They don’t head the annual discussion of who should be handed the Ballon d’Or. Most of them score a handful of goals per season at best. They’re always expected to be in the right place, devastatingly chastened when they’re not. In the modern game, the best of the best cover some of the most ground of all the players on the pitch. At times, their task can almost seem thankless, but is crucial to any side functioning at the highest level possible. Full backs are a special breed of footballer, plying their trade in a position that requires selflessness as a key personality trait.
The legendary Cafu once lamented the idea that full backs aren’t given their due, performing all of the duties required in football, but receiving little of the credit. Il Pendolino opined that kids aren’t inherently drawn to the idea of lining up in the role he became famous as an unstoppable force in – even the Brazilian began his playing days as a midfielder. But until football undergoes some space age tactical revolution that brings about the complete death of the systems recognizable at present – it’ll be a few years – Cafu can take heart in the fact that full backs will keep rolling off the production line one way or another. And the best of the best are an absolute joy to watch, as the former Roma and Milan man himself was.
While much fussed over quality strikers remain relatively abundant these days, it’s the more rarified form of a top full back that makes him even more of a special specimen. So stop and take a moment to give thanks for the men on the flanks. Those who like goalkeepers, exist in a sphere that players in other parts of the pitch can’t truly comprehend.
Following are the top 15 full backs in world football.
15 Matteo Darmian
Originally discovered by the father of former Milan teammate Ignazio Abate, Damian never made it at San Siro after coming up through the youth ranks. In fact, not until last May did he even get the recognition he deserved for some time by winning his first senior cap with Italy. First arriving at current club Torino as a 21-year-old with the club in Serie B, Damian took the hard way to develop into the player he is today. Since the beginning of the 2013-14 campaign, he’s truly come into his own as one of Europe’s best full backs, largely flying under the radar at a less fashionable club. It’s likely, however, that Damian is not long yet for Torino. Manchester United have been said to be keen on prying him loose, while Italy’s bigger clubs have for some time been casting glares of envy at the Granata. Expect him to flourish under a brighter spotlight when he does move on – Darmian is a versatile, all-action full-back who has the ability to get the job done for a top side.
14 Juan Bernat
When Bayern Munich splashed out a substantial €10 million to sign 21-year-old Juan Bernat from Valencia, plenty of heads were turned. The youngster had only one full season of top flight football under his belt, but retrospectively it can be seen that Pep Guardiola knew exactly what he was getting. Bernat is the complete package. The Spaniard has electric pace and is a wizard with the ball at his feet – a vestige of his younger years spent as a winger – but also superb positional sense, discipline and tenacity. So talented is Bernat that Guardiola moved David Alaba to a desired central role at times earlier this season to allow him to have a place in the starting eleven. With Alaba having suffered a devastating knee injury, the left side of the Bayern defence became solely Bernat’s, whether that be in a traditional left back slot or further forward at wing back as fluid tactics demand. Bernat has already shown he’s one of the best in the business playing for a top side, and in due time the €10 million spent on him will look an absolute bargain.
13 Mathieu Debuchy
Losing a longtime servant to the club like Bacary Sagna – to Manchester City, no less – was a painful blow for Arsenal. But a more than capable successor was quickly found in the form of Mathieu Debuchy, also the man who usurped Sagna in the French national team. First arriving on English shores with Newcastle in January 2013, Debuchy had proved an absolute stalwart for Lille in just shy of 10 seasons as a professional, having joined the club at the age of eight. Ever present during his Magpies days, Debuchy was a natural choice for Arsenal in looking to replace Sagna over the summer. The Frenchman enjoyed an excellent World Cup – he shone against England in Euro 2012 as well – but his time at Arsenal thus far has been blighted by injury. The revelation that Debuchy will miss the next three months after undergoing ankle surgery comes as a huge blow to the Gunners. When Debuchy has been fit, his defensive prowess – enabling him to play center back in addition to right back – matched with his marauding runs, have made him formidable.
12 Lukasz Piszczek
Piszczek is one of a long line of footballers who have fallen into the serially underrated category. Since joining Borussia Dortmund from Hertha Berlin in 2010, the Pole has been a key figure for Jurgen Klopp while a string of other talented players have soaked up most of the plaudits with more aesthetically seductive contributions. Interestingly enough, Piszczek started his career in the spotlight himself. A prolific striker at the youth level, he was top scorer at the 2004 U-19 European Championship. But at Hertha he underwent a transformation that resulted in a permanent switch to right back, the position in which he has appeared 183 times for Dortmund, registering 38 assists and never once being sent off. Piszczek’s renowned defensive powers are all the more impressive considering his background as an attacker, not playing as part of a back line until the age of 24.
