Right back in fashion
Pablo Zabaleta was taken aback by the recognition of his excellence. The Argentine used to be Manchester City's best-kept secret, valued by his team-mates and the supporters but ignored by a wider audience. Not any longer. Despite the considerable challenge of Manchester United's Rafael da Silva, Zabaleta was named the Premier League's best right-back by his fellow professionals.
"Truly humbled to be included within the PFA Team Of The Year," the City vice-captain tweeted. "It's an honour to play and be named alongside such great players." And so it is. But perhaps not quite the honour Zabaleta imagined.
Examine the list of his predecessors and they fall into the category of the good, rather than the great. Gary Neville was his peers' pick six times, a total beaten only by Steven Gerrard in the Premier League era, and was also named in the team selected to mark the division's 20th anniversary. In part, that was a sign of his consistency and professionalism. Yet it was also a reflection of the lack of competition.
Consider some of the others who won the players' vote in previous years: David Bardsley, who only won two England caps and even they came in the dark days under Graham Taylor; Gary Kelly, who was no longer even first choice for his club less than two years after he was officially the Premier League's foremost player in his position in 1999-2000; Bacary Sagna, who is threatening to emulate him in unwanted fashion after his awful performance for Arsenal on Sunday; and, worst of all, Pascal Chimbonda.
During the 2005-06 season, Chimbonda seemed to epitomise Wigan. An enterprising unknown, he was a newcomer who took naturally to the Premier League. And yet if his year is remembered, it is probably because he produced a transfer request, which he had stored in his sock, minutes after the final game of the campaign. Chimbonda duly secured a series of lucrative moves. On the pitch, however, he never hit such heights again. He went from being the division's finest right-back to the second or third best at Tottenham, Blackburn and Sunderland.
His swift fall from grace highlights the indifferent nature of the right-back, often the least distinguished member of the PFA's select XI. Because, while Ruud Gullit famously said "a goalkeeper is a goalkeeper because he can't play football", there has long been an English assumption that a right-back is a right-back because he is not good enough to operate anywhere else. This was the place on the pitch where the least talented player was often found; whereas, because of the paucity of left-footers, some major talents remained at left-back, a gifted right-footer coveted a more prestigious position: often in the middle of defence or midfield, sometimes on the right wing. When he got his move, someone less able played right-back.
Think of the men who could be called the great lost English right-backs: Gerrard, outstanding as a right wing-back for part of Liverpool's 2005 Champions League final; David Beckham, whose stamina and crossing, if not his habit of mistiming tackles, could have equipped him for the role of a raiding right-back; Rio Ferdinand, whose assurance in possession and pace, in his younger days, could have made him a natural. Instead, all were earmarked for more prestigious berths in the team.
Jamie Carragher and Phil Jagielka did spend some of the early years of their careers at right-back without hiding a preference to play centrally; Micah Richards, though better suited to the duties on the flanks, wants to follow suit. Phil Jones can play in three positions but is expected to gravitate to a position elsewhere. Phil Neville decided he preferred the greater involvement life at the heart of the team offered. Only his brother Gary stayed put and even then, there was the assumption upon his emergence that he would mature into a central defender.
Perhaps, however, there is a belated sea change in attitude. Playing right-back is no longer the short straw or the graveyard shift. Call it the Dani Alves effect, perhaps, but now full-backs have become more fashionable. The emphasis has switched from solidity to speed. They are expected to be more athletic and adventurous. Because of a broader shift in tactics and the rise of the defensive midfielder, they are afforded a freedom many of their team-mates do not have. It is not uncommon to see the full-backs - an ever more inappropriate term - among the most advanced players on the pitch.
This is nothing new in South America, in particular. Rafael is the inheritor of a Brazilian tradition of gung-ho right-backs who, given the national fondness for a 4-2-2-2 formation, had to provide the width. Josimar, Jorginho and Cafu were confirmed crowd pleasers long before Alves and Maicon maintained the habit of speedy surges along the touchline. The Argentine Zabaleta, too, is from a country where wingers are rarer and where, as Javier Zanetti showed, there is nothing wrong in being a right-back.
If the indefatigable South Americans are showing the way, the English may follow. Glen Johnson seems content with life as a forward-thinking right-back. The younger generation of Kyle Walker and Matthew Lowton, plus the Irishman Seamus Coleman, do not seem to see the full-back's position as a stepping stone to another spot in the side. Rather their skills make them suited to be modern-day right-backs, dynamic players who are excellent attacking outlets. As the role becomes more glamorous, perhaps it will attract a higher calibre of applicant.