Finding high caliber fullbacks on the market is becoming increasingly complicated and major European teams are systematically forced to overpay for their wide defenders.
At the same time, one of the most important tactical trends sees fullbacks playing an increasingly important role in build-up and progression of the ball, as most teams tend to remain compact at the center and adopt strategies to limit the influence of central midfielders in the game.
Serie A is no exception Fullbacks like Dani Alves during his two-year spell at Juventus, Aleksandar Kolarov for AS Roma, João Cancelo for Inter first and then for Juventus last season, have had an increasing influence as a source of play for their team.
But the number of fullbacks that can play such an important role in large areas while also holding their own on the defensive side of the ball is limited and coaches are often adopting creative solutions, trying out players who normally play other roles as fullbacks.
In this first phase of the 2019/20 Serie A season, two players in particular are having success in their new full-back role: Juan Cuadrado and Takehiro Tomiyasu.
A big part of the credit for Juventus going to Milan and walking away with a win against Inter, as well as sole possession of first place in the table is also due to many players whose future seemed to be far from Turin this summer.
According to the newspapers, Blaise Matuidi and Sami Khedira seemed to be almost a burden to get rid of, while now they are starters in Maurizio Sarri's midfield at the expense of the new acquisition Adrien Rabiot. Paulo Dybala and Gonzalo Higuaín were ready to be sold to the first bidder, but they scored the two decisive goals against Antonio Conte's team. Finally, and perhaps even more surprisingly, winger Juan Cuadrado is now shining in a new role for him.
Due to the injuries of Mattia De Sciglio and Danilo, Sarri found himself without a right back already on matchday five and so the ex-Napoli’s manager, considering the options available, chose to employ the Colombian, after a decisive performance in the Champions League match against Atlético Madrid, where he scored the first goal, from the right outside of the defense.
Cuadrado has enthusiastically taken on his new tasks and has also benefited from the help of his former teammate Andrea Barzagli, now on Sarri’s coaching staff. “I am very happy. From the start when talking to the coach, I tried to change my mentality and be fully concentrated, as I know that I can do better, but Barzagli is on me constantly, so I can’t relax for a second!” he said after playing their again in a Champions League win against Bayer Leverkusen.
Among Juve players with at least 360 minutes played in the league, Miralem Pjanic is the only one who has completed more deep progressions (10.66 per 90 minutes) than Cuadrado (7.42 per 90). The Colombian is 13th in the league in volume of open play passes per 90 among players with at least 300 minutes and given that is XGBuildup of 0.76 is roughly the same as the Pjanic’s 0.79 it suggests he is as important as the Bosnian to Juventus’s possession game.
At 31 years old, Cuadrado is a mature footballer in terms of decision-making (he committed a single turnover in his last three games as a fullback) and his composure in build-up (his passing percentage is the same whether pressured or not) is vital for Sarri, who can always count on an alternative source of play when progressing centrally gets difficult.
In addition to his relevance in build-up, Cuadrado can be also used as an offensive tool to dismantle opposing lines, thanks to his ability to carry the ball and win offensive duels: even as a fullback he does not miss the opportunity to beat his direct opponent in dribbling. He completes 2.12 dribbles per 90 and against Inter, in what was perhaps his best match, he completed four, equally distributed between the two halves of the field.
What is surprising, however, is his defensive contribution. While it is true that his tackles per dribbled by rate of 66% is not an exceptional figure, it is still better than that of Alex Sandro (60%), the only other fullback who played significant minutes, and he is also able to contribute with 3.31 possession adjusted tackles per 90 average, an elite number. Cuadrado showed he could read the game and understand when to leave the defensive line to try to anticipate the opponent much better than other fullbacks. In August he looked like a footballer ready to leave, now he's a key element of the starting eleven.
In my column about early Serie A trends, I highlighted Bologna as the best team after the first four games, at least as far as expected goals is concerned. I also highlighted how their early schedule could have inflated their numbers and indeed in the three games following my piece they managed to collect only two points. However, despite a negative non-penalty goals difference (-0.43) the Rossoblu have still the best xG difference in the league (+1.13).
The good performances so far are the result of the excellent work and resilience of the manager Sinisa Mihajlovic and the ambitious transfer campaign carried out by the club during the summer. Of all the players who arrived, however, the most brilliant surprise is that of Takehiro Tomiyasu, a 20-year-old Japanese defender who came from Saint-Truiden.
In 2018-19 at Saint-Truiden, Tomiyasu played 26 out of 27 games in the league as a centre back, but he is still able to perform as right back with excellent results, so much so that he has played all his games so far and 100% of the minutes of Bologna, in this position. Despite being quite lean and 1.88 m tall, he's fast and this helps him a lot when he plays on the flank.
He is definitely a footballer whose anticipation and ability to read the game is his greatest strength as a defender and has proven it with exceptional results. He’s also dominant in the air (2.13 aerial wins per 90), winning not just a high quantity of aerial duels, but a high proportion of them as well (62% of success). Centre back Stefano Denswil is his only teammate who wins more aerial duels and with a higher success rate (3.10 and 71%).
Tomiyasu is also the player from Bologna who has completed the highest number of interceptions, 2.13 per 90, adjusting for possession. In addition, his 71% tackles per dribbled past rate is the highest of the team, while only centerback Mattia Bani does better than him in combined raw tackles and interceptions (3.73 per 90).
What is surprising is his personality with the ball at his feet, a trait that made him immediately become a central element in Bologna’s tactical plans. In fact, along with midfielder Gary Medel, he is the player who plays the most open play passes (52.44 per 90). His ability to move the ball forward has made him pretty much indispensable for Bologna. He has the highest average value of deep progressions of the team (7.45, 4th in the league among players with at least 600 minutes played) and between the Rossoblu is also the player who performs more carries (45.91 per 90). The Japanese fullback is the second-best dribbler of the team behind Riccardo Orsolini if we consider the volume of successful dribbles (1.46 per 90), too.
So far Tomiyasu has not been accurate when it comes to crossing, since he has completed only 11% of his total crosses, nor incisive in creating opportunities for teammates, since his xG assisted is almost nil (0.02 per 90). Yet he is always involved, even in the last third of the field where he completes as many passes as his teammates who play as wingers (about 16 per 90), and even though he rarely plays the last pass, he is still instrumental in the dangerous situations created by Bologna.
He is sixth in the league in xG build up per 90 minutes (0.60) among players with at least 600 minutes played, in practice the same value as Kolarov (0.59), who plays an equally important role as fullback in AS Roma’s system. Compared to the Serbian, whose passing game is not influenced by opposing pressure, he still has to improve in tighter situations, since when pressured his success rate in passes drops by 21%.
At the early age of 20, he is already one of the most reliable fullbacks in the Serie A and his game has all the characteristics of the modern defender. In a team of higher level with more offensive fullbacks, he could even be moved back to the center of the defense. Bologna purchased him seven million euros, a figure that could be more than doubled at the time of his next transfer.
Header image courtesy of the Press Association