Rather unfairly, Kyle Walker has become an emblem of the summer’s excess. His reign as the most expensive defender in history may have only lasted one week, but his move to Manchester City from Tottenham has characterised football’s hyper-inflation. It’s a fair point to make, but Walker doesn’t deserve to become a punchline as a result; he’s a good player rather than an outstanding one, but he’s really only guilty of being transferred at a particular moment in the game’s history.
Not so long ago, a full-back was a peripheral figure. He would provide attacking support and frequently cross the halfway line, but was never thought of as being crucial to his team’s efforts. It’s telling, for instance, that full-backs from as recently as the 1990s rarely enjoyed acclaim for anything other than the stability they provided. How often does Denis Irwin get mentioned as a key component within Alex Ferguson’s first great Manchester United side, for instance? When Arsenal’s famous back-four is recalled, do Lee Dixon and Nigel Winterburn really enjoy equal billing with Tony Adams and Martin Keown?
Two anecdotes capture the previous generation’s attitude towards full-backs, both of which involve Gary Neville.
The more famous was, notoriously, Jamie Carragher’s “nobody grows up dreaming of being Gary Neville” barb on Monday Night Football. Carragher may have only been joshing Neville, but he was right: children kicking balls on street corners or in parks want to be forwards, midfielders and centre-backs, maybe even goalkeepers. That’s not just because their idols typically play those roles for their club sides, but because the position itself exists under the assumption of semi-relevance. In amateur football, the very best occupy the central spots, while the worst, the weak and the wheezers are hidden at full-back.
The second anecdote, said with more sincerity and by a greater authority, came from Ferguson. In praise of Neville, he once claimed that had he grown to be taller he would have become one of the finest centre-halves in the country. It was a compliment, one Neville deserved, but – again – cast the full-back position as a place for the limited. Neville had to play there because he wasn’t physically equipped for the more important role.
But while perceptions linger, football evolves and, really, that Kyle Walker is now one of the most expensive British players in history isn’t so ridiculous.
The cost of a transfer is determined by many factors, but scarcity holds the greatest weight: if a player can do things on the field that most others can’t, then he will be worth more. That’s obviously true in the Leo Messi/Cristiano Ronaldo sense, but is also relevant to Walker. Athletically, he is a marvel. His limitations at the attacking byline are well-known and it’s no secret that his final ball is unreliable, but his ability to match the physical demands of the modern game gave him his value at Tottenham and, most likely, will make him of considerable worth to Manchester City, too.
That’s perhaps the key difference in the position today. There may be some very famous examples of full-backs who are heavily involved in their side’s actual play (Phillip Lahm, for instance, or Daniel Alves), but the principle function for a Walker-type, a very good but not spectacular player, is to be in the right place at the right time. They’re tent pegs. During an era in which operating with three centre-backs, three central-midfielders and interchangeable, out-to-in attacking midfielders is becoming the norm, a full-back is charged with providing width when his team has the ball. However, he’s arguably more important without it – he is a creator of space, a player who takes up positions not even necessarily with the aim of receiving the ball.
To sit close to Mauricio Pochettino’s technical area during a game is to hear almost 90 minutes of unrelenting instruction. The Argentine continuously demands that all his players press and hassle, but his most common targets are his full-backs. He wants them at the right height and width all the time, using them to define the breadth of the pitch and prevent an opposing defence from clamping its jaws around Christian Eriksen, Dele Alli and the rest. Walker and Danny Rose, or Kieran Trippier and Ben Davies, held influence in almost every facet of Tottenham’s play, from their exit strategies to their counter-attacks.
The athletic requirement – obviously – is vast. The demand is for two players who can cover great distances during a game, but who can do much of that work at high-speed. In transition, for instance, a Pochettino full- or wing-back is expected to be part of everything: the initial resistance and turnover, but also the break up the field. Danny Rose provided countless examples of that prior to his season-ending injury in 2016/17, but so to did Walker (most memorably for Dele Alli’s goal away to Stoke in late August).
The more general point is that a full-back’s role is broader than ever before. Also, that the shape and physical profile of those who occupy the positions are vastly different to what they once were. If previously characterised in England as dependable types with conservative haircuts, now the very best among them are rockstars – four-lung super-athletes who absorb tactical instruction, cover the full length of the pitch and riff with the ball at their feet. Spark plugs and dynamos, players watched in awe from the stands. Far from being the spare part that they were a few decades ago, now they define the speed and shape of a game. Yes, Manchester City paying £50m for Walker is a reflection of the market and also of Daniel Levy’s negotiating skills, but it also describes the changing imperatives in the game and how different positions are being used to gain influence.
Gain influence, but also subdue it; a full-back’s performance ripples across the pitch in a unique way. While the old platitude insists that it is the midfield battle which wins the war, many key skirmishes in a game happen out wide. Aggression must almost always be countered with reticence, with the depth of a full-back naturally demanding a response from an opponent. It’s not a coincidence that last season, particularly at White Hart Lane, it was possible to gage the tone of Tottenham’s performance solely by where on the field Pochettino’s full-backs were stood. When they were ‘up’, so were Spurs.
Supporters look at Kyle Walker and assess him according to dated criteria. They see his inferior defending and his haphazard crossing and mark him down against the ideals of previous eras. By contrast, contemporary head-coaches sees a rare component with a particular range of attributes. Walker has the acceleration of an olympian, can over and underlap like a traditional winger, and has shown an appreciation for his role which goes beyond simple shuttle-running. At this point in football’s history, of course Pep Guardiola was happy to pay through the nose.
Full-backs are now match-winners and they’re being priced accordingly.