By: Pranov Suresh
Who is the modern full-back? Is it he who marauds forward at every opportunity, bursting his lung to overlap and support his winger? Is it he who patrols the touchline, enforcing defensive discipline upon the best of opposition wingers? Is it he who stands in unison with his centre-backs, creating a formidable and intimidating defensive line?
Perhaps it is none of them. The prototypes referenced above are excellent modern full backs, yet the pinnacle of this role that has been vastly transformed over the past five years is none of them. Marauding quick full backs like Andrew Robertson and Kieran Tierney find themselves fading into oblivion, as more “modern” counterparts take over the game. Technically gifted and adept full backs like Luke Shaw and Kieran Trippier suddenly find themselves being asked to do a lot more. There has not been such change in the demands placed on a full back in nearly a generation, with the advent of the now-traditional overlapping, “attacking” full-back.
The first step to understand this revolution is to understand what the role of the conventional full-back looks like, and how it evolved to its present form. Starting in the mid-2000s the ability of certain full backs such as Ashley Cole to join the attack more frequently started opening the role to a different interpretation. In the Premier League, prior to this, the full back was always expected to be defensively solid, assist the centre backs and on occasion, pop the odd cross into the box. Players such as Patrice Evra, Bacary Sagna, and Seamus Coleman are among the Premier League players who best represent the slow, gradual transition towards an emphasis on overlaps, cutbacks and attacking output.
By the late-2010s, this trend had ballooned with the best Premier League teams of the era boasting talented, attacking-minded full backs such as Trent Alexandre Arnold, Joao Cancelo, Marcos Alonso, Kieran Trippier, Kyle Walker, and Andrew Robertson.
One man who stands central in this churn at the full-back position is the diminutive, yet technically excellent Oleksandr Zinchenko of Ukraine and Arsenal. Few players can encapsulate the transformation of a position as perfectly as Zinchenko’s inverted full-back role can. While a lot of people can tell you that Zinchenko plays the role very differently from anyone else who plays the role, what is unique about his role, and how does it affect his impact on the game? Going forward, will Zinchenko serve as the prototypical full-back teams look to for inspiration?
Throughout the course of this article, three players from top Premier League teams are used as a reference point to compare Zinchenko’s metrics. The first is Andrew Robertson of Scotland and Liverpool FC, as traditional a full-back as they come. The second is Luke Shaw, who is also more in the traditional mould, but possesses excellent technique that enables him to emulate some of the unique actions that Zinchenko routinely commits. The last is Ben White, Zinchenko’s right sided counterpart at Arsenal who comes closest to serving as a “control” parameter, as they both play for the same team. All data mentioned in this article is from the Premier League 2022-23 season, offering an excellent sample size of nearly 38 games.
Heatmaps and the Positioning Conundrum
The first statistical indicator that reveals divergence is the average positioning heatmap of the player, which reveals all the positions where they made a touch of the football during the course of a game. For this article, this heatmap is taken for the season aggregate, and is revelatory of the different styles of the players.
Zinchenko’s heatmap below immediately shows how far from the touchline he is at multiple points in the game, both in the defensive half and the offensive half. Arsenal last season in the Premier League, played the highest defensive line of any side in Europe’s top 5 leagues, and this is also reflected in greater density in the opposition half. It appears that Zinchenko takes up a position well away from the touchline, much closer to the midfield, and well into the opposition half. This unconventional, attacking position is reflected in some of the statistics discussed later.
Andrew Robertson on the other hand, takes a far more conventional touchline position, that is in line with his profile. His touches are concentrated far more inside his own half, reflecting Liverpool’s poor defensive shape for significant portions of the 2022-23 season. His average position was inside his own half, close to the touchline, which also influences the way he joins the attack. Robertson’s opposition half heatmap shows his touches are up high and, on the wing, reflecting his overlapping tendencies.
For balance between these two approaches, Luke Shaw appears to be the perfect candidate. His touches come in a mixed range of areas, combining Zinchenko’s ability to access central areas and Robertson’s stretching of the pitch. Manchester United’s weak defensive record is also reflected in his average position, where he is more often dragged back into his half to defend. He still manages to occasionally take up positions away from the touchline, in what are technically midfield areas. He still remains closer to the wing on most situations.
The closest equal to Zinchenko’s team conditions is found in his opposite side colleague, Ben White. White is traditionally a centre back, having played in that position almost all his career. The 2022-23 season was the first time, he was routinely used as a right back, taking up more traditional positions close to the touchline. Again, Arsenal’s high line and dominance within most games is reflected by the even spread of touches and positions taken across both halves of the pitch. White however, does not take up as advanced positions as his peers and prefers to stick close to the centre backs, perhaps as part of an adjustment process to playing a new position.
