What is a fullback in soccer?
In soccer, a fullback is a left- or right-sided defender, usually within a back four (a 4-man defensive unit). The primary role of the fullback is to defend their side of the field, usually against an opposition winger or a wide midfielder/attacking player.
What is the role of a fullback in soccer?
A fullback can be a highly versatile position in soccer, with a variety of roles, depending on the tactics, strategy and formation a team takes. However, their main role is to act as a defender, stopping the opposition from creating scoring opportunities from wide positions.
They should, however, also provide support when their team is in possession, and can also provide an attacking option when they get forward into the opposition half.
In general the fullbacks should be positioned a yard or two in front of the central defenders, they should very rarely be the deepest defender (see later).
Defensive responsibilities of a fullback
Stop crosses into their penalty area
As mentioned, the primary job of a fullback in soccer is a defensive one. They are usually pitted against an opposition winger, or a wide attacker.
One of their main roles is to prevent the wide player from getting crosses into the penalty area. Crosses into the box often create good chances for the opposition to score, so these should be avoided wherever possible. The fullback should be aware that the wide player could deliver a cross into the area with their left or right foot. So the fullback needs to be agile enough to block either, should the attacking player try and use a dummy to create space.
The fullback may have to work hard to move to the wide attacker quickly as they receive possession (or even before!), in order to close the space down before the wide attacker can get a positive touch on the ball.
The fullback should try to force the wide player to pass the ball backwards, to their own fullback, or inside, to a crowded midfield, where less damage can be done.
Sweep behind the defensive line
In addition, when the ball is on the opposite side of the field and the opponents have possession, the fullback should position themselves to anticipate a ball being played across and behind the defensive line. Since they can see the entire field of play, the fullback is in the perfect position to act as cover around the back of the defense and clear any balls that the central defenders miss.
This should also prevent the wide attacker on their side having a scoring opportunity, or even midfielders breaking into the penalty area (see image).
Off the ball awareness
The fullback should also be aware of the wide attacker making a run off the ball. Where possible, the fullback should mark this wide attacker and track their run.
If the central defender is free (not marking someone), good communication is needed from the fullback to let the central defender know if they are needed to mark this wide attacker. It is the responsibility of the fullback to make sure this is communicated clearly and early.
Work with the other fullback
Fullbacks should work together as a pair and, so, need to be aware of each other. For example, if one of the fullbacks runs forward to support the attack, it is usual for the opposite fullback to be slightly more conservative: staying back to make a defensive 3 with the 2 central defenders.
The fullback should also be aware of their team playing offside. As mentioned, the fullbacks should not be the deepest defender (they should be a couple of yards in front of the central defenders), and so should work hard to get themselves into that position, especially when possession is won back from the opposition.
However, when the opposition have the ball, the central defenders may choose to play offside. If this is the case, they should call it clearly. The fullback should ensure they are in line with (or in front of) the deepest central defender. So, if they were running with a wide attacker, tracking them, they may need to stop their run (to stop them running deeper than the central defender).
Attacking responsibilities of a fullback
A fullback can, and often does, also have a role when their team is attacking.
A simple part of their role is keeping possession when their team has the ball. Oftentimes, if a central midfielder is put under pressure, the fullback is a good option to pass to, as they are usually free and in space. As such, you may find that, especially in amateur and semi-professional soccer, a fullback has some of the most touches of the ball of anyone on a soccer team.
When a fullback receives the ball, they often have a number of different passing options available to them (see image):
- Centre back. Passing to the central defender is often a good way of keeping possession of the ball, especially if one of the strikers is putting pressure on them.
- Centre midfield. If you have technically good central midfielders, passing the ball into their feet is usually a good option, where they can do more damage and maybe create a goal-scoring opportunity for a striker.
- Striker’s feet. Passing the ball to the striker can also be a good option occasionally. There are normally a couple of different passing options for this. The first option is for the fullback to pass the ball directly into the feet of a striker who has their back to goal. In this case, this pass will need to be zipped into their feet with good pace, as the ball is probably moving through a fairly crowded region of the field.
- Striker’s run into the channel. Another option is to pass the ball into the channel behind the opposition defensive line for the striker to run onto. This can be done over the top of the defensive, or passed through a gap, with some bend on the pass. This type of pass can be used effectively if you have a good relationship with the striker, and especially if they are quick.
