Sunday, 9 October 2011

Would Brett Emerton be more effective for Sydney as a fullback than as a winger?

Last night's City Derby between Melbourne Victory and Sydney FC was a fitting spectacle for the A-League debuts of Harry Kewell and Brett Emerton. While Kewell was effective playing as a trequartista, drifting from flank to flank in search of space and serving as the main conduit of the Navy Blues attack, Emerton's performance on the right wing was much more muted, and Brett did not feature as prominently during the game as his national team colleague.
Australia's 2nd most capped player
It wasn’t that Brett played particularly badly; it was just that Sydney never really strung together fluent attacking phases and Emerton’s performance suffered from the helter-skelter rhythm. This might be remedied by affording Emerton time to settle-in and build a rapport with his team-mates; but perhaps there is another, tactical reason Emerton was so subdued last night.

Blackburn fans are nearly unanimous in their belief that Emerton, because of his stamina, awareness and accurate crossing ability, was always more effective as a fullback than as a winger. Perhaps there is some merit in that point of view.

If Sydney’s main priority is to properly utilise Emerton’s impeccable delivery from the right flank, (and the fact that he was given responsibility over corners goes some way to supporting this) then he would be in a more advantageous position to become a constant aerial outlet at fullback rather than on the wing, where he is closely marked by the opposition leftback, and compelled to provide close support for the lone forward.

Now PM recognise that most people will think this is a controversial, even blatantly foolish opinion given that Emerton is almost certainly one of the most talented and experienced players in the hemisphere, never mind the Sydney squad (they’ll think Emerton at right-back is a waste; why hide him so far from the action?). But consider this; fullback has become the most important and influential position in modern football, due to the fact that a fullback often has no direct opponent to contend against in a 4-4-2 or 4-3-3; fullbacks frequently have the whole flank to patrol with the wide players ahead of them cutting-in to support the lone forward.

Consider last night's match; with the midfield congested, which players had space to advance into and time on the ball to create situations to overman the opposition defence and launch crosses into the box – Jamieson and Cole, Fabio and Foschini; the fullbacks.

If Lavicka opts to deploy Antonis, Petratos or Bridge on the right wing, pacy and aggressive players, their cutting-in will drag the opposition leftback inside, leaving Emerton behind, free and clear, with acres of space and precious extra time to advance, assess the situation, pick out a friendly target, and unleash a pinpoint curling cross into the box – a facet of the game Emerton excels at, and it was noticeable and disappointing that he didn’t unleash a single cross all game against Melbourne.

In addition, consider Emerton's defensive abilities; he has the physical stamina to patrol up and down the flank all game, the build to ensure he won't be bullied off the ball, the experience and awareness to pre-emptively prevent opposition attacking forays through clever positioning, and adroitness in the tackle.

The fact that McFlynn, the Sydney captain and a tough-tackling defensive midfielder is regularly stationed on the right of the double pivot bolsters the argument; after the right winger cuts-in and Emerton at fullback overlaps, McFlynn can drift wide to occupy the space that Emerton has just vacated and the opposition would try to exploit.

For a relevant comparison, consider the performances of Luke Wilkshire for Australia; he is often the most regular outlet for crossing on the right flank, and the time and space he is afforded is created by Emerton drawing in the opposition leftback and allowing Wilkshire to advance and overlap. For a comparison more close to home, look at the performances of Ivan Franjic as Brisbane Roar's right fullback; he is one of the most influential presences on the pitch. Last season, Franjic provided genuine width when Henrique cut-in from wide right - he scored a handful of goals through arriving late in the box, but he was most vital during build-up play.

Will Lavicka recognise the merit in this approach? Perhaps, though Vitja is infamous for dogged perseverance in a 4-4-2 diamond formation whose lack of width was repeatedly exploited and exposed last season. If Lavicka does recognise the possibility, will he try it? That is another matter entirely. Lavicka was fortunate to retain his position as Sydney’s manager, given the dog’s breakfast that was the Sky Blues campaign last season.  The majority of fans and the executive board would probably regard Emerton at right back as an illogical waste of money, even though it might just be the ideal way to make use of Emerton's world class talents; endless stamina, defensive awareness, and superb crossing ability.

