at Manchester City. Shipping out Joe Hart in exchange for Claudio Bravo, playing Kolarov as a central defender, and forcing City’s full-backs into the center of the pitch when in possession are just a few of Pep’s daring moves for City. Some of those gambles have paid off, some have not. Guardiola had something new to pull out of his bag of tricks in Manchester City’s 2 – 2 draw against Arsenal away at the Emirates: utilizing Jesus Navas at right-back.
It was clear right from the off that Navas was not accustomed to playing as a full-back. In the opening minutes, he got a yellow card for a very poor challenge, got caught on the wrong side of Alexis Sanchez, and gave away the ball in dangerous positions. There was even a moment in the match where Kevin De Bruyne had to tell Navas to follow the run of an Arsenal player. Despite those shortcomings, though, Navas was quite solid in the City defense as the match continued. Navas finished the match with eight tackles, three more than anyone else on either team, and used his pace to successfully mark Sanchez, one of the best wingers in the Premier League, in spite of his positional deficiencies.
Navas is the latest in an increasing group of Premier League wingers who have been converted to full-back. Looking solely at the top six clubs in England, three of them consistently use wingers as full-backs or wing-backs: Milner at Liverpool, Moses at Chelsea, and Valencia at Manchester United. Other midfielders and attackers have been used as full-backs in the Premier League this season more than a few times as well: Fernandinho, a natural defensive midfielder, has played right-back for Manchester City, and Ashley Young, typically used as an attacking and creative winger for Manchester United, has played as both a left-back and a right-back this season.
I believe that there are two reasons for the increase in usage of midfielders and wingers as full-backs. The first reason is that there is currently a distinct lack of top-class full-backs. Philipp Lahm, Dani Carvajal, and Dani Alves are probably the best right-backs in the world at the moment, but after them, the level of quality drops rapidly to players such as Kyle Walker, Juanfran, Alessandro Florenzi, and Antonio Valencia. The story for top-class left-backs is much of the same with Marcelo, Jordi Alba, David Alaba, Alex Sandro, and Filipe Luis operating as the best left-backs in the world, while there is yet again a steep drop off to the second tier left-backs with players such as Djibril Sidibe, Azpilicueta, who has played in the center of defense for much of the season, Danny Rose, and Gaya. There is simply not an abundance of great full-backs in football at the moment. Even the best right and left-backs have some glaring issues: Marcelo and Jordi Alba are great attacking players, but often struggle with defensive positioning, while Philipp Lahm and Dani Alves are likely nearing the ends of their careers. More and more we are seeing some of the best clubs in the world utilizing sub-par full-backs amongst an otherwise impeccable squad: Barcelona use Sergi Roberto, a natural central midfielder, as a right-back, Manchester City use Gael Clichy, Bacary Sagna, Pablo Zabaleta, and Aleks Kolarov as full-backs, Liverpool rely upon James Milner at left-back, and Manchester United use Marcos Rojo and Daley Blind at left-back. More and more wingers and midfielders are being converted to full-back because of there is not an abundance of great or even good full-backs at the moment.
The second reason that Premier League wingers and midfielders are being forced to play at full-back is the reliance on attacking wing-backs in the modern game. Gone are the recent days of Gary Neville, where a strong-tackling, defensive full-back was all that a club could ask for in a full-back. Now, defensive instinct is almost a secondary trait in full-backs. How many full-backs for top European clubs focus primarily on their defensive duties? Very few. Managers that look to play a defensive style of play have even started to explore options outside of using full-backs, because of their natural attacking intent. For instance, Tony Pulis, the West Bromwich Albion manager who is known for his defensive approach, relies upon Craig Dawson, a central defender, at right-back because of his defensive abilities. Manchester United right-back Antonio Valencia has been hailed as one of the best full-backs in the Premier League this season solely because of his attacking and creative abilities; Antonio Valencia is typically forced to provide all of Manchester United’s creative width on the right side of the pitch, which means he is rarely in a defensive position. Pep Guardiola likes to have his full-backs tuck into the middle of the pitch at Manchester City, which means they almost play as central midfielders when in possession. Victor Moses and Marcos Alonso often provide all of Chelsea’s attacking width from their wing-back position. Given the reliance on full-backs to provide attacking width, put in good crosses, and be good with the ball at their feet, it is no surprise that wingers and midfielders, who have all of those abilities, are being readily deputized as full-backs.
When Jesus Navas appeared at right-back for Manchester City against Arsenal, many were surprised, but they shouldn’t have been. Navas is quick enough to get up and down the pitch, is willing to get up the pitch to put a cross into the box, and is able to play the ball out of dangerous spots on the pitch. Are his defensive abilities great? Absolutely not, but the same could be said of Marcelo, Valencia, and Jordi Alba. Defensive instincts and capabilities are not the priority for full-backs nowadays, and as a result, Jesus Navas certainly did not look out of place on the right side of Manchester City’s defense. In fact, Navas looked like he could have been playing as a right-back for years.