Maybe it’s time to welcome back the old wing, in a modern guise

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One of the easiest and most misleading pieces of received football wisdom is that everything is cyclical. Wait long enough, the great drum of history will turn again and the same ideas will return, whether it be sharp side partings, the back three, Howard Webb apologizing to Brighton or Roy Hodgson managing Crystal Palace. Only time is not a flat circle. Each iteration is different because it comes with knowledge of what has gone before.

Watch Manchester City’s ball possession. They have a center forward and two wide men. They have Kevin De Bruyne and Bernardo Silva or Ilkay Gündogan as “free 8s”, essentially old-fashioned forwards. They like to have five full backs behind the ball, which usually form a trapezoidal shape: a line of three defenders and two deep midfielders. Show it to Herbert Chapman and, although he might think City could be a little more direct, he’d understand what he was seeing. This is essentially a WM.

But this is not Pep Guardiola simply appropriating a formation from nearly a century ago. A lot has happened since then, not least the advent of zonal marking, so the game is no longer the individual battle series it was in Chapman’s day. Indeed, it’s entirely likely that Guardiola is yet to form strong opinions about Arsenal’s 1930-31 title winners (although you suspect that in the key dispute at the time he would have gone against Chapman and favored the ball-playing qualities of Jack Butler center -half over the gangling stopper Herbie Roberts). Rather it is that the trapezoidal shape has proven over time to be extremely effective in preventing counterattacks.

Related: Is De Zerbi changing football tactics with possession on the tightrope at Brighton? | Jonathan Liew

That’s why the 3-4-2-1 formation had its brief vogue, particularly when Chelsea won the league under Antonio Conte in 2016-17. But the problem with that form, as successively seen at Chelsea and Tottenham, is that while it may be solid, it relies heavily on the full-backs to provide width and the individual inspiration of the two makers playing against the striker. It can become predictable.

If you want to be flexible, then, how do you create that three-two anti-trapeze counter? Often teams playing back fours would allow both full-backs to come forward, with a supporting midfielder slotting in between the centre-backs to create the back-three. Or one full-back would go ahead with the other tucked in next to the two central defenders.

That’s how it worked for Guardiola at Barcelona, ​​when Dani Alves routinely charged forward backing up David Villa on the wing, with Sergio Busquets slipping between centre-backs or Eric Abidal trailing behind. At Bayern however, blessed with a tactically adept player in Philipp Lahm, Guardiola began to experiment with one of the full-backs advancing into a deep midfield role, rather than providing attacking width.

Philip Lahm

At Bayern Munich, full-back Philipp Lahm was so technical that Pep Guardiola was able to experiment by sending him into a deep midfield role, rather than providing attacking width. Photography: Kerstin Joensson/AP

At City, Guardiola has sometimes had two attacking full-backs overlapping – Bacary Sagna or Jesús Navas and Gaël Clichy or Aleksandar Kolarov in his first season, for example – but he has also tried the Lahm protocol, occasionally with Fabian Delph, most successfully with João Cancelo, implausibly with Bernardo Silva, and more recently with John Stones – even though, in Tuesday’s win against Bayern Munich, Stones was coming forward from a central position, with Manuel Akanji and Nathan Aké almost the orthodox of the old school full backs; it may be that Aké’s solidity is one of the factors in Jack Grealish’s form moment, who no longer has Cancelo inside him, affecting the space that he naturally would like to attack.

For three decades full-backs have been at the forefront of tactical development. As they have become more and more attacking, the wingers have increasingly reduced the infield, which in turn has made possible the rise of the false 9. Guardiola, so far, is unusual in his use of the full-back as a supportive midfielder, but and it may be that this is the next logical step in the full-back’s overall development.

There is, perhaps, a gradual twist against the fashionable notion that full-back is essentially an attacking position. For full-backs to perform as well as, for example, Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson for Liverpool, the press needs to be nearly perfect. Otherwise, as in 2020-21 and also this season, the opponents can exploit the space behind the full-back. When Mauricio Pochettino was at Tottenham, he effectively had four full-backs on rotation due to the physical strain on them covering the length of the pitch; having them mix in midfield at least part of the time can be a way to ease the tension.

There has long been discussion of whether Alexander-Arnold would have been better deployed as a midfielder rather than as a right-back, initially on the somewhat false basis that he would have involved him more in the game (a line of thought which seems to underestimate just how important the full-back position in modern football), and more recently because, while Liverpool’s press has faltered, Alexander-Arnold’s defensive shortcomings have come into the open.

How plausible the idea of ​​Alexander-Arnold as a full-back/wing-half hybrid is remains debatable. As tempting as the prospect of him dictating play from deep inside might be, if anything it would place more demands on the defensive side of his game, while reducing his crossing opportunities and limiting his interactions with Mohamed Salah, which were such a key part of the Liverpool plays last season, its overlays encourage Salah’s darts on the pitch.

But then, if Liverpool’s press improves again, those defensive problems could lessen and it’s almost possible to imagine a future where Alexander-Arnold could be both an overlapped full-back and a full-back/wing-half. Given that Jordan Henderson will turn 33 in June, it may be too late, but the Liverpool captain, an excellent crosser of the ball, would seem to have the ideal game to get stuck with an Alexander-Arnold who sometimes bombs and sometimes puts In.

The question, however, goes beyond the specific. Over the past 60 years, full-backs have become increasingly offensive, to the point where almost every full-back is effectively a wing-back. The question was always what would happen next: how would the full-backs evolve when there was no more way to attack. This, perhaps, is the answer: helping to recreate a shape in possession that is almost a century old. The spiral of history turns again.

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