As I sat watching Everton this week, I started thinking about one particular player — Lucas Digne—and just how different this Everton team is with and without him on the field. I’d argue that, if we were to rank the current top players in Europe by how impactful and important they are to their teams — not just in quality, but on how key to the tactical set-up they are — he would, at the very least, make the top 10. As good as Digne is, this is just as much of a result of the squad he is in and their current system, as it is about his quality.
Thinking about it a bit more, this pattern is seen in several other top European teams. The starting left-back is one of the most important roles, if not the most important, in a lot of dominant systems. A lot of these systems rely on their LB to be a key piece in possession, either due to their ball-progression or their influence in the attacking third (or both, often both), as well as for their ability to provide width on the left. And yet, a lot of teams built on these very same systems, have a clear hole in their squad building: the back-up left-back.
Everton have played Ben Godfrey, a (right footed!) CB, at left-back whenever Digne has been unavailable. Tottenham are forced to play Ben Davies, a defensive left-back, whenever Reguilon (arguably their main attacking piece not named Son or Kane) is out. Raphael Guerreiro, in a very specific creative role for Dortmund, hasn’t been out often but the much different skill-sets of Schulz or Passlack don’t do him justice when he is. A 34-year-old, right-footed, Nagatomo is the back-up to the injury-prone Amavi for Marseille. Porto are forced to replace Zaidu with a right-footed player (Manafá) or a defensive LB/CB type in Chelsea loanee Sarr. In the Netherlands, both Ajax and PSV built squads with a single LB (Tagliafico and Philipp Max) who has to be replaced by an adapted a midfielder — Lisandro Martinez for Ajax and Jorrit Hendrix (who moved in January) for PSV.
There are countless examples throughout Europe. All of these teams make their LB a integral part of their possession game and suffer major drop-offs when they are forced to field a back-up who either isn’t routined in the position, isn’t left-footed or just has a much more conservative possession skill-set. Obviously its not realistic for many teams, even these dominant sides, to get two high quality attacking LBs — they’re rare and, consequently, expensive. However, there are other solutions for those who can’t afford to sustain both Marcelo and Ferland Mendy in the same squad.
The main solution is tactical. No matter how weird their squad looks, Pep is the single most creative coach of all time and will find tactical solutions that provide City with the width and ball-progression that a natural attacking left-back might give him. Given their results, performances and the options in their squad being Zinchenko and Mendy, you best believe he has. I’m willing to say the same goes for Nagelsmann with Leipzig, but Angelino has played almost every minute this season so its tough to say much.
At Juventus, Pirlo has built a set-up that flows between a 4–4–2 and a 3–5–2, where he plays around with a different combination of attacking LB + defensive RB or vice-versa, which provides solutions even with a limited selection of full-backs. If Frabotta or Sandro are out, Danilo can play as a defensive LB with a width-providing winger ahead of him. Simeone shifting Atletico to a 3–5–2 has allowed Carrasco to be seen as a wing-back, while in a back four Renan Lodi’s back-up would be an adapted CB.
However, most coaches won’t find that tactical solution and will stick with their main system and approach when their key starting LB is out — which is understandable. Given that that is the case, I’d argue it is more benefitial for this type of team to have a cheaper back-up LB, with a less refined, but more stylistically fitting skill-set, than a higher quality back-up player with less in common with the usual starter: be it through promoting an academy prospect (Marco John and Truffert being back-up LBs for Hoffenheim and Rennes, respectively), investing on good cheap names (whose names I can’t disclose or I’ll get fired) or doing the reverse — Sporting brought in the experienced Antunes on a free to be back-up to the best young LB in Europe.
All of these teams still see a considerable downgrade in their quality from starter to back-up, but gain an advantage by not having to reshape their possession structure for a match, which will in turn benefit the team’s other players. The quality and volume of their actions might be a fraction of what the starting LB offers, but the actions themselves will be a lot more similar — meaning similar spatial ocupation and team shape, attackers continuing to receive possession in the same spots, midfielders and CBs continue to have the same passing lanes during build-up. Not to mention the financial advantages of having a young back-up with higher upside as opposed to a higher salary, stagnated, peak age asset.
Anyway, imagine I said something clever to wrap this up. Sign good players if you’re in the industry, enjoy watching footie if you’re not. Stay safe, drink water, punch a fascist, support your local businesses.