Statistical Comparisons and the Uniqueness of Zinchenko
Heatmaps are revelatory but are hardly adequate to analyse the full picture over the course of a long 38-game Premier League season. A whole picture can be painted using the aid of statistics from the repository known as FBRef which collects vast amounts of data on every major football league in the world. All statistics are in percentile, meaning that it is reflective of their rank among their peers in the Premier League.
For readers new to football, some of the statistics referenced here may appear confusing. The following serves as a guide to some of the new statistics in the world of football. xG or Expected Goals is an advanced metric which measures the chances of a particular shot becoming a goal. Over the course of a match, a player can have multiple shots on goal, and accumulate xG. Another statistic that is derivative of xG is npxG or non-penalty expected goals. This excludes any xG accumulated by taking penalty kicks. The football pitch is typically divided into three parts or “thirds”, namely the defensive, midfield, and attacking thirds. Each zone of the pitch represents the players most likely to play in those areas. Any stats labelled with the thirds represent actions that occurred in those zones of the pitch.
The first comparison is between Zinchenko and Andy Robertson. There are a few key statistics here that are very interesting, and attest to the vast differences in play style between these two players. Zinchenko, despite his diminutive stance and supposed lack of physicality is far superior in certain defensive actions such as aerial duels won, interceptions made, ball recoveries, and tackles won.
Looking at more attacking focused stats, Zinchenko’s assists and crosses are noticeably lower than Robertson, which confirms the inferences made from analysing their heatmaps. Another stat which reflects this is the progressive passes received, which can only occur when the player in question is ahead of the ball.. In general, the stats also seem to confirm the different roles both players played in their team’s attack, with Robertson positioned closer to the attacking parts of the pitch. Zinchenko’s technical ability which enables him to play this unique role is also evidenced by his superior pass completion rate, and the number of progressive passes made.
To analyse their involvement in all phases of play, the statistics of interest are in the charts below. The first chart compares their attacking output. Here, the difference in styles and role has become more apparent. Zinchenko often is in line with the midfield and around the ball, rather than Robertson who takes up high and wide positions ahead of it. Thus, Robertson can impact the key attacking moments better, with higher assists, and shots closer to goal. Rather interestingly, Zinchenko’s “quality” of attacking involvement is higher with more shots on target, and better shooting accuracy as indicated by the shots on target %.
Defensive involvement is compared in the chart below. Zinchenko is clearly a superior tackler, losing few duels, and tackling more dribblers. Robertson edges Zinchenko on blocking passes, but Zinchenko takes back the lead on interceptions. Once again, the zone in which Zinchenko makes the bulk of his tackles is the forward area of the pitch (attacking and midfield 3rd), while Robertson makes them primarily in the attacking 3rd.
The second comparison with Luke Shaw is likely to be more competitive, as Manchester United finished an impressive third last season in the Premier League, with Shaw being a key figure in the defence. Looking at the general summary statistics, it is incredibly hard to separate the two players on any key metrics. Shaw appears to be more prone to both committing and drawing fouls, while Zinchenko retains a slim edge in the passing department.
The volume of the defensive actions committed by both players is reflective of both Shaw being a key defensive figure for United, but also of United having a much poorer defensive structure than Arsenal in the past season, conceding more than 3 goals in multiple matches. Shaw managed to make more blocks, clearances, and interceptions than Zinchenko across last season. Going back to the discussion about full-back prototypes, Luke Shaw with his combination of traditional and modern attributes appears to give a good challenge to the unique, “modern” role Zinchenko is employed in. Combined with the fact that Shaw also managed to produce good attacking output, it raises questions on whether a conclusion can be reached that the modern full-back is the outright best prototype going forward.
Looking at the attacking statistics specifically, we can identify that Luke Shaw is across the board more involved in the attacking phase compared to Zinchenko, with more goals, assist and better shooting accuracy. His shots also come from locations much closer to the goal, as evidenced by both the average shot distance and the non-penalty expected goals per shot (npxG/shot).
The defensive statistics summary can help build an understanding of the impact this has on the player’s defensive roles.
It is immediately apparent that Shaw’s higher involvement up the pitch does come at some cost to his ability to aid defensive efforts. Zinchenko, perhaps due to his more central positioning encounters and successfully tackles more dribblers with an impressive lead over Shaw, having also made fewer errors. Other impacts of this positioning include the massive divergence in shots and passes blocked by Shaw, which are reflective of the much deeper position he was forced to take when defending. Notably, he scores very poorly in tackles made further up the pitch, with more of his tackles being made around his defensive third. Zinchenko as noted earlier, opts to try and break up play much higher up the pitch, in keeping with Arsenal’s preferred tactic of trying to press their opponents high up the pitch.
