Only three defenders have ever won the Ballon d’Or—football’s most coveted individual honour. Two of them are German: Franz Beckenbauer and Matthias Sammer, both excelling in the sweeper’s role. Then there’s Fabio Cannavaro, the roaring Italian centre-back. Forwards and midfielders have dominated this list—be it Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi or Zinedine Zidane. Even Lev Yashin, the great Russian goalkeeper, won it in 1963.
But the list highlights one of the many oddities that this sport throws up—the football world’s inability to appreciate the wing back and the fullback, players who charge down the flanks when their side is attacking, and then run back when the team is defending. They make and block crosses. They slide and dribble and they can shoot. Strikers will score but a team can’t win if its defence keeps leaking goals. A team’s success depends on the quality of their fullbacks—be it Nilton Santos and Djalma Santos for Brazil in their 1958 and 1962 World Cup wins, respectively, or Cafu and Roberto Carlos at the 2002 World Cup.
More recently, Marcelo and Dani Carvajal have been pivotal in helping Real Madrid renew their European dominance. At the peak of their powers, Barcelona had Dani Alves as their right-back, with the likes of Eric Abidal and Jordi Alba on the opposite side. It was in fact Alves’ ability down the right that allowed Lionel Messi to drift into a more central role and score countless goals. It is hardly surprising then that since Alves’ departure, Barcelona have struggled to plug that gap down the right.
This season though, things seem to be changing. European clubs have finally showed a willingness to splurge on wing backs. Manchester City of the Premier League, the club which spent the most this season in the transfer window, paid €138 million (around Rs1,065 crore) for three fullbacks—left back Benjamin Mendy (€57.5 million from Monaco), right back Kyle Walker (€51 million from Tottenham Hotspur), and a defender who can play on either side of the backline, Danilo (€30 million from Real Madrid). Spanish club Barcelona got Nelson Semedo from Benfica and Real got Theo Hernandez from Atlético Madrid—both costing their clubs €30 million each. English champions Chelsea swooped for Davide Zappacosta for €25 million and even Tottenham Hotspur spent €25 million to get Serge Aurier from Paris Saint-Germain.
But there is more to the wing backs than just the eye-popping fee they are attracting. There is a systematic change in football which is appreciating their attacking skills as coaches and managers adopt various formations utilizing three centre-backs. Pep Guardiola (Manchester City) and Antonio Conte (Chelsea) brought it from foreign shores to England where it’s been used with varying degrees of success. Teams in Germany (Hoffenheim and Borussia Dortmund), Italy (Lazio, Juventus, Fiorentina), Spain (Sevilla) and even France (Nice) have used this system graciously.
No wonder then that the wing backs’ stock has risen suddenly. Chelsea coach Conte was so desperate for another fullback that he was willing to pay €70 million for Juventus’ Alex Sandro—a bid which was rejected by the Italian club. Juventus’ pair of Alves and Sandro created 14 and scored 10 goals in a combined effort to take the Italians to the Champions League final last season. Out of the 24 assists from crosses in Real Madrid’s 2016-17 season, 14 came from wing backs. Spurs’ Walker (now at Manchester City) and Danny Rose created 10 goals and Monaco’s Djibril Sidibe and Mendy created 19 goals. Their potential has come to the fore with vital strikes this season—Chelsea’s Marcos Alonso scored a double against Spurs at Wembley in the second match of the Premier League. Alves scored against Bayern Munich in the Champions League and Bayern’s Joshua Kimmich has notched a staggering six assists in 11 appearances across all competitions. Barcelona’s Alba has four assists in six La Liga matches. Wing backs are making a big attacking difference in Europe.
Forwards and attacking midfielders will continue to take the plaudits—because there’s nothing more glamorous in football than scoring goals. But it is worth remembering England legend Jack Charlton’s observation in 1994 that the fullback is a team’s most important attacking tool. Judging by how they’re finally getting their due, there is no better time in football to become a right- or left-sided defender.