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Marcelo, Dani Alves continue to redefine full-back role for Real, Juve

Maybe it's a coincidence. Maybe there is no deeper tactical significance. Maybe they aren't a dying breed but rather a one-off. Maybe they're just two hugely gifted Brazilian full-backs who interpret the game in their own unique way. The fact that, for many years, they were teammates with the Selecao and rivals on the pitch is just another wrinkle.

I honestly don't know. I just find Marcelo and Dani Alves hugely compelling. And the fact that within the space of 26 hours, each played a key role in helping Real Madrid and Juventus take a giant step towards the Champions League final, is as good an excuse as any to write about them and their role in the game.

The headlines went to the two outstanding natural goalscorers they play with -- Cristiano Ronaldo and Gonzalo Higuain -- and that's more than understandable. But the way they played underscores the fact that even though next month Marcelo turns 29 and Dani Alves 33, they represent a certain type of modern full-back, one that is frankly exceedingly rare.

For a start, let's get one thing clear. In 2017, full-back is not a defensive position. In most games regardless of the league, full-backs regularly rank in the top three or four in terms of touches on the ball. We may think in terms of 4-3-3 or 4-4-2 but the fact is when teams get the ball, the central defenders sit back, often with a holding midfielder, and one or both full-backs are way up the pitch, out on the wing.

For top teams, that 4-3-3 becomes a 2-3-5 (or 3-2-5, if the defensive midfielder slips between the central defenders) when in possession. And even on a more conservative team, where only one full-back attacks at a time and the defence shifts across, the 4-3-3 becomes a 3-3-4. If you don't notice this when you watch a game on TV, watch one in person. And if you can't, check out heat maps and average positions.

That part isn't new. It used to be pretty simple (and in recreational football, it still is). Your left-back was whatever left-footed defender you could find and while he didn't need to be particularly skillful, he needed to be left-footed because it's easier to defender balls from that flank when you're left-footed.

Your right-back was usually the either the third-best centre-back on your team, which meant he was unlikely to be particularly gifted on the ball, or would be a guy with the skill set of a central defender who happened to be a little short. Gary Neville was perhaps one of the last great right-backs in this mold: Sir Alex Ferguson famously said he would have been the perfect centre-back had he been a few inches taller. (It's not a knock on Neville, by the way -- he was an exceptional footballer and what he lacked in attacking technique, he more than made up for through intelligence and work ethic.)

Marcelo's role in Real Madrid can't be underestimated given his abundant energy and skill on the flank.

That began to change in the late 1950s and 1960s with the emergence of the first great attacking full-backs. And for the last 10-15 years, everybody's full-backs (at least on the better teams) have known how to attack and spend tons of time up the pitch. The difference is that the vast majority are basically adjunct old-school wingers. They pound the flank, up and down, providing width and putting in crosses. This became especially important as wingers increasingly became wide forwards, attacking midfielders or second-striker types who were encouraged to come inside at every opportunity.

Here's the thing about Marcelo and Dani Alves, though. They can do that part of the game. They can run and beat opponents and provide service to the middle (with a back-heel no less, if necessary). But they're also devastating when they come into the middle and when they do that, they turn into legitimate attacking midfielders, No. 10s willing and able to play one-twos, pick out passes or shoot on goal. There's a creative element and a passing quality to their game that we ordinarily associate with midfielders. This creates overloads and mismatches galore, wreaking havoc in the opposition.

Juve boss Max Allegri was glowing when he lauded Alves after the Monaco game. "Did you see him? Did you see his assists? That's what a central playmaker does..." That's why he leaped at the opportunity to sign him as a free agent over the summer even though it meant committing a lot of cash to a guy who will be 35 when his contract expires.

Zinedine Zidane -- possibly because his bar is set way higher given his own playing career -- wasn't quite as effusive. But he has said in no uncertain terms that Marcelo is one of the pillars of his team. And against the sort of massed defences that Real often face, his ability to go central and help Luka Modric and Toni Kroos with playmaking duties is invaluable not least because it allows Zidane to carry Casemiro, whose attacking contribution is far more limited.

Does it come at a price? Sure. Neither is an exceptional one-on-one defender. And, yes, when you spend so much time up the pitch, you leave space behind you. In most games, it matters little because their teams have so much of the ball and their teammates adjust and compensate. When they do screw up, it often looks bad.

There's also a question of durability perhaps because of their style of play. Dani Alves has not started more than 29 league games in a season since 2011 and Marcelo, who is five years younger, has done it just twice. But it's a price worth paying.

That skill is exceedingly rare even among the best full-backs in Europe. Think of the top full-backs in the world and, with a few exceptions (Bayern's duo of David Alaba and Phillip Lahm come to mind) the vast majority are essentially up-and-down types. They don't have that additional dimension these two offer.

You wonder whether Dani Alves and Marcelo, had they been born and come through the ranks somewhere other than Brazil, would simply have been pushed to play as attacking midfielders or wingers (which, incidentally, Dani Alves did early in his career). And conversely, you wonder whether a promising attacking midfielder might not consider a career change to the flank (provided he has the requisite athleticism) rather than entering the crowded market for "No. 10s."

Time and again they've shown their value by interpreting what is still a fundamentally unglamorous role in their own way. And proving themselves to be not just indispensable but genuine difference-makers too.

Gabriele Marcotti is a senior writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.


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