Champions LeagueFootball

Midfielders moving back into defence has generally been considered a demotion. Not any more.

August 20, 2020

WAY back on the Premier League’s opening weekend in August 1992, full-backs Lee Dixon and Nigel Winterburn assisted goals in Arsenal’s game with Norwich from virtually the same spot on the flawless Highbury turf.

Winterburn’s was an inswinging free-kick nodded home by Steve Bould, while Dixon’s was a flat cross that reached Kevin Campbell, who did the rest. Neither goal was particularly exciting, and neither is remembered fondly, because Arsenal went on to lose 4-2, thus falsely convincing a nation that 2-0 is a dangerous lead.

Anyway, both of these Arsenal full-backs assisting goals was not unusual (they would supply five between them in 1992-93) but they were doing so in the standard way for the period: functional set-pieces and looped crosses for big men to feed on, like scraps.

Fast forward 29 years and the game has changed enormously (which isn’t surprising, given 29 years back from 1992 is 1963, aka the dark peak of Reepian formula-football).

In 2020 we want our full-backs to offer so much more, and they are doing so. The two most impressive European clubs over the past two seasons have been Liverpool and Bayern, and on Sunday night those clubs could very well be the last two continental champions. Jurgen Klopp’s Reds have been driven from the back by Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson, and now Bayern have Alphonso Davies to complement the luxury stylings of Joshua Kimmich or Benjamin Pavard at right-back.

Just to illustrate how the Liverpool pair have redefined what a team can expect from their full-backs, here’s a list of most assists by defenders in a single Premier League season. Leading the way is Alexander-Arnold’s 13 in the season just finished, followed by his then-world-record total of 12 in 2018-19. Then comes Robertson with 11 in both of those campaigns.

22 assists from the left-back in only 70 games yet beaten by his team-mate in both campaigns. There’s healthy competition and then there’s this. 11 was the seasonal record for a defender for a long time, set by Andy Hinchcliffe in 1994-95 and then matched by Leighton Baines in 2010-11.

Both players were fine left-sided players with excellent set-piece delivery but the idea that they could be this productive while at the same time their equivalent on the other flank was doing the same would have been deranged science-fiction. The right-back for much of Baines’ time at Everton was Tony Hibbert, a player who recorded only eight assists in 265 Premier League games and famously never scored in his entire top-flight career.

Liverpool’s 3-1 win away at Bayern on their way to winning the Champions League is arguably one of their most underrated performances of the past few years, and given Barcelona’s ongoing demise, is probably more impressive than the 4-0 win against Lionel Messi and co at Anfield later in the tournament. Had Allison been fit for the second leg against Atletico this year than it’s not outlandish to think Liverpool could have made it past Leipzig and Paris Saint-Germain and be preparing to face Bayern on Sunday in the ultimate battle of the full-backs.

That’s conjecture but what isn’t is the fact that Bayern, in their game with Liverpool in 2019, were missing Kimmich through suspension, while Davies was just a callow MLS winger learning his trade in the Bayern reserves. He actually scored his first goal for the first XI in a 6-0 win that came directly before the defeat to Liverpool, although the idea of fielding him in defence against Klopp’s front three in their late 2010s pomp would have been one of the boldest moves in modern football history. Even so, it might just have worked.

Either way, it hasn’t prevented Davies progressing through the ceaseless season of 2019-20 at a pace only his own supersonic legs could keep up with. The eternal image of Bayern’s era-defining 8-2 flattening of Barcelona in the quarter-final is Davies storming into the penalty area, taking out three defenders and pulling it back for Kimmich to score.

Full-back to full-back, dust to dust, Barcelona’s dreams were dead and buried. The map below shows where Davies dribbled in the Bundesliga this season and that’s the x&y DNA of a winger. Andy Hinchcliffe was not doing this, Nigel Winterburn was not doing this, Charles Reep was not recording this.  

Much attention has been paid to Bayern’s semi-preposterous high line in their games in Portugal this month, but Davies is the rebel escape pod, so fast he can cover any enemy line breaks. He hasn’t had to face 1998’s Kylian Mbappe yet, though, and that match-up promises to not only define the final on Sunday but help usher in the new epoch emerging at the top of the sport.

The kids of the late 1990s and early 2000s are here and if the defining image of last season’s Champions League was 1998’s Trent Alexander-Arnold’s highbrow corner against Barcelona at Anfield then 2000’s Davies’ routing of Barcelona leads the way ahead of the final match of this edition.

Both players have moved into defence after spending their youth further forward. Once that was a demotion, once the reverse journey was the hoped-for evolution (think: Gareth Bale). No longer.