11 Dani Carvajal
Real Madrid love hatching a plan to get what they want, especially where selling talented youngsters who could potentially explode are concerned. Such was the case with Dani Carvajal, who couldn’t get a game at the senior level despite excelling with Real Madrid Castilla as captain of the side. He was in turn shipped off to Bayer Leverkusen for €5 million, but not before the Spanish giants could insert a buy back clause into the deal, as they’re known to often do. One brilliant season in Germany and Real were falling over themselves to hand Leverkusen a pithy profit of €1.5 million to have the young star back. Carvajal instantly became a starter in the side that went on to win the Champions League, carrying his success over into this season. Still only 23, the technically brilliant right back is already light years ahead of where most players are from a mental standpoint at his age. The ceiling looks limitless for Carvajal, whose next conquest is locking down a regular spot for Spain, which is a task within his reach given the he’s already one of the best in the business.
10 Ricardo Rodriguez
It’s difficult to become a sensation as a left back, but Rodriguez has managed it in some style. The Swiss defender’s first two seasons at Wolfsburg were solid if unspectacular, setting the table for his consecration last term. Rodriguez laid waste to everything in his path over the course of the campaign, confirming that he possesses one of the finest, widest-ranging skill sets of any full back on the planet. A superb crosser with playmaker-like vision, Rodriguez averaged an incredible 2.6 dribbles per game in Bundesliga action last term as well – besting the 2.1 figure Gareth Bale posted in La Liga. And after finishing with five league goals and nine assists in 2013-14, the Switzerland international is at it again this season, leading Wolfsburg to second place at the winter break. For Rodriguez’s scintillating attacking statistics, however, he’s no slouch in defense either, averaging 1.9 tackles, 2.3 interceptions and 2.6 clearances per game thus far. With time, Rodriguez could well develop into the globe’s best left back, his all around game making him a stunning prospect already well on his way to the top.
9 Stephan Lichtsteiner
Lichtsteiner fits a particularly unpopular mould of footballer. If he plays for the side you support, you likely adore him. But as an opponent of his, the Swiss is one of those loathsome figures. Stamina is the former Lazio man’s greatest attribute, an essential quality that has seen him become known to his fans as ‘The Swiss Express’ and ‘Forrest Gump.’ Lichtsteiner has a penchant for getting under the skin of his adversaries, a physical customer that specializes in breaking down the mental fortitude of those lined up opposite him and forcing mistakes. He famously left former Celtic boss Neil Lennon apoplectic after a Champions League tie due to his exploits. Such a master at his craft is Lichtsteiner that he’s only ever been sent off three times in his career, never once for a straight red card offense. But beyond his award-winning personality on the pitch, Lichtsteiner offers more. His delivery from out wide is quite good, while his 24 career goals are impressive for a full back. Lichtsteiner also offers leadership that has been crucial to Juventus winning three Serie A titles on the bounce, leading the Italian giants to hand him a new contract despite his 31 years of age.
A Real Madrid reject, Juanfran has spent his career with a chip on his shoulder – and sometimes that’s all the motivation a player needs to prove his doubters wrong. The Spaniard humbly moved on to Osasuna after Real let him go for good in 2006, establishing himself as a consistent performer, but as a winger rather than a right back. Atletico Madrid took notice, and after bringing him into the fold, Gregorio Manzano and Diego Simeone converted him into a right back. It worked a treat. Juanfran became a key player for the Atleti side that has picked up a bag full of silverware against all odds under Simeone. Miranda was the only Atletico player to play more minutes in the Champions League last season, while just Thibaut Courtois stood ahead of him in this category in league play. Technically adept with an unstoppable engine, the 30-year-old has carried his strong form into this season, delivering six assists so far between domestic and continental commitments. From the other side of town, Juanfran certainly showed Real Madrid.
7 Branislav Ivanovic
Suffice it to say that showing a full-length picture of Ivanovic in street clothes to a passerby and asking his profession would be a phenomenal social experiment. Few without prior knowledge would ever guess that Ivanovic plies his trade as a full back, such is his imposing stature. It’s exactly this that makes the Serbian one of the most fun footballers around to watch. A former center back, Ivanovic is a bully to opposing attackers on the flank. An excellent tackler and unbeatable presence in the air, he offers a level of aptitude in the defensive arts that most other full backs can’t. Then there are his contributions going forward. Lacking the pace of his smaller, sprightlier counterparts, Ivanovic relies on guile. A soft touch for a big man enables him to find space and quite often his crosses are tantalizing, while he has a penchant for popping up and scoring crucial goals. What’s not to love about the 30-year-old? He’s a consummate professional that flies in the face of the modern image of a full back – and yet few are better than him at what he does.
6 Cesar Azpilicueta
What a turnaround the man known to the Chelsea faithful as ‘Dave’ had in his career at Stamford Bridge. Azpilicueta looked to be heading towards the periphery of the Chelsea squad, only to become a vital cog under Jose Mourinho and fire into the spotlight as a top full back. The Spaniard took over for longtime servant Ashley Cole as a right-footed left back, proving his quality and raising his status in Spain’s national side at the same time. Energetic in all phases of the game, Azpilicueta has continued his streak of dominance into Chelsea enviable run this season that has seen the Blues lose just twice in all competitions, making getting on a scoresheet a brutal task for opponents. The Spaniard has made the process of moving on from Cole as easy as possible on the club, something that nobody could have predicted as the Englishman moved into the twilight of his distinguished time in west London.
