The right and left fullback positions have posed a problem in the past – but with the acquisition of Matt Targett and Frédéric Guilbert – that seems to be behind us.
Words: Ryan Pitcher | @RyanPitcher
From Gary Neville to Pablo Zabaleta on the right, through to Patrice Evra and Ashley Cole on the left – no fan of the Premier League can question that there has been a tendency for more forward-thinking and adventurous fullbacks over the years. Liverpool’s Andrew Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold are prime examples of this in the modern game.
Managers may still be able to get away with a safe and dependable centre-half and an old-school number nine to lump the ball to, but when it comes to fullbacks, in this day and age, you need an enterprising player who is not afraid to get up and down the park.
The modern-day fullback, it’s probably fair to say, is likely to be one of the fittest and most intelligent players on a team. Not only do they need the stamina to continually make lung-busting overlapping runs, whether this is to drag a defender away from the scene or not, but they also need to be able to think three our four phases ahead and decipher when to make those advances – calculating risk and reward.
In the past, Aston Villa have struggled in fullback areas, with the positions often being referred to as ‘Achilles’ Heels’ ever since Mark Delaney (1999 to 2007) on the right, and Wilfred Bouma (2005 to 2010) on the left. There has been many a fullback come and go since – some doing better than others – but a pair haven’t quite stood out, perhaps until now, as the Anglo-French alliance of Matt Targett and Frédéric Guilbert makes it’s waves in the Premier League.
Guilbert and Elmohamady’s battle for the right
The Egyptian was given first dibs at the start of the campaign, with some supporters speculating that this was because of the inclusion of his international team-mate Trézéguet on the right-hand side and that working with a familiar face for the winger would bring out the best in him.
Two-and-a-half months, however, is a long time in football. Now Ahmed Elmohamady finds himself in a real battle to make it into the starting XI and by doing so, dislodge Frédéric Guilbert.
Making his bow in Aston Villa’s first win back in the Premier League against Everton on matchday three, Guilbert has since made the role his own – and his statistics make for some pretty phenomenal reading. His pace and offensive play have been a standout, and the numbers enforce what has been visible to the naked eye of many.
Frédéric has made 39 crosses in 675 minutes of football so far this season, which is more than the three other fullbacks in the squad combined – 37 from a combined 1139 minutes. He’s also managed to make more progressive runs than the three others combined also, due to his charges up the flank, and has also managed more shots on goal.
For someone with such offensive ‘gains’, you would be inclined to expect that his defensive statistics would suffer, but with Guilbert it’s not the case; of the four fullbacks he has amassed the highest interceptions (even when broken down in averages), and scores highly in ball recoveries and clearances.
Having played in a Hull City team for so many years that had a back three, Ahmed Elmohamady is much more accustomed to a wing-back role, and as you would expect is more of a playmaker than Guilbert. Elmohamady is more accurate in his passing (85.5%) and crossing (42.1%) than his rival for the right-back role, (74.1% and 20.5% respectively).
Elmohamady is a fine alternative to have for a number of reasons. His experience at the top level counts for so much, and at 32 years of age, he’s no spring chicken. With over 160 Premier League appearances to his name, and almost a century of international caps for the Pharoahs, Elmo’s footballing brain and instincts will help to alleviate any issues that may arise from physical decline.
Targett and Taylor’s battle for the left
The difference in heat maps between the two (see below) makes for some interesting viewing – the two are poles apart.
Neil Taylor has come under some criticism for large spells of his Aston Villa career for being too defensive, and this doesn’t do him any favours. But, to be fair to him, 2019 has been his best year in claret and blue, and despite recently losing his place to Matt Targett, we must not forget his improved performances, especially in the ten game winning run which helped to boost the side into the Play-Offs last season.
Taylor boasts a superior passing accuracy to Targett (8% better), but this isn’t too surprising as he is the safer player of the two. This is not only backed up by the heat map but the number of crosses and chances created for teammates. In 620 minutes of football, Taylor has crossed the ball just eight times, and twice accurately, which is the most inferior cross statistic amongst Aston Villa’s fullbacks. Targett has whipped in ten balls in just 259 minutes of football, of which five have been accurate. In less than half the minutes, Targett has been able to create five times as many shots for his team-mates.
It’s clear that Targett offers so much more going forward, but his defensive capabilities shouldn’t be ignored – his number of ball recoveries are better than Taylor’s and he wins more defensive duels on average too.
It may have taken a few matches – a little trial and error if you will – but Dean Smith has finally found his ‘winning duo’. The dynamism of Guilbert on the right, chasing down the flank, and Targett, who isn’t afraid to be unconventional.
It’s noticable that opposing teams have not really caused us too many problems in the wide areas, and that’s not all down to the fullbacks being quick in their recovery. Our wide men further up the pitch – for the most part – tracked their runners and recovered well.