- Wide midfielder/attacker. Another passing option is to simply play the ball into the feet of the wide midfielder or wide attacker that is playing on the same side. They will usually be slightly wider than the fullback, often almost standing on the side line. If you have a good relationship with the wide player, you should know whether they like the ball passed into their feet, and so this may dictate how often you choose this passing option.
What formations include fullbacks?
Fullbacks are usually present when there is a 4-man defensive unit, with 2 central defenders and 2 fullbacks (either side of the central defenders). As such, the most common formations that include fullback are 4-4-2, 4-5-1 and 4-3-3.
They can also be employed when the formation used has 5 defenders, where the fullbacks aren’t also the main attacking wide players. Formations with this system include 5-4-1 and 5-5-0 (usually with a false 9).
How is a fullback different from a wingback?
If a team employs a system with 3 central defenders and only 2 wide players in the team, these wide players are usually referred to as wingbacks.
These wingbacks have a more attacking role than conventional fullbacks, as they are the main wide attacking threat. A 5-3-2, 3-5-2, or 3-4-3 formation usually use wingbacks.
Who is the best fullback in soccer
This is a debate that has raged for years and will rage until the end of time. Everyone has their own views on who the best fulbacks in soccer are. Or were. There have been some great fullbacks through the years, each with their own set of skills and qualities. So, below, we’re going to list some of our favorites, with a brief explanation of why:
- Ashley Cole: He emerged at a time when fullbacks were primarily a defensive position and, arguably, transformed the role of the fullback in the English game to one that was defensively sound, but also posed a genuine threat going forward. He also played professionally until he was 39 years old, so was a super athlete to boot!
- Cafu & Roberto Carlos: These two must be mentioned in the same breath as they were superstar fullbacks of the Brazil team in the 90s. Their ability on the ball, and the creativity they brought to the position, has largely been unparalleled, even in more recent years when the fullback role demands more technical ability. Some may argue their proclivity for attacking at the expense of defensive responsibilities should be a black mark on their name, but we just loved to see them bombing forward as wide attackers.
- Dani Alves: Simply put, he’s the most decorated player in world soccer! He was a key part of the Barcelona team in the mid 2010s before successful spells with Juventus and PSG, before moving to Sao Paolo. So comfortable on the ball, Alves has even moved into a central midfield position into his mid-30s.
- Sergio Ramos: The Real Madrid and Spanish captain started his career as a right back before moving to central defense where his physical presence, determination and hunger has made him one of the best defensive players ever.
- Paolo Maldini: Similar to Ramos, Maldini started as a fullback (left) and quickly became one of the first names on the AC Milan and Italy teamsheets throughout the 90s and early 00s. His calmness on the ball, technical and crossing ability, coupled with his defensive prowess, meant he was one of the most feared defenders of his time.
How has a the fullback role changed?
The role of the fullback has changed significantly in modern times, mainly due to the attacking positions they are expected to get into, as well as the amount of ground they are expected to cover.
As soccer has become more dynamic and athletic, so, too, has the role of the fullback. Where fullbacks in the 70s and 80s (and even most of the 90s) were seen mainly as defenders, the modern fullback needs to have the technical and attacking skills of a winger, with the fitness of a box-to-box midfielder.
The modern game has seen fullbacks become increasingly involved with attacking play, often becoming the extra person in attack, enabling them to play the key pass or cross to create goal scoring chances.
What skills should a fullback have?
As mentioned, the modern fullback, as well as being expected to defend, will also need to be technically excellent. They will receive a lot of the ball in possession, and often create goal-scoring opportunities for their strikers. Some of the skills a good fullback will need include:
Fullbacks can usually see almost the whole field. So they need to be great communicators who can tell their teammates what’s going on around them. Some common themes will be to tell a central midfielder what’s behind them, or to pull the wide player in front of them back to defend when needed.
Speed & acceleration
Fullbacks will usually be up against the opposition wide attacking players who may be quick and skillful. As such, the fullback must also be able to compete with them in these departments. Being quick over the first couple or yards will help them prevent dangerous crosses into their penatly area and pick up loose balls before the opposition players. Going forward, these key skills will also help the fullback pose a credible attacking threat.
Agility & mobility
Defensively, the fullback will be required to control the space outside and inside of them. They are typically more mobile than a central defender and so need to be able to turn quickly to react to defensive situations that arise.
