Evra, Alves and Rose highlight rise of the full-backs as an attacking force
According to Patrice Evra: "Full-back is the most difficult position to play."
The former Monaco, Manchester United and Juventus left-back, now at Marseille, has seen the metamorphosis of his position through a long career.
"I've had teammates who've filled in at full-back and said: 'You must be mad to play in this position for all of these years, you have to do everything,'" he told ESPN FC.
"The best full-backs have always attacked, always pushed forward and overlapped. I don't think that has changed, but the full-backs for the best teams are more advanced than they have ever been."
A modern full-back must be a fleet-footed combination of defender and attacker, the balance now heavily tipped towards attacking. The entire flank is his territory, and frequently as the team's widest player, an outlet to catch out opposing defences by numerically overloading them.
Players who fulfil those demanding functions now come at high premiums. This season, as Barcelona looked for answers in a campaign that disappointed until their recent revival, the loss of right-back Dani Alves to Juventus has been lamented, such that Arsenal's Hector Bellerin is reported by Spanish media to be the club's prime target in this summer's transfer window. Should a deal be struck, then it can be expected to outstrip the £30 million that Manchester United paid Southampton for Luke Shaw in 2014.
Nigel Winterburn won three league titles (1988-89, 1990-91 and 1997-8) as Arsenal's left-back, part of a legendary defence alongside Tony Adams, Steve Bould, Martin Keown and Lee Dixon. "It's changed so radically," he told ESPN FC. "Nowadays, both full-backs are high and wide and very early with a holding midfielder to cover for their positions.
"A big part of the full-back's job was to tuck in as a third centre-back when the lad on the other flank, Lee in my case at Arsenal, would go forward. Managers would look for a full-back that could defend and if he needed work on passing and going forward, they would take a chance on being able to adapt them to do that."
"They shouldn't be even called full-backs," Steve Nicol, who played for Liverpool from 1981 to 1994, chiefly as a right-back, told ESPN FC. "They're attackers who help out defensively now and again. All the defensive basics we were taught have gone out the window. The first job was to defend, you only went forward when it was on."
Both Nicol and Winterburn were comfortable moving forward, with Nicol scoring six goals in Liverpool's first six matches of their 1987-88 title-winning campaign, but both continue to hold defending as sacrosanct priority above all else. Both former players admire Bayern Munich captain Philipp Lahm, set to retire this summer, but they struggle to name other full-backs of similar defensive capabilities, let alone anyone close to emulating a legend like AC Milan and Italy idol Paolo Maldini.
"Their awareness of danger, which is what I thought defenders are supposed to have, is limited, if I could put it politely," said Winterburn of the new breed.
Players who trained as wingers are now habitually converted into full-backs. Tottenham's Danny Rose and Barcelona's Jordi Alba are leading current examples. Evra was in the vanguard of that trend. He first played left-back for Monaco under manager Didier Deschamps, now his coach with France, having been an attacking midfielder with Modena and Nice and it was during Monaco's run to the 2004 Champions League final, lost 3-0 to FC Porto, that Evra attracted the attention of Sir Alex Ferguson.
"You have to defend first," Evra said. "That's your job. That should be the priority, but I didn't understand that until I went to Manchester. I was an ex-forward player and I didn't understand how to enjoy making a tackle or a shoulder to shoulder as a defender. I began to realise that first I should be a defender, but, second, the best type of defence is to attack."
Star performers like Evra and Ashley Cole, who succeeded Winterburn in the No.3 shirt at Arsenal, having himself converted from being a teenage winger, became forbears of the modern fashion of quick, attack-minded full-backs, capable of surging beyond the midfield clutter that European football's popular 4-2-3-1 and 4-3-3 formations cause.
"Ashley understood the position of being a full-back very quickly," said Winterburn. "And he became one of the world's top full-backs."
Rose is Cole's current successor as England's first-choice left-back, and his partnership with Kyle Walker at Tottenham on the opposite flank has been one of the key ingredients of the success of Mauricio Pochettino's team.
"They're hybrids," said Nicol. "They have that instinct to attack, and have the pace to get into the positions to be relatively effective defensively."
As Chelsea run away with this season's Premier League playing a 3-5-2 formation, wing-backs are becoming fashionable. Victor Moses, who played as a winger as recently as last season on loan at West Ham, has become a wing-back of distinction for Antonio Conte. He can charge forward with the security of three central defenders covering behind him.
The full-back who would defend first and attack with caution later may soon become an even more endangered species.
John Brewin is a staff writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JohnBrewinESPN.