5 Jordi Alba
Jordi Alba rose from the humble youth ranks of l’Hospitalet to join La Masia as a nine-year-old, but as a teenager was sent away, as it wasn’t believed he’d make the grade. The Catalan left back in turn took the long way around to achieve his dreams, getting his professional start at Valencia and proving to the Blaugrana that he deserved to wear the famed striped shirt all along. Barcelona were required to pay €14 million for the pleasure of having him back at the Camp Nou, where Alba took over as the long term successor to the beloved Eric Abidal. The 25-year-old scores a fair amount of goals for a player of his position – 17 in 235 professional appearances at the club level and five in 33 caps for Spain – highlighting his penchant for affecting games on the front end. Pace and ball control are the Spaniard’s primary weapons which with he breaks down opponents, and the 25-year-old doesn’t lack the impetus to continue improving. Juan Bernat will soon be breathing down Alba’s neck for the starting left back spot in the Spain squad, which should provide the necessary push for the latter to keep honing his skills.
4 Pablo Zabaleta
Along with Vincent Kompany, Zabaleta has been an enduring symbol of the new age project taking place under the guidance of Sheik Mansour at Manchester City. The former Espanyol man arrived mere hours before the Emerati takeover took place in 2008 and since has become a flag-bearer for the Citizens. Not the speediest of full backs in a flat out foot race, Zabaleta makes his living with an engine that seemingly never ceases over the 90 minutes and an intelligence of positioning that drives opponents mad. An outstanding marker and tackler, most wingers can’t wait to see the back of the Argentine after running around under his watchful eye for an afternoon. Zabaleta is duly loved by the City faithful for pouring his soul into the club and showing a level of commitment that serves as a model for young players and veterans alike. Helping bring a third Premier League title to the Etihad in the past four seasons would only further solidify his place in City history, a tireless workhorse more dedicated to the cause than the average man.
Showing up at the Santiago Bernabeu from thousands of miles away as a 19-year-old is a daunting task, but Marcelo was ready. That being said, it would still be a few years before the Brazilian found himself in the Spanish capital. Some disappointing displays at left back saw Juande Ramos and Manuel Pellegrini convert him to a winger, where he had great success in creating many chances for his teammates. But Jose Mourinho had no such designs of using the ‘next Roberto Carlos’ as an attacker. The Portuguese redeployed him as a defender, and under the tutelage of Mourinho, Marcelo developed into a complete full back. The Brazilian still enjoys playing as high up the pitch as possible, but learned to use his recovery speed to great effect and learned astute positional sense under Mourinho and Carlo Ancelotti. Marcelo remains one of the most prolific full backs around in terms of chance creation, having bagged eight assists in all competitions last season, and seven already this time around.
2 David Alaba
The Austrian first sat on the bench for the Austria Vienna senior side at the tender age of 15, and less than two years later made his debut for Bayern Munich in the DFB-Pokal. Alaba became the youngest player ever to appear for the German giants in a competitive match, providing the game-winning assist just 60 seconds after entering the fray. It was a sign of things to come. Alaba, who started his career as a midfielder, would take only a short time to come of age as a brilliant full back, transformed by former Bayern boss Jupp Heynckes. His formative days spent in the center of the park allowed Alaba to develop a cultured left foot, one that is lethal whether delivering a driven cross into the area or letting fly a long-range strike on goal. It’s all too easy to forget that Alaba is still only 22, having twice been voted into the UEFA Team of the Year, with a full trophy case and four Austrian Footballer of the Year accolades to his name. Under Pep Guardiola, he has begun featuring in midfield once more to accommodate Juan Bernat but remains a top full back without question, unfortunately struck down by an injury that has kept him shelved since early November.
1 Philipp Lahm
Where to even start with Philipp Lahm? The German may well be the most intelligent player in the game today, as Pep Guardiola has said, something that paired with his incredible athleticism makes him one of the most lethal customers around. Ruthlessly efficient in the tackle, immaculately positioned, able to play on either side and a galloping force of nature on the ball, he epitomizes everything a top full back should be. And it’s Lahm’s transition away from the position that truly underlines his quality. Guardiola has primarily deployed the 31-year-old as a defensive midfielder to best make use of his ability to dictate play, a role that Lahm immediately embraced and has performed wonderfully in. The former Germany captain still maintained his full back status for the national team, however, playing there for the majority of Die Mannschaft’s victorious campaign in the 2014 World Cup, after which he retired from international football. Bayern received a huge blow when Lahm fractured his ankle in training in November, though Lahm maintains he will be back for the stretch run to help his club fight for titles – something he knows plenty about.