Ever since the English Football Association formalised the Laws of the Game in 1863, eleven players on the pitch has been standard. But how those players are structured is something that has changed constantly over time, from the development of the W-M formation to the invention of the False 9 role occupied by players like Roberto Firmino or Cesc Fabregas.
One of the latest positional innovations in football has been the rise of the inverted fullback. The role of wider defensive players has been altered significantly in recent years, with old-school defensive-minded right backs like Gary Neville or Lee Dixon all but a thing of the past. Instead, full-backs are being asked to perform increasingly complex roles.
But what is an inverted fullback? In this article, that's the question we'll be diving into. We'll look at the main duties and responsibilities of a player in this position, and we'll explain the key traits and skills that are needed here. Finally, we'll guide you through some of the most high-profile examples of inverted full-backs in the world of football.
The term "full-back" encompasses two different types of soccer position: left-back and right-back. The role of the fullback in soccer is a complex one, and it has become even more wide-ranging following tactical changes that have taken place over the last couple of decades.
Traditionally speaking, the full back is primarily a defensive player, positioned out wide as part of a defensive back line. While central defenders will generally be more physically imposing, tasked with winning aerial battles and dominating the penalty area, full-backs will tend to be slightly smaller players, capable of marking opponents, blocking crosses, making tackles, and being comfortable in possession with the ultimate goal of progressing the ball up the pitch.
Full-backs usually need to have a good deal of speed to cope with pacey wide midfielders and attackers, and their fitness and stamina will often be extremely strong too. These traits are useful for inverted full backs as well; however, there are some skills that are even more vital in this inverted position, which we'll begin to run through in the next section of this article.
The inverted full-back player role was introduced as a way of adding an extra presence in the centre of the soccer field (with the confusion it causes amongst opposition markers being another key bonus).
Essentially, the position shifts the full-back into more central spaces, giving this player license to roam into midfield and vacate the wide defensive space traditionally associated with full-backs.
When converted into this more central position, inverted fullbacks will often play an important role in building up possession in midfield, before transitioning back into their wide defensive area. The purpose of this positional switch is effectively to overload the opposition in a key area of the pitch, creating a numerical advantage in the middle that can be used to sweep opposition defenders out of the game in transition.
The use of inverted fullbacks to benefit passing play is a good indication of where this position comes from: two iconic Barcelona coaches, Johan Cruyff and Pep Guardiola. While Guardiola is probably better known for using inverted fullbacks, it was a tactic that was actually adopted decades earlier by legendary Barca coach Cruyff, who according to The Guardian, "pioneered the use of full-backs in central roles, centre-halves with the technical ability to advance into midfield or the versatility to defend the wide areas." These aren't the only skills needed in this position, either; soon we'll run through the key traits of the inverted wide defender, after we take a look at the role's main duties and responsibilities in more detail.
We've already mentioned how inverted full-backs are expected to help overload the midfield and assist with build-up play, forming passing triangles with teammates in central areas. However, this role also has a number of out-of-possession responsibilities.
Firstly, when a player is in a central midfield area and possession is won by the opposition team, they will then be expected to jockey opponents, slow down attacks, and break up play with the ultimate intention of winning back possession for their side. In these zones, inverted full-backs can also contribute to central counter-pressing and cut out direct passes into opposition strikers.
Then, there will be the usual out-of-possession responsibilities of a full-back once the player has drifted back to their starting position. These include 1v1 defending, zonal marking of wide players, tackling, blocking crosses, and being available to receive the ball from other defenders or midfielders to launch attacks.
In order to tick off this wide range of tasks, a number of core skills are needed...
To play an effective role in the type of short passing game that will generally be employed when an inverted fullback shifts into midfield, they need to have both the vision and technical ability to keep possession in crowded areas of the pitch.
And to compliment this possession game, inverted full-backs also need to have clever movement, with the ability to create forward passing angles for defensive players, while also being available as a passing option to any midfielders too.
Positional awareness is at the forefront of the role, then; but a wide range of passing is also needed, as play won't only take place in the centre of the pitch. Inverted full-backs should be able to switch the play to the opposite flank when they're in their wide defensive zone, and they should also have the ability to play precise passes and through-balls into the final third.
Breaking the lines via forward runs and dribbles also adds another string to the bow of these players, who are typically extremely versatile and intelligent.
A number of high-profile players have underlined how beneficial it can be to shift highly technically proficient left or right backs into central midfield areas. Below are a few examples of top players who have made this role their own (most of whom are operating at the top of the global game at the time of writing).
Despite having been shipped out on loan to Bayern Munich last season following the rise of positional competitors like Nathan Ake and Rico Lewis, Joao Cancelo has had a major impact on the Premier League during his time with Pep Guardiola's Manchester City.
From his high assist rate and contribution to intricate midfield passing moves to his showcasing of the impressive trivela skill invented by fellow Portuguese Ricardo Quaresma, Cancelo has pioneered the modern inverted full back role and shown how effective it can be. In the process, he's won multiple Premier League titles and domestic trophies with Manchester City.
Liverpool's Trent Alexander-Arnold was more of a wide attacking right back when he first burst onto the scene, but the England international has developed into a more intelligent playmaker who tends to shift into central midfield areas from right back in a classic inverted fullback style. His performances over the last few seasons have consistently helped Liverpool dominate possession of the ball, with his classy assists and creative moments of magic contributing to a Premier League title win, a Champions League trophy, and a smattering of other domestic cups.
A player who operated as an inverted full-back before the role was even given its current name is Phillip Lahm, the Germany and Bayern Munich legend who dominated both the Bundesliga and the international stage for over a decade in the 2000s and 2010s. Under Pep Guardiola at Bayern Munich, Lahm would regularly move infield, his positional awareness and passing skills proving crucial in helping the German giants create overloads in this key area of the pitch. He ultimately retired in 2017, just as the inverted full-back position was about to become even more popular.
2022/23 may have ended in disappointment for Arsenal, but realistically no one expected the Gunners to be challenging for the title right up until the final weeks of the season. A key cog in the team who was crucial in helping them compete at the top of the table was Ukrainian international Oleksandr Zinchenko, whose inspired performances from left-back encapsulated what can be gained from inverting a full-back into a central midfield position. With Arsenal dominating possession, Zinchenko would regularly pop up infield, his passing range and tactical acumen playing a key role in Arteta's team's build-up play throughout the season.
Inverted fullbacks aren't the only tactical innovation that has made inroads within modern day football thanks to the outside-the-box thinking of Pep Guardiola. The three-time Champions League-winning Manchester City coach has had a profound impact on how the game is played, with his famous Barcelona, Bayern Munich, and Manchester City teams all helping to propel the worldwide popularity of possession-based football to an extent that would have been unimaginable even 15 years ago.
In England, you only have to glance down the football pyramid and watch teams in League One and League Two build each move out methodically from the back, patiently waiting to beat the opposition press and move up the field, to see Guardiola's broader influence. The days of so-called "kick and rush" are gone, with the vast majority of teams in Europe and further afield attempting to play a style of football that's built at least somewhat around possession.
Perhaps the most important factor in bringing about this cultural change is the relentlessness of Guardiola's success: in recent seasons, Pep's Manchester City team, featuring stars such as Kevin De Bruyne, Erling Haaland, and Ilkay Gundogan, has been almost unstoppable.
They've bagged three Premier League titles in a row, and now have a Champions League trophy in the cabinet to boot. If you want to learn about the work that's gone on behind the scenes in the past decade to get them to this point, you're in the right place: check out our article on the Etihad Campus (the Manchester City training ground) for a guide to one of England's most impressive footballing facilities.