PM recently explored the notion that Brett Emerton, might be more productively deployed by Sydney at fullback than at wide midfield or on the wing. This is because fullback has become the most important position on the pitch, because in a 4-4-2 or 4-3-3, a fullback is without a direct opponent; they have time and space to advance. Advanced of the fullback, Emerton is closely marked by the opposition leftback, and obliged to provide close support for the lone striker, which prevents him from launching his superb crossing range.

It's a become a cliche to say that fullbacks are more wingers than defenders in modern football and there is some truth to this, as fullbacks are expected to provide width as the wide forwards cut-in. So why is there a public reluctance to give fullbacks their due credit?

Jonathan Wilson suggestes that it is due to the characterisation given to the term itself; 'fullback' has an overtly defensive connontation, and suggests the player must have a primarily defensive disposition. But Brazil, a country famous for its production line of attacking wing-backs (in a 3-4-3 or 3-5-2) in Roberto Carlos, Maicon and Dani Alves does not use the word 'fullback' to describe the position - the English translation is 'lateral' which conveys width or wide play over depth or defensive responsibility.


Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

First visit to the site, so just got to say I really like what you guys are doing in here. 2 things on theis article though:

1 - Nobody will accept to pay/watch a marquee (and particulalry one of Emo's exposure at RB) and nor should they! You just can't pay him what they ahve and then stick him at fullback (which, ironically is where the a league clubs tend to throw their cheapest paid players).

2 - I honestly think Emo played a lot more centrally against Victory. I didn't pay enough attention to it during this game, but at fist glance it looked as if Sydney were playing both Emo and Nicky Carle centrally in the hole. The question is, was Emo encouraged to drift in from the right, or did he start off there? That is what I will be paying more close attention to this afternoon!

Pass and Move said...

First off thanks for your comment, PM appreciate your support.

That whole article answers your 2 points so I'll refer you back to it. I'd just like to address a wider point that has been raised by others, so this isn't meant to be denigrating, negative or even a direct response.

Dani Alves is probably the most extreme example of an attacking fullback. In Barcelona's 2009-10 march to the European Cup, do you know who had the most touches of the ball for the Catalans? Actually it was Xavi. Dani Alves came second. Do you know who had the most touches of the ball in the attacking third? This time it was Dani Alves. Not Lionel Messi, not Pedro, not David Villa - Alves, Barca's right back. That ought to illustrate how crucial he is in building Barca's attacks.

I'm sure you're familiar with who won the Ballon D'or? Lionel Messi of course. But do you know where Dani Alves came in? He got something like 0.005% of the vote, the lowest of any candidate up for contention.

When it is said that "nobody" or the general public won't appreciate Emerton as a fullback, you could probably extend that to even the people involved in football. Fullback, no matter how influential it has become, is still a rather unglamourous position.

Modern football, especially at the elite level is far too systematised to just stick a 'crap' player somewhere. If you have bad fullbacks, the players with time and space on the ball, your team is going to suffer.

Now the A-League is hardly an elite competition, but it is particularly illustrative, that the clubs who played the best, most fluent, fastest, and most attacking football so far, have been the clubs that have had the most technical, most aggressive fullbacks - Brisbane with Franjic and Stefanutto, Central Coast with Rose, and Heart with Marrone and Behich.

Now back to Emerton; wouldn't it be preferable for Emerton to be a constant aerial outlet at fullback (think of him as a wingback if it helps) than for him to be shackled closely by the opposition left back and obliged to provide close support for the lone striker at right wing?

Then again the whole proposition is largely academic. You are right of course in saying that deploying Emerton at fullback would probably be regarded as a waste by the fans and the board. So I doubt Lavicka will try it out.

Emerton will come good. He's far too good a player not too. But it is a shame that the contribution of fullbacks are overlooked or ignored.