The decline of the Italian full-back

There’s something odd about the modesty of Ignazio Abate and Luca Antonini, the two starting full-backs for Milan. In terms of style, they seem to stand in such contrast to most of the other players in their team. The Rossoneri are, for the most part, a team of stars – they have a couple of genes in common with Los Galácticos, perhaps. Abate and Antonini, while no bad players in their own right, seem so inconsistently humble. They are not on the shopping lists of Europe’s major teams, they are not starters for the Azzurri, and for this reason one does not expect them to be the starters for Milan. They simply make no noise.
In the current state of affairs, this may be a good thing. An overlook of the Italian full-backs who have made noise is baffling, if not depressing. What binds together Domenico Criscito, Paolo De Ceglie, Marco Motta, Aleandro Rosi, Lorenzo De Silvestri, even Davide Santon? All of them are young players who promised to be the next thing, and all are currently in tepid waters. The one who is the best off is probably Criscito, who plays for a mid-table team with dubious prospects. Those who do play for the big teams are benched. And Santon, who has been called Italy’s most promising full-back since Paolo Maldini (though admittedly that title has been bestowed with a certain frequency), has been shipped off to Cesena. The question arises spontaneously – what is happening to the Italian full-back? Why are there few glamorous players covering that position in the big teams, and none of Italian nationality? Why are the modest underdogs like Abate and Antonini (or, for instance, Marco Cassetti) successful, when by their very defining features they should be playing in less stellar teams?
On closer examination, there is another quality that binds all of these players (and separates them from Antonini and Abate, incidentally). They are all very aggressive full-backs. Most of them were initially praised (and, sometimes, economically acquired) for their contributions coming forward. So perhaps what we are witnessing is not a decline in the role of the full-back, but a re-interpretation of this role. They are less offensive this year than they have been for a while.
The shift of Giorgio Chiellini, a defensive rock, from central defence to the flanks, is a very telling indication of what is going on. Those who retain their offensive qualities, like the roll-call of names in the above paragraph, end up being penalised. The emphasis is less on penetration and creativity, and more on reliability. The Milan duo come to mind as players who can be expected to follow a pretty linear path for all 90 minutes of the game, but an even better example are Federico Balzaretti and Mattia Cassani, playing for Palermo. They are generally considered to be the most successful Italian full-backs at the moment, but technically speaking, they bear more similarities to Abate and Antonini than to any of the other players discussed above – they are dependable, consistent, and very balanced between offence and defence. Perhaps the only exception to this rule is Napoli’s Christian Maggio, who has something of an offensive slant, though it should be kept in mind that his favour with the Azzurri has been falling for some time now.
The reason why teams are beginning to predilect defensive full-backs is perhaps to be found at the other end of the pitch. The rise of extraordinarily talented but highly imbalanced offensive triangles, which we have discussed last week, has changed the chemistry of teams enough to affect full-backs as well.
Presently, the strategy appears to be to liberate three attacking geniuses and let them do what they like, while turning the rest of the team into a highly organised machine for seven-man containment. Four defenders and three midfielders are asked to stop everything the other team is able to invent, since the three forwards cannot be expected to cover (or at least, not much). Unsurprisingly, the full-backs cannot be spared for the task, and their ability to minimise risk is valued more highly than their skills in dribbling down the wing. The scenario makes sense – a trio of brilliant forwards can work even without a full-back supporting them, but an offending full-back is not equally effective in the absence of strong offensive players.
It is difficult to say whether it is the evolution of Italian offensive tactics that fashioned the recession of the more aggressive full-backs, or whether it may be the other way round, but this is not necessarily of ill consequence. The change of pace (and, perhaps, the lowering of expectations) has allowed people like Abate, Antonini, Cassani and Balzaretti the time to grow steadily. The shift of Chiellini to the left has all but fortified a man who is already the best Italian defender, providing both Juventus and la Nazionale with a considerable, flexible new option.
The reinforcement of lateral defending, coupled with the general rebirth of the Italian central defence, could lead to better fruits than what those youngsters originally promised. We may well see the Azzurri reclaiming their throne as the team with the best international defence in the world. That is the rosiest possible outcome, of course. Otherwise, Santon, Motta, Rosi and the others still have several years to develop. There is no reason they could not re-emerge in time for the next World Cup.

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