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Understanding Rodgers’ 4-3-3: Full backs

In Rodgers’ 4-3-3, movement plays a substantial part. Every player in the squad is required to play as a unit. Individual roles are not restricted. Every player should be able to defend in a phase where the team is under attack, and everyone should be able to attack when the team is participating in an attacking phase. A full back epitomises those three duties i.e. the movement, competence to defend and attack as the scenario requires.

As is the case with full-backs in football, work rate plays a vital part. The ability to run down the flanks and provide support out wide, while still being able to track back to assist the central defenders is how full backs have been set out to play for years. The basic role has not evolved much. The intensity of their attack, in the sense, their extent of participation in an attacking phase has increased further. The best full-backs in the world are able to significantly provide reinforcements in attack when the midfield has a lack of options. They however should equally be able to stop opposition attacks. If we were to take a traditional view, we’d say full-backs are not as defensive as the centre backs.  But as explained in the last part of this series, that role has been evolving with the central defenders having the competence to shift into a more deep lying role closer to the midfield. But in a general sense, yes the full-backs as a result of their attacking duties, are not quite as defensive as the two men at the centre of the defence.

That is how one can comprehend the basic full back approach. Managers have innovated this role to suit their overall system, but the above explained approach sets the fundamental base. This is established as the main template which can be revamped further. In Rodgers’ system full backs play a crucial part in the transition from defence to attack.

In the defensive phase, the full backs are required to primarily occupy and take control of the wider areas. Teams constantly utilize the space along the flanks. Its the duty of a full back to restrict this avenue of attack. Managers have also been getting smarter now. Many are beginning to deploy wingers in a less conventional manner. As we saw with Kenny last season, wingers are played in a position that traditionally doesn’t favour their stronger foot. Wingers are required to cut inside. Indeed Rodgers too has used this method as discussed in the forthcoming articles. But this method when used well can prove to be a nuisance to full backs. With wider players becoming more and more ‘dual-footed’, the traditional method of showing the winger onto their weaker foot doesn’t do much in preventing an attack. They tend to find a mode to get past the defence.

To ensure that they are able to maintain a solid defence and assist their more central teammates, full backs have to try their best to prevent the attack at the earliest stage. Largely the midfield fashions out chances, and full backs rarely play directly against strikers. The full backs will therefore need to obstruct attacks in midfield. They follow the same basic policy followed by the centre backs, the pressing game. But with the full backs the pressing game is far more restricted. As explained earlier, when a centre back moves forward  to apply pressure on the opposition, his central defensive partner covers the area left vacant. The full backs however control their entire respective sides. They don’t have the security of a teammate backing them up. There will be occasions where a central defender is able to cover the wide area, but such moves are risky and hence rare. The full backs need to be smart as to when they put pressure on the opposition. The basic requirement of a successful full back other than his work rate would be his ability to read the game. He would need to be smart, intelligent and cautious in his play. When under attack, full backs would be better suited to defend deep while constantly marking their man i.e. the wide attacker.

This form of 4-3-3 allows the existence of a deep lying playmaker from the central defence, i.e. the centre back moving forward with the ball and providing a creative edge from the back. This player always risks losing possession of the ball. This scenario again would require cover. The other defender provides cover in the centre, but the flanks remain prone to attack. The full backs in such a scenario would again need to take this position.

If the full backs move forward too soon, and the centre back loses possession, it would leave the flanks exposed.

In another scenario, that is a fairly cautious approach as opposed to an ambitious attacking one. When an attack occurs we know that the defenders try and move forward as well, while another covers the deeper areas. The full backs also will join in the attack. Their attacking influence will be explained later in this article. But a cautious method of attacking would be to restrict both full backs attacking down the flanks at the same time. This would mean that for example, the left sided full back runs down the channel to provide support, while his right sided counterpart remains back to prevent a counter.

In most formations a full back would improve the attack but their absence from it wouldn’t necessarily weaken it to a great extent. In the 4-3-3 however they play a far more important role then say in a 4-4-2. This is because in a 4-3-3 the midfield and for large parts the attack are fairly narrow. The midfield especially occupy a more central role with no role in the wider areas. This is where the full backs would be crucial in attack. With the attack primarily flowing in from the centre of the pitch, the opposition defensive strategy would be to counter this central attack. With the defence occupied in that field, it would leave the flanks fairly free to be exploited. Now this would obviously open up various scenarios. They could put crosses into the box. Depending on how quick and confident the opposition are in their response, another option arises. One maybe two defenders might go to cover the wide full back with the ball, hence leaving their duties in the centre, freeing up space for the midfield trio to receive the ball, especially the two box-to-box midfielders. Many midfielders (like Gerrard) make late runs into the box which are hard to pick up for the opposition defence. These full backs provide the possibility of this scheme. So essentially, full backs in this 4-3-3 play the role of wingers/wide midfielders as well providing the options out wide.

With emphasis on attacking from the centre. The wide areas remain barren, allowing full backs to make runs down the channel.

The point about work rate has been touched upon. This is in reference to their ability to not only get forward, but also track back in time. This particular situation is where many teams, and in particular their defences have a problem. Failure to track back in time. This makes teams vulnerable to a counter attack. There will be situations where the opposition regain possession, with either or both full backs forward, there won’t be cover on the flanks. Teams can thrive on this gap.

The full backs movement forward in attack leaves the team exposed at the back. It makes the team susceptible to a counter attack. Especially if the full back that moves forward with the ball,  loses possession of it, the whole side he covered would be completely open. Fields of green to exploit. A quick counter attack and a pacey winger could catch the team out.

Another positive aspect of full backs moving forward is that the further they go down the flanks, the more central the attackers become. Allowing numbers in the box. Liverpool especially last season faced situations where there were not many players in and around the box.

Liverpool already possess an established full back pairing. Enrique’s strength has contributed greatly to his defensive play. While his movement forward in attack has been positive. However one can argue that he lacks the basic intelligence and has often been guilty of not reading the game well. There have been situations where he has been caught out of position. And also not been able to get back in time making the team vulnerable in defence. Glen Johnson who has held down the right back position has improved a lot over the last few seasons. His attacking play has always been commendable. But something that he has largely been criticised for is his lack of defensive competency. Over the last few seasons that has improved as well. He has become far more intelligent in his play. Earlier he would move forward and primarily play as a winger, with many fans calling for him to be shifted into that position. But he matured and was cautious in his forward movement. His marking ability further developed as well. A lot of Glen Johnson’s development in defence could be down to Steve Clarke’s work. Martin Kelly is the next best full back Liverpool have. Strength at the back and awareness that comes from his experience as a centre back. While also being fairly confident going forward. It will be good to see how Rodgers’ is able to fit Kelly in and explain his system. John Flanagan and Jack Robinson, both of whom like Kelly came through the academy provide further cover for the full backs. With a good mentor, and the experience they could turn out to be quality players. The potential is there.

Work rate, stamina, intelligence, ability to read the game are all factors that a full back should possess. A basic ability to both attack and defend competently. With the attacking style being employed, full backs in this approach would also play the role of wingers. Providing a different dimension in attack. But a primary ability to defend and being smart in doing so is still vital.

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Sami Faizullah

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