It was not so long ago that footballers were told to play at full-back because they lacked the requisite qualities to thrive in more glamorous positions. “If you are a full-back you are either a failed winger or a failed centre-back,” Jamie Carragher said in 2013, in a now-famous exchange in which he said “no one wants to grow up to be a Gary Neville”.
This was the prevailing view from the top of the game all the way down to grass-roots levels, where invariably the least-talented players have been stationed at left-back or right-back. As Carragher implied, full-back was the position for those who could not do the most important things well.
Of all the changes in football over the past few years, the transformation of players in this position is perhaps one of the most dramatic. Rather than excelling at nothing, full-backs are now expected to excel at everything.
Take Brighton’s Tariq Lamptey, for example. The 19-year-old is just the latest talented young English right-back to emerge in recent years, following the likes of Trent Alexander-Arnold, Reece James and Aaron Wan-Bissaka. Lamptey is thriving at Brighton after joining from Chelsea in January, playing with an attacking verve and defensive solidity that has made him one of Graham Potter’s most impressive players in recent matches.
“The game has evolved a lot since I was playing,” said Potter, who was a full-back himself in his 13-year playing career with the likes of Birmingham City and West Bromwich Albion. “Tariq is a hell of a lot faster than I was. I would not like to play against him, that’s for sure. His qualities are that he can go forward and affect the game in the opposition’s final third, but at the same time he is still a capable defender.
“The demand and the work he can get through is incredible. Hopefully he can end up having a really good career as a modern-day full-back, which is one that can defend his goal at the same time as affecting the opposition goal. When you say it like that, it sounds like it’s a big ask, but he has got the capabilities.”
Against Chelsea on Monday night, Lamptey and James appeared to be locked in their own personal duel. Lamptey left Chelsea in part because the emergence of James, only one year his senior, provided a long-term obstacle to first-team football. The teenager subsequently played as if he had a point to prove against his former club, scorching up and down the right flank, and James responded by scoring with a terrific strike from 25 yards.
It was a reminder of the remarkable depth England have at right-back, with Kyle Walker and Kieran Trippier also competing for one place in Gareth Southgate’s team. “It is arguably our most competitive position on the pitch,” the England manager said last year.
As a nation, how has England produced so many exciting young players in this one position? An academy coach at a Premier League side told Telegraph Sport it is partly due to a change in focus in youth football, which has become more skills-based and technical over the past decade.
In academies there is more focus than ever on training one versus one and on building up play from the back (in which full-backs who can adequately pass the ball are essential). The demands on the modern full-back also make it a natural position for some of the most athletic prospects who get hoovered up by leading academies at a young age.
At senior level, tactical trends have played their part in the full-back rising to prominence. Old-school wingers have been replaced by inverted forwards, many of whom tend to cut inside on to their stronger foot. At Liverpool, for example, Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane come inside the pitch, leaving full-backs Andy Robertson and Alexander-Arnold to provide the attacking threat on the outside.
“It is how the game has evolved,” Potter said. “The width often comes from full-backs rather than wingers. That is how the game is. We go through those little stages and I am pretty sure it will turn back at some point. You see how Liverpool use their full-backs in terms of crossing and getting forward and being an attacking force.”
Lamptey ticks all of these boxes, too. He is one of the fastest players in the division and, as he showed against Chelsea, his crossing can be exceptional. At the other end of the pitch he is tenacious and quick to snap into a tackle. Brighton paid just £3 million for his services after he rejected a contract offer from Chelsea and he already looks to be a bargain.
Lamptey will surely start against Newcastle United on Sunday, but over the season he will need protecting at certain stages. “You always have to consider the player, consider what he has done and where he is at physically and psychologically,” Potter said. “The more we get to know him, the more we can help him with that.
“It is not just a case of throwing him in the deep and hoping he swims. You have got to take care of him as well. There will be times where I am pretty sure there will be other options for us and that will be better for him. But at the moment he is enthusiastic, wants to play and is full of energy. That’s great for us.”