Wall Street Football

A new generation of full-backs

Among the most important areas that will decide Sunday’s match between the two teams at the top of the Premier League, Manchester City and Liverpool, there will certainly be the side lanes.

Either for the offensive and fast-paced game proposed by Jürgen Klopp, which is based on the ability of his wings players to split and break the game, or for the enveloping game of Pep Guardiola, which requires that every player is able to move from his position to every area of the pitch.

Two of the most important players in the two clubs are undoubtedly Trent Alexander-Arnold (TAA) and João Cancelo.

In a different way each of them has reinterpreted and modified the role of full-back to give new characteristics and solutions to his own team. 

The set of skills of these two players has been able to change the perception of a role that has certainly been transformed over the years, as has the team’s way of playing. Hence, they still remained very similar in terms of certain characteristics: running, defending and the ability to cross. 

“No one wants to grow up to be a Gary Neville”.

This is the statement made by former Liverpool player Jamie Carragher on Tv joking with the full-back ex-captain and legend of Manchester United Gary Neville.

This sentence expresses the difficulty of playing a role with little glory but a lot of sacrifice.

The main thing the two players have in common is their technique, which is above average compared to the usual interpreters of the role.

Trent Alexander-Arnold was born in Liverpool on 7 October 1998. 

Despite his young age, he has already won everything with the Liverpool club thanks to the trust of his coach, who made his debut at the age of 18 and saw great potential in that young player.

Like any child raised in those years in Merseyside and Reds fans, he grew up in the myth of captain Steven Gerrard: indeed one of his first roles in the Liverpool academy was as a midfielder.

This is a crucial point in his growth because having played such an important role has allowed him to develop a better understanding and ability to read all the different phases of the game.

Another key characteristic that convinced the German coach to trust him is also his strong personality: he made his debut in the 2016/2017 season and in the first game he played 90 minutes was away against historic rivals Manchester United, demonstrating the confidence to play in important stages.

Since his debut until now he has made 44 assists in the Premier League and 11 in Champions League: incredible figures for a defender at this age!

In the current season he is the top assist man in the league with 11 assists, immediately followed by his teammates Salah and Robertson.

He and Robertson are two key weapons in Liverpool’s game: they both have a great running ability that allows them to easily accompany the offensive action and immediately return to defence if necessary. 

TAA performance – Season 2021/2022

The great quality added by Alexander-Arnold is to easily find with precise launches and also, coming to play into the field, the striker’s cuts and creating chances for goal. Just as in the last Champions League match against Benfica, his pass allowed him to cut the pitch and put the ball over Luis Díaz’s head to make the assist for 2-0.

TAA is one of the core players in the game so he touches a lot of balls and is subject to many possible mistakes, although he has an average WSF Performance Index of 6.8, so he is consistently very good at his performances.

The main data are the quantity of his completed passes (1,324) with an average per game of almost 51, in which there are also around 8 crosses per game. His passing skills are completed by an accuracy of 78% and a huge amount of key passes (66 till now). His facility to kick, for which he has even been compared to David Beckham, also allows him to shoot free kicks and corners with extreme precision. Thus, his ability to reinvent the role therefore consists of being an added playmaker for his team.

In fact, just like him but with different characteristics, João Cancelo is fundamental to Guardiola’s game. Even in Spalletti’s Inter days he could be considered an additional playmaker for his style of playing, but in Manchester he has perfected and (if possible) improved the role.

Growing up in the youth academy of Benfica, one of the best academies in Europe, he immediately showed great quality and dribbling ability, typical of Portuguese wing players.

After touring Valencia, Inter and Juventus, he arrived at Guardiola’s City where the adaptation was initially not easy. The difficulty in integrating comes from the misunderstanding between his way of playing and the demands of the coach: he was used to carrying the ball much more and if necessary inventing with his skills, while the Spanish coach has always required his players a few touches and many passes to dominate the game. 

The coach’s talent has been to combine his thinking with the player’s desire to be more in the middle of the game and touch the ball more, by creating a new role for him: the false full-back

When City is in possession of the ball and under pressure, Cancelo has the license to come into the middle of the pitch and abandon his position to find open spaces to receive and play the ball, and find corridors for his teammates thanks also to his vision of the game.

A great example of this scheme was the Champions League qualifying round match against Bruges in which he gave 3 assists to his teammates.

On the other hand, if he is pressed close to the sideline, his ability to dribble still allows him to create numerical superiority. 

He has played as both right-back and left-back (his main role), where he can come into the field and make better usage of his strong right foot. 

The Portuguese player is a permanent presence in the line-up and has only missed two games, with an average of 92 minutes played per game.

Cancelo passes and completed passes – Season 2021/2022

In the current season he has an average WSF Performance Index of 6.4. The incredible data is his 86% pass accuracy that, looking at all the heat maps of his movements on the pitch, is not only in its half of the field but often in the opponent half. 

He gave 5 assists and completed 1,962 passes, that means 70 completed passes every 90 minutes, that is an absolutely impressive number!

In contrast to his English rival, he only makes 3 crosses per match, showing that his coach’s game is based on the ball on the ground. 

His movement more towards the center of the pitch makes him carry out 11 duels per game, about twice as many as TAA, winning on average almost 6. 

But not only that: between the two, Cancelo is the one who loses less balls, 18.5 vs 24.5, and intercepts an average of 1.7 compared to 1.4 of the Liverpool’s full-back.

Thus, in many different ways these two styles of playing and these special players are crucial for their teams: they are making children fall in love with a role that is not always highlighted in the right way!

by Giorgio Patania, Elisa Zanchetta

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