In many ways, football’s incredible history has been at least partially shaped by tactical trends and innovations.

From Hungary’s iconic 3–2–3–2 formation and deployment of a deep-lying forward in the 1950s to the emergence of the iconic 4-4-2 shape midway through the 20th century, some of these innovations have changed football forever and helped create the game that we all know and love today.

One of the latest technical trends is the use of so-called “inverted” fullbacks. These players operate as standard fullbacks during defensive phases of the game, while they move into more central positions when their side is attacking.

But what is the history of this tactic, and should it be described as a fad or the latest innovation to shake up the beautiful game? Let’s get into it!

The Origins of the Inverted Fullback – And its Evolution

To many, the notion of playing with inverted fullbacks is relatively new. However, full backs were initially the deepest and narrowest players in the classic 2-3-5 formation, and they were only pushed wider as the concept of playing with a back four became increasingly popular.

Current Manchester City manager is thought to be the Godfather of playing with inverted fullbacks in the modern age, but his mentor and former Barcelona coach Johan Cruyff utilised this tactic many years before.

His ‘Dream Team’ of the late 1980s and early 90s would often deploy a 4-3-3 shape, with one of the full backs (or in some instances, centre back Ronald Koeman) subsequently stepping into midfield during periods of possession to create a fluid 3-4-3 diamond formation.

Guardiola’s approach is similar, with current players such as John Stones and Manuel Akanji regularly stepping into midfield when City have possession of the ball. The goal here is also the same: to create central overloads and enable attacking midfielders like Kevin De Bruyne and Bernardo Silva to operate higher up the park.

We’ve seen further evolutions in recent times too. For example, Ange Postecoglou often inverts both fullbacks at Tottenham Hotspur, with Pedro Porro and the powerful Destiny Udogie regularly driving infield and creating underlaps during attacking phases.

This enables Spurs to keep their front three high and wide while also dominating possession centrally, although it arguably leaves them a little more vulnerable during defensive transitions.

The Duties of an Inverted Fullback

As we’ve touched on, the inverted full back will step into central midfield during attacking phases to help create a positional overload here. Typically, they’ll have to be able to play alongside a single midfield pivot and be technically adept, while being willing to receive the ball in tight and confined spaces.

Initially, they’ll have to open up forward passing lanes for the remaining defenders, showcasing excellent spatial awareness to take up effective positions. In the case of John Stones at City and Trent Alexander-Arnold at Liverpool, inverted fullbacks are also allowed to venture into the final third, often running beyond the forward line and connecting the midfield and attack.

João Cancelo also did this with distinction when at Manchester City, with the left back afforded a free role at times as he stepped infield and roamed forward from an ostensibly defensive position.

But what happens when a team that utilises inverted fullbacks is out of possession? Well, much depends on how aggressively the side in question looks to counterpress, as an inverted full back may stay central and relatively high for a fixed period of time while their teammates look to recover the ball.

However, if their pressing triggers are unsuccessful and the team is unable to recover possession, the inverted full back will have to quickly drop back into their wide defensive position. This may be to deal with a quick switch of their play towards their side of the pitch or tuck in and provide cover as a counterattack develops on the opposite flank.

Of course, accurate switches of play and counter attacking through wide areas can be effective when playing against teams with inverted fullbacks, which is why players who perform this role must be positionally aware, quick across the ground and boast exceptional levels of stamina.

So, is the Inverted Full Back Here to Stay?

To some degree, playing with an inverted fullback (or two) has become a tactical fad, with most Premier League and elite level sides deploying this tactic.

However, to utilise it successfully, teams must use players with the requisite skillset or profile, otherwise they may struggle to either maximise any central overloads that they create and get caught out in transition.

However, this tactic is also older and more established than many give it credit for, having first been pioneered by Johan Cruyff during the late 80s and early 90s. It has since been popularised by Pep Guardiola, and further evolved by managers such as Ange Postecoglou and Jurgen Klopp.

Given that teams are also playing in increasingly compact blocks in which the creation of central overloads is key, there’s no doubt that the tactic of using inverted fullbacks is one that’s here to stay!

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