The physical demands of being an elite soccer player are extreme. The implementation of GPS technology in soccer means analysts and sports scientists are now able to calculate that the average professional player will run around 11 kilometres in a match, a seriously impressive figure that highlights the sport's stresses and strains. Fitness levels need to be top-notch wherever you play, but there are certain positions that require particularly strong stamina.
Alongside central midfield, full back is probably the position that involves the most running in the modern day. The role has changed a lot over the years, and the demands on full backs these days are higher than ever before. In this article, we'll be exploring exactly what those duties and responsibilities are, offering a brief guide to the fullback role before guiding you through a list of the 9 best fullbacks of all time.
Soccer formations typically consist of three main areas: defence, midfield, and attack. Fullbacks are part of the defensive line up, but they also tend to roam forward regularly. They are the wider defenders, operating largely on the flanks and dealing with the threats posed by wingers on the opposition team, as well as covering for center backs when needed.
However, fullbacks also have attacking responsibilities, too. These days, they're usually expected to push up and support midfielders and attackers, helping build possession and ignite counter-attacks. Fullbacks should be able to swing crosses into the penalty area and play through-balls to onrushing forwards, as well as make dangerous wide runs themselves, seeking space in the opposition final third.
Broadly speaking, fullbacks can be divided into two main camps: left-backs and right-backs. These names equate to which side of the defensive back line the full-back operates on; however, the term 'full-back' can also encompass wing-backs. Wing-backs are a variation of the role in which the focus is more on attacking and less on defending. To play in wing-back, you need to be super competent going forwards, because the extra central defender positioned behind you means that you will have less defensive responsibility and more onus on crosses, through-balls, midfield link-ups and runs in the final third.
Fullback is one of the most multi-faceted roles on the pitch. There are various skills that any decent left or right back needs to have; check out our guide to the most crucial capabilities.
All the basic defensive attributes need to be covered; tackling, intercepting, jockeying, marking, tracking opposition runs, and clearing the ball away from danger when necessary. These core defensive skills used to be all that was required of many full-backs, but the role has shifted and there are now various other things right-backs and left-backs are asked to do.
In order to play effectively within different shapes and systems — for example, 4-3-3, 4-5-1, or 4-4-2, to name a few — full-backs need to have a strong tactical understanding of the game, knowing how they should interact with midfielders, forwards, and fellow defenders in different situations, and how coaches want them to counteract the threats posed by the opposition. Full-backs need to be able to cover for center backs when they push forward, tuck into more central areas when the ball is on the other side of the field, or shift up to close down the ball in certain wide positions. Tactical intelligence is crucial here, especially in the modern era.
Physical attributes are also crucial for fullbacks; this is one of the most active, dynamic positions on the pitch. In order to deal with super quick wingers (think of the likes of Jeremy Doku, Alphonso Davies, or Bukayo Saka) full-backs need to have speed and acceleration, and they should also possess positional intelligence that allows them to stay goalside of their opponents.
It can be hard work getting up and down the wing throughout a match, as a game ebbs and flows, and involvement in both attack and defence is required. Fullbacks need to have excellent fitness levels, as they'll regularly be asked to run over 10km in a match, and they'll be seriously found out if they can't track opponents while also contributing positively to their own team.
While getting forward into attack is an important element of the full-back role in soccer, it's also essential that full-backs play with discipline and caution, otherwise big gaps will be left in behind for opponents to exploit. They need to know when to press and when to stay put, and they should be able to confident issuing defensive instructions to the wide midfielders ahead of them, while also keeping an eye on the rest of the backline and ensuring that they remain in position and offer cover when necessary.
Some phenomenal players have graced the wide defensive position over the years, on both the left and right hand side. Here are some of the very best.
Cafu is arguably the most iconic defender in the history of Brazilian football. He was a strong, speedy attack-minded right-back, and a confident defensive performer, who emerged at Sao Paulo before flying to Europe and having a huge impact on the Italian game with Roma and AC Milan. Cafu reached three World Cup finals with his country, winning two of them (1994 and 2002), and he was also triumphant in the Champions League, the Copa Libertadores, Serie A, and the Club World Cup.
A flying left back with wonderful technique and a long-distance rocket shot up his sleeve, Roberto Carlos followed in Cafu's footsteps, becoming a mainstay in the Brazil side in the 1990s before joining Real Madrid in 1996 and leaving an indelible mark on the European game. He's been described in the past as "the most offensive-minded left-back in the history of the game", and his 117 career goals — which helped him win multiple La Liga and Champions League titles, as well as the 2002 World Cup — are a testament to that.
The tactical intelligence, technical proficiency and leadership qualities of Paolo Maldini mean that he's widely regarded as one of the greatest defenders in the history of the game. He was a one club man who had a remarkably lengthy and successful spell with AC Milan stretching from his debut in 1984 to his final match in 2009, and along the way Maldini picked up a staggering five European Cups and seven Serie A titles, cementing his place in Rossoneri folklore.
Zanetti is another Serie A legend, a mainstay in the Internazionale starting XI throughout the 1990s, 2000s and 2010s, although he first made a name for himself within the football world at Buenos Aires clubs Telleres and Banfield in his native Argentina. The La Albiceleste legend — who could also play in midfield, when he wasn't busy dominating opponents with his excellent tackling, dribbling, and passing at full-back — won 145 caps for his country, playing at two World Cups, and he also holds the honour of making more Champions League games than any other player in the competition's history.
A versatile defender capable of playing pretty much anywhere across the back line, Frenchman Lillian Thuram was often at his best in the right-back position. Thuram was extremely good at moving up and down the pitch with speed and power, and his technical ability allowed him to be a standout player in teams such as Monaco, Parma and Juventus.
Bayern Munich is a club that has produced some incredible defenders over the years, and Philipp Lahm is amongst the best. The versatile right-back (whose ability on the ball, tactical nous and positional intelligence enabled him to excel in central midfield when Pep Guardiola took over as Bayern boss) was a phenomenal leader and captain, winning eight Bundesliga trophies with his club, as well as the 2014 World Cup, when he was skipper for his national team Germany.
Arguably the greatest left-back England has ever produced, Ashley Cole was part of the group of players dubbed the Three Lions' "golden generation" in the 2000s; and while he ultimately never achieved much with his national side, Cole was extremely decorated at domestic level, winning a record seven FA Cups with Arsenal and Chelsea, three Premier League titles, a Champions League and a Europa League trophy with the west London side.
More of a wing-back than a traditional full-back, Nilton Santos was an extremely attack-minded Brazilian icon who was converted from a forward into a slightly less advanced left-sided player. He won two World Cups with Brazil in 1958 and 1962, playing a crucial role in a team led by Pele — who at a 2004 FIFA ceremony named Santos as one of the top 125 living footballers. To this day, Santos is widely regarded as one of the best defenders in the history of football.
Another iconic Brazilian fullback, Carlos Alberto's peak period with his national team came a little later than Santos. Stellar performances for Fluminese, Santos and New York Cosmos made him a key figure within the Brazil team throughout the 1960s and 1970s, that spell defined by the side's legendary 1970 World Cup win. Alberto tended to play on the right-hand side, his ability on the ball, tactical intelligence and strong defensive skills earning him a reputation as one of the game's best ever fullbacks. Alberto's inclusion on this list could be seen to rubber stamp the idea that one country stands out for its development of incredible full backs — Brazil.
If you'd like to find out more about what makes a great fullback, check out our guide to the role of the fullback in soccer.