It is within this same system that Zinchenko’s counterpart Ben White operates, albeit in a much different role. Ben White as mentioned earlier, is traditionally a right-sided centre back who was employed in an experimental right back role last season, and managed to adapt rather well. A headline comparison of their stats is given below.
Ben White and Oleksandr Zinchenko both played on the same side of two of the best performing Premier League wingers last season in Bukayo Saka and Gabriel Martinelli respectively. Saka finished the season with 15 goals and 11 assists, while Martinelli finished the season with 15 goals and 5 assists. In light of their role in linking up with two very prolific forwards, and White’s transition to a completely role, these statistics are rather interesting. What jumps out of the box is White appears to be much more defensively active closer to goal with more blocks, clearances and Zinchenko takes the lead on interceptions and ball recoveries. Despite the massive difference between 186 cm(6 foot-1) White and 175 cm(5foot-9) Zinchenko, it is in fact the latter who takes the lead on the percentage of aerial duels won.
There appears to also be some interesting information on their attacking output, which warrants a closer look specifically on the attacking statistics.
It is clear from both the main table as well as this attacking-focused one that White is more involved in the “final actions” (actions which directly lead to creating a chance or a goal). Across the board, White has superior output in terms of goals, assists, shots, and npxG. Where Zinchenko manages to outperform White is only in the accuracy of his shots, with more of his shots on target which is also reflected in his xG.
In reflection of the similarity of the system in which they play, both Zinchenko and White are league leaders in making aggressive defensive actions high up the pitch. Their tackle numbers in the middle third of the pitch rank in the high 80th percentile, with Zinchenko also taking a decisive lead in tackles made in the attacking third. This is also the first time Zinchenko is not the leader in challenging dribblers despite being more successful in tackling them, with White taking a marginal win in this category. White’s conservative positioning is also reflected by his much higher involvement in actions closer to goal, with more passes and shots blocked.
Despite White and Zinchenko playing in the same system under Mikel Arteta at Arsenal, it is clear that their roles are rather divergent. White, a traditional CB, is playing both closer to his centre backs when Arsenal don’t have the ball, but also closer to the touchline and higher up the pitch when Arsenal do. Zinchenko’s presence in the middle of the pitch more often enables him to play more progressive passes, while White’s high position enables him to receive them. Both rank in the highest percentile for making progressive passes, a reflection of their good relationship with their wing partners. White however is nearly twice as high on progressive passes received, which is understandable given that Zinchenko opts to play closer to the two centre backs and primary defensive midfielder.
It is important to not reductively conclude that Zinchenko is not unique in any way, given that both Luke Shaw and Ben White have been capable of matching his aggregate output. While their roles allow for greater attacking output, Zinchenko’s focus on the midfield yields great dividend for Arsenal’s desire to control the game. This is reflected in Zinchenko’s league-leading passing numbers, and his proactive involvement in Arsenal’s “defend from the front” philosophy.
The Path Forward for the Full-Back
At the beginning of this article, an initial hypothesis was formulated that Zinchenko would be the template employed by other football clubs as a reference for building their ideal modern full-back. The data for the 2022-23 season does show that he is uniquely exemplar in many ways yet possesses certain drawbacks that had to be accounted for within the Arsenal system.
Football much like many other sports is a reactive, dynamic game, and the start of the 2023-24 Premier League is the greatest possible vindication for the initial hypothesis. Starting in August, the PL witnessed seven teams deploy the now infamous “inverted” full back tactic to varying degrees of success across the table. High-flying Liverpool placed Trent Alexandre Arnold closer to the middle of the pitch to facilitate a greater impact on the game through his incisive passing. Bottom-stragglers Burnley under head coach Vincent Kompany, Europe aspirants Brighton under Roberto De Zerbi, and newly energised fast starters Tottenham under Ange Postecoglou have all employed this tactic this season. Defending champions Manchester City, and arguably the original pioneer of this tactic Pep Guardiola along with Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal are the two sides who employ it the most.
The addition of a player with good technical qualities, an ability to play passes between the defensive lines, and also help contain the attacking transition are all desirable for these teams. It is also noticeable that all the teams mentioned here wish to have control of the game for large portions by keeping the ball away from the opponent, making sure the game is played in the opponent half of the pitch.
Amidst this apparent success, this article also provides reasons for coaches to continue to stick to tried and tested methods, with the conventional full back still looking like a promising prototype. Luke Shaw and Ben White among others offer encouragement to coaches that experimenting with positioning is not necessarily the only way to maximise the skills and talent of their full backs.
There is no doubt that even for the teams that employ this inverted full back tactic, the opposite side full back must play in a more conventional style to help maximise the gains of this tactic. Thus, Zinchenko will continue to influence many coaches across Europe to rethink their systems, and the future generations of players will do well to learn from his positioning, tactical nous, and excellent technique. A revolution is underway in football, and Zinchenko leads the charge.