It seems that virtually every football side is playing with so-called “inverted fullbacks” in the modern game, with this representing one of the most significant tactical developments in recent times.

This also continues the ongoing evolution of the fullback, who were once the deepest players in the rudimentary 2-3-5 formation before they started to push wider as the four-man defence became commonplace.

But what’s the history of the inverted fullback, and what are the unique strengths and weaknesses of this tactic?

The Evolution of the Inverted Wingback

As we’ve touched on, fullbacks were once deployed centrally and as the last line of defence in a 2-3-5 shape, before shifting wider as the flat back four became popularised by Russian manager Viktor Maslov during the late 1950s and World Cup winner Sir Alf Ramsey in the 60s.

In more recent times, fullbacks have become increased advanced and attack-oriented, creating key offensive outlets when in possession of the ball. This trend has coincided with the increasingly compact nature of defensive blocks, with traditional fullbacks arguably the only players able to operate with space and time.

Over time, however, the compression of the defensive block has become even more pronounced, encouraging managers to push one or both fullbacks inside during the buildup phase. Like many modern-day tactics, this trend was popularised by Pep Guardiola, as he looked to create central overloads and maintain ball possession while fielding two advanced number eights in the half spaces.

Interestingly, it was Guardiola’s mentor and football pioneer Johan Cruyff who first pioneered the inverted fullback, as he transitioned between a traditional 4-3-3 and 3-4-3 diamond formation by asking one fullback to move into central midfield when in possession.

However, the trend has now taken off, with most EPL and major European sides deploying the tactic on a regular basis.

The Tactical Roles of an Inverted Fullback (In and Out of Possession)

In simple terms, an inverted fullback will add another body in the central midfield, usually creating an additional pivot. The goal here is to overload the opposition centrally and aid the offensive buildup, creating the need for technical ability and excellent spatial awareness.

In some cases, an inverted fullback may also have the freedom to roam higher up the park. This has definitely been the case with Trent Alexander-Arnold at Liverpool, who can leverage this role to deploy his vision and full range of creative passing. Joao Cancelo also played similarly at Manchester City, often appearing in the half spaces in the final third.

During transitions, inverted full backs will remain central for a finite period of time, depending on the team’s counter pressing triggers and tactics.

Once this time has elapsed, they’ll return to their original fullback role, restoring their side’s defensive shape and ensuring that any threat posed by an opposing winger or wide forward is nullified.

What are the Benefits and Pitfalls of the Inverted Fullback?

To understand the role further, we’re going to explore the precise benefits and drawbacks of playing with inverted fullbacks. Let’s start by looking at the advantages:

  • Overload the Central Areas: As defensive blocks become more compact, teams look to create a numerical advantage in the middle of the park. Deploying an inverted fullback effectively achieves this goal, without having to compromise on attacking threat or numbers.
  • Beat the Opponent’s Press: When one or both fullbacks step into midfield, you can create additional passing lanes and angles with which to beat an opponent’s press. It’s then possible to free up your attacking midfielders and advanced number eights much higher up the pitch.
  • Defend Better Against Counter Attacks: A similar principle applies in defensive transitions. As your opponents look to counter after a loss of possession, an inverted fullback will remain central and provide an additional defensive screen in front of the back four. This also aids counter pressing in central areas.

Execution is key when fielding one or more inverted fullbacks, especially when you consider the potential vulnerabilities associated with this tactic. These include:

  • The Importance of Tactical Awareness: Playing as an inverted fullback requires a specific skillset, including versatility, technical ability, pace and positional awareness. The latter two qualities are especially important in transition, as players will have to be able to switch between positions in a well-time and effective manner.
  • The Switch of Play: From a broader tactical perspective, teams can target both flanks in transition with quick and accurate switches of play. If your inverted fullback is slow to adjust their position in such instances, it will afford their opposing winger space and time to attack a weakened backline.
  • Minimise Passing Options: When executed badly, the use of an inverted fullback means that players may end up occupying the same crowded spaces as central pivots. This may actively reduce passing lanes and options, increasing the risk of turnovers in the defensive third.
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