Control & Passing
As mentioned, the fullback will often have the most touches of the ball on a modern soccer team. So, they must have good passing ability in order to retain possession and keep the ball for their team.
Since the primary role of the fullback is one of defense, they must be good at tackling. Specifically, they should be able to time their tackles well, in order to dispossess opposition players, as well as intercept passes aimed in behind them.
Typically, fullbacks are not the tallest players on the pitch. They won’t be required to be as good in the air as a central defender, however they should be able to time their headers well to prevent long diagonal balls being played over their head.
How to play fullback in soccer: top tips
Use the goalkeeper if you’re in trouble.
Don’t forget that the goalkeeper can also be a fantastic passing option if needed. This can be especially useful if you are running or facing your own goal. Instead of kicking the ball out of play and conceding possession, a pass back to your goalkeeper can mean they can clear the ball up the field (or even keep possession using the other defenders).
Watch out for long balls over your head
If the opposition pass a long ball behind your defensive line, and you’re turned around and running back, it’s really important that you deal with the situation positively. If the opposition player gets the ball, slowing them down so that your team can organize defensively is your main aim.
One of the main jobs for you as a fullback is to prevent crosses from being played into your box. So work as hard as you can to stop them. This could even be a metric that a coach will track to understand your performance over time.
Keep attacking players out of the box!
As well as stopping crosses, you should also work hard to stop any opposition player from getting into your penalty box with the ball. Once they enter the box with the ball in their possession, your options as a defender become limited. They’ll be close enough to your goal to have a shot or create a better chance. So do what you can to keep them out!
Know your opponent
Try and quickly get an understanding of the opposition player who you are up against (usually a wide attacker or winger). Figure out their skills and preferences fast (are they strong? Or fast? Do they like to dribble with the ball, or receive balls in behind the defense?) and adapt your game to address these.
Even if the ball’s not on your side, you’re still important
Don’t fall asleep if the ball is on the opposite side of the field. In this situation, it’s important that you stay alert and ready as you can see the whole field. You may be needed to sweep around the back of the central defenders if a ball is played in behind the defense, or step up to play offside if the central defender calls it.
Keep your head on a swivel
If your team are in possession and the ball is being passed to you, check what’s around you as the ball is travelling towards you. This will enable you to make a decision about what to do with the ball, even before you receive it. If there’s space in front of you, you could drive into it, or if you see there’s an opposition player close by, you may choose to pop the ball off with a quick pass to prevent the risk of being tackled.
If in doubt, just keep the ball by making a simple pass. Your team won’t expect you to be creating scoring chances every time you get the ball, nor dribbling past opposition players. So keep things simple if in doubt.
Use a positive first touch
If the space allows it, try to get a positive first touch on the ball, which pitches it a yard or so in front of you. This will give you the space and set you up ready to play a pass or drive forward with the ball.
Tips for coaching a fullback in soccer
If you’re a soccer coach, a fullback can be a tricky position to coach, as there are lots of different skills and expectations on them, depending on the style, system and formation. However, as with most positions, keeping things simple for them can be extremely helpful. So, here are some top tips to help you get the most out of a fullback:
- Give them some flexibility to get forward. Tell them that they can get forward and support the attack if your team have good-quality possession.
- Give them some triggers for the overlap. As mentioned, they can overlap the wide attacker on occasion, and so giving them a couple of triggers they can use to understand when this is a good idea can be useful.
- Give them specific defensive instructions and expectations. Such as to stop all crosses, or to prevent their wide player from turning when they receive the ball.
Errors a fullback could make
- Driving forward too quickly or when their team’s possession isn’t quality. In this scenario, there is a risk that the team loses possession, and the fullback will be caught out of position, potentially leaving a big space behind them.
- Overlapping too often. Going on a overlapping run every time the winger has the ball gives no variation to your play and will allow the opposition to quickly figure out how to defend against you.
- Getting caught under a long ball (if a long diagonal pass is played). Misjudging a long pass, often due to the starting position being too advanced, can let the opposition winger in behind your defense, where they can cause a lot of damage.
- Allowing the wide winger to get in behind them. This is often down to a poor starting position (often too wide), or a poor body position (often too square on too the play), which allows the winger to run in behind them easily.