PETER CROUCH: Full backs have become sexy! They used to be figures of fun, but now Reece James has everything, Trent Alexander-Arnold runs games – and Joao Cancelo oozes style
- Stars like Trent Alexander-Arnold have revolutionised the full-back position
- Kids dream of being the next Trent, Andy Robertson, Joao Cancelo, Reece James
- Christian Eriksen’s return to football with Brentford this week was heartwarming
- And Steven Gerrard looks to be getting the best out of Philippe Coutinho at Villa
Nobody wanted to be given the No 2 shirt growing up, did they? It was effectively a slight on your ability, only one up from being stuck in goal.
And let me tell you, attitudes towards full backs were not much more improved once I made it into professional dressing rooms.
They had one job: keep your winger quiet. Do not get roasted by that winger. That was pretty much it. Someone steady, unassuming. The role was to receive possession from the centre half, and they only had a couple of passes to hit.
Players like Liverpool’s Trent Alexander-Arnold (left) have revolutionised the full-back position
One down the channel or the little ball inside to a more creative midfielder. No room for flamboyance thanks, leave that to those of us at the other end of the pitch.
But here we are, in an age where kids dream of becoming Trent Alexander-Arnold. Or Joao Cancelo. Or Reece James. Or Andrew Robertson. The defenders who can run games with panache, a style rarely seen before, and children want to emulate them.
Those four have produced some of the most enjoyable performances I’ve seen this season, with special mentions to Ben Chilwell in between his injuries and Kieran Tierney.
All of them are magnificent — and there are plenty of others — but Alexander-Arnold is the obvious place to start. The assist for Sadio Mane’s winner against West Ham, a cross-shot into a dangerous area, was his 11th of the Premier League season.
He now has 16 in all competitions, beating his previous best. The Premier League record is 20 in a season, held by Thierry Henry and Kevin De Bruyne and, with 11 games remaining, you would not bet against Alexander-Arnold coming close to that.
He should certainly break the record of 13 for a defender, set by the man himself two years ago. Really, he should have equalled that with a couple more on Saturday had Mo Salah and Luis Diaz finished off decent chances.
Hours before, there was Chelsea’s James at Burnley. A real pleasure to witness. There is so much ability within him, strong defensively with such finesse in possession and a beautiful timing of a pass.
He has everything — and a proper goal threat as well, scoring one and setting up another at Turf Moor. I can almost hear some of you tutting that James is actually a wing-back for Thomas Tuchel. The point still stands. Please do not write in.
I’ve seen Alexander-Arnold just run games, particularly in the Champions League, and James has those capabilities: a man of the match dictating a game, which was effectively unheard of going back a few years.
Cancelo is having the same impact at Manchester City, albeit in a different way off the left. Pep Guardiola’s wingers often stay wider, allowing Cancelo to occupy little central spaces when motoring through midfield.
Chelsea wing-back Reece James (above left) is another who is helping to make defending sexy
In a lot of teams the only width is from their full backs. They have to be fitter than ever but also own the composure of an attacker. This is where the majority of creativity comes from — and creativity is what we all go to watch.
Quite a lot of that is down to inverted wingers. This had long been rampant across the division by the time I retired and, to be honest, not something I particularly relished.
I found I was forever going in and trying to find rebounds. That would get my back up. I’m glad I lived in an age of actual wingers, rather than wing forwards who want to score 30 goals a season.
What it does do, however — and this is clear at Liverpool in particular — is allow the No 2 and No 3 to flourish. Teams will double or triple up on Mane and Salah — two guys who are so unbelievably dangerous cutting in — and here we go, there is loads of space for the full backs.
Similarly, Manchester City’s Joao Cancelo is a real creative outlet for Pep Guardiola’s side
All that grass, go and play. Robertson is only a couple of assists behind Alexander-Arnold, by the way. The onus is on them to provide that spark.
Fifteen years ago, I was telling full backs to never turn down a cross – I’d feel cheated out of an opportunity to score if they did – but it was perhaps seen as a bonus if they ever recorded an assist. Now it’s expected. That is the key difference. You have more space than ever, these players have such vision and wicked deliveries.
I’m not saying we have never seen attacking full backs before — although for many of them there was a stigma that they simply could not defend. True for some, less so for others. Ashley Cole was a true exponent of overlapping, while Gary Neville enjoyed success with David Beckham as well.
A few others from the past could have done this — Steve Finnan, Graeme Le Saux, Glen Johnson — if given the chance. You would class them as more solid, whipping the odd cross in, rather than dictating games but they had that ability. The role just wasn’t what it is these days. It’s trendy.
I’d give classy Eriksen a cuddle too
It’s been fantastic to see Christian Eriksen back on a pitch over the last couple of weeks. I grew up close to Brentford and they have never seen a player of Eriksen’s calibre. It’s just on another level. A class act and he will prove a steal for Brentford — he’s worth it for the delightful set-piece delivery alone.
Brandon Williams’ cuddle with Christian Eriksen this weekend was a heartwarming moment
And what a nice moment with Norwich City’s Brandon Williams over the weekend. If you’ve not seen it, fire up Google. The tenacious defender looked so angry at Eriksen’s persistent shirt pulling, only realising who the opponent was when he had him on the floor!
A lovely cuddle afterwards — we need a bit more of that at the moment. If you’re feeling a bit angry, take a step back and give someone a squeeze.
Gerrard’s confidence trick lifts magician Coutinho
Philippe Coutinho thrives off confidence and these top, technical players just want to be loved. Aston Villa, with their manager, is perfect for him. Villa fans already love him.
Steven Gerrard obviously does — he had a front-row seat when Coutinho was at his peak at Liverpool. As soon as Coutinho walked through those dressing-room doors – Gerrard there waiting, ready to give him licence – then those memories would have started flooding back.
Steven Gerrard (l) is getting the best from Philippe Coutinho (r) by showing confidence in him
He can start enjoying football again and watching him do that is a sight to behold. Danny Ings and Ollie Watkins are benefiting from someone who has eyes in the back of his head.
Coutinho might have scored three or four against Southampton — and certainly should have left with more than one goal. Miss a few chances at Barcelona and he probably gets vilified.
If he’s going through a tough time and fearful of trying stuff, it takes so much away from his game. At Villa, because they appreciate him so much, he will go and flourish on the back of continued support.
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