"It was an important promotion, that to 'button' man, one not to be handed out lightly. The man had to be tough, and he had to be smart."
As I've said before, I don't always like doing a ton of posts with a lot of deep statistical analysis. This is partly because stats can be deceiving, and there's no substitute for just watching every match and getting a feel for how players perform. But there's also an extent to which you run out of ways to say "yep, we're pretty damn good." I mean, FC Bayern has lost only once in our last 25 and we routinely dominate possession, shots, and passing numbers - most fans don't need deep number crunching to discern that we're playing great football.
In some cases, though, numbers can be useful, especially making comparisons across leagues and across competitions. I hope the stats prove valuable today, as we attempt to crown football's best fullback. No, you don't win anything for guessing the answer correctly.
FOOTBALL'S BEST FULLBACK
First, the ground rules:
- Candidates can play on either side, and can be guys who play both sides. We'll even include guys who play some FB and some CB. But no wing-backs/hybrid types - some websites list Gareth Bale as a wing/FB, but players like that aren't included.
- Stats are culled from Who Scored, Zonal Marking, ESPN's Soccernet, and various SB Nation blogs. If you disagree with a number or calculation, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org or let us know in the comment section.
- Unless otherwise mentioned, stats are from domestic league play and UEFA/continental play, as applicable, but NOT from domestic cup competitions. Too hard to get reliable stats, and too hard to compare with English players getting twice as much action against scrub opponents.
- Only players who play on the edge of a standard 4-man back line are eligible. CDL-types in a 3-man defense are too hard to compare. Several Italian teams are running 3-defender formations these days, but Juventus' Chiellini is the only candidate I definitely would have included but for this rule.
- One candidate max per club. Sorry, this is going to be long enough as it is.
Club: Manchester United
Club's defensive record (league play only): 1.068 goals allowed per (31 goals in 29 league games)
Average game rating on Who Scored: 7.31
Passing Accuracy: 85.6%
A true Brazilian, Rafe likes to get forward and shoot, but he's also usually competent at clearing the ball. From what I've seen, he'd rather funnel dribblers into the middle rather than cleanly steal the ball; but, when you have good CBs and you're confident in your 'keeper, that's a solid strategy. Definitely one of the better RBs out there. Still, he's neither a tough ball-winning tackler, nor an intimidating presence - if I were an opposing wing, I don't have any particular fear of going up against Rafael, no offense.
Note that Patrice Evra would have earned consideration on this list, but for our "one FB per team" rule. If any Man U fans out there want to make a case that I should have included Evra and dropped Rafael, you may be right. I just figured, Evra is almost 32 and likes to go on strike during tournaments, so Rafe gets the edge.
Club's defensive record (league play only): 1.206 goals allowed per (35 goals in 29 league games)
Average game rating on Who Scored: 7.39
Passing Accuracy: 83%
What you see is what you get: his goal-scoring numbers are better than most on this list, his passing accuracy, a little worse. His team relies on him for a spark more so than most clubs do ... hard to tell if that helps or hurts his numbers, but I definitely think of him as one of the best, most complete FBs in the world from the handful of Everton matches I've watched. I was surprised that Who Scored has him averaging only 1.9 successful tackles per game - lowest of anyone on this list.
He also missed the last month of last season with a hamstring tear, which not only cost him 4 league matches, but also the second half of the FA Cup loss to Liverpool. Sorry, Baines, but endurance counts. Even so, you're in the discussion, and we admire your playing style.
Age: 23 - turns 24 on Thursday
Club's defensive record (league play only): 1.107 goals allowed per (31 goals in 28 league games)
Average game rating on Who Scored: 7.19
Passing Accuracy: 90.5%
A great player, no doubt, although I thought he was younger. He's got a good nose for interceptions. And with his speed and his passing accuracy, it can often immediately lead to a chance going the other way. But his 5 assists are rather pedestrian. And ... I know own goals sometimes happen, but come on, dude:
Couldn't do that going the other way if we gave you 20 tries. Next.
Club: Manchester City
Club's defensive record (league play only): 0.986 goals allowed per (26 goals in 29 league games)
Average game rating on Who Scored: 7.17
Passing Accuracy: 82.2%
A lot going on here. He's a good tackler, he sees the field well, he's a leader on a good defense (stingiest in the Premier League), and he's shut down several great forwards. He's also an expert at playing opposing players offside (or so BrklynBayern once told us - unless I'm confusing him with Sagna?). But he doesn't accelerate that well, doesn't give you any kind of "instant-defense-to-offense" jolt, and offers little going forward: 1 goal and 15 assists in his career in English league play, after nearly a decade in the Prem. He's a solid player who you can count on to fulfill defensive duties, but in this day and age, it helps to have at least the possibility of an offensive presence from the FB spot. He also stunk it up in City's two CL matches against Ajax this year.
Club: AC Milan
Club's defensive record (league play only): 1.103 goals allowed per (32 goals in 29 league games)
Average game rating on Who Scored: 7.01
Passing Accuracy: 84.7%
I can't say for sure, but I honestly don't think I had ever heard of this guy until the first leg of the Milan-Barca tie a few weeks ago. But he impressed me from what I saw, barring one or two big mistakes in the 2d leg. His numbers aren't eye-popping, but he seemed like the kind of guy that opponents hate playing against: not afraid to throw in a hard tackle, but also not foolishly hyper-aggressive or easy to trick. He scored a ton of goals back when he was playing in France; now, that was in Ligue 2, but at least you know he can dribble and shoot without tripping over his own feet.
I'd have to watch more AC Milan matches to get a better opinion. But, having watched him play twice against one of the best offenses in the world, I'd say he deserves mention.
Club: FC Bayern
Club's defensive record (league play only): 0.423 goals allowed per (11 in 26 league games)
Average game rating on Who Scored: 7.44
Passing Accuracy: 89.3%
Alright, let's see: best rating on Who Scored, most assists (by far), best defensive record for his club (by far), and serves as the captain of a team that might clinch a league title in March. I can truly say that this might be his best year ever. His weird back-of the-leg slide tackle was something that he used to use occasionally, as a trick. Now it's a regular part of his repertoire. When he drops into that move, you're thinking "wait a minute, did he just fall down in the middle of th- HOLY SHIT HE JUST STOLE THE BALL!!"
He also hardly ever commits stupid fouls (0.5 fouls per match - by far the lowest of anyone on this list), can overlap well with forwards on the right wing, and is a precise passer. His passing accuracy numbers are a tiny bit below Alba's but part of that has to be down to Alba's playing in a system that prizes passing accuracy above creating chances. When it comes to passing, Lahm can do it all: he knows how to send up accurate long balls, how to keep the ball low and work and back-and-forth passing game, and how to float in an accurate cross from the sideline. Even on the bounce:
Opinions will always vary, but if the numbers are to be believed, we've found the world's best fullback. In fact, he has only one major weakness. But to figure it out, you have to vote in the poll. Thanks for reading.
What is Philipp Lahm's greatest problem?
Too good, makes the other FBs jealous (48 votes)
Can't simultaneously play RB and LB (where he'd also be the best in the world) (96 votes)
Ought to get injured more often, to give Rafinha a chance (8 votes)
Committing more dumb fouls would throw some excitement into the match (2 votes)
Ought to just shorten it to "Phil" (19 votes)
173 total votes