How to Dominate as a Left Back in Soccer (Tips and Secrets)
Historically, the left back position was one of the least influential on the field.
Apart from occasional outliers, like Roberto Carlos, left backs were quite one-dimensional -- defending first and offering attacking support second.
In the past, teams could get away with putting mediocre players in the fullback positions.
But now the game has evolved...
In today's game, fullbacks have a much greater influence over defensive shape, ball retention, and attacking strategy.
In an increasingly technical game, there's no more room for passengers.
Successful teams have dominant players in every single position, including left back.
Responsibilities of a Left Back in Soccer
The role of a left back (or right back) has developed more than many others in the past decade.
Teams now rely on their fullbacks to contribute both defensively and offensively.
Offensively, that starts with spacing...
At the highest levels, space on the field is at a premium. The middle of the park gets heavily congested, making it difficult to penetrate from central areas.
Fullbacks help out in this area as they're often afforded the most time and space during games, since their position is usually the least threatening to the opposition.
This has led to coaches finding ways to better utilize their left backs in and out of possession.
In the modern game, the role of a left back in soccer involves five key responsibilities:
1. Defending Wide Areas
Left backs play a key role in a 4-player backline.
Their primary responsibilities are:
- Defend the left flank
- Mark the opposition winger
- Disrupt any attacks that occur in their quadrant
A left back must have solid defensive fundamentals to deal with tricky midfielders and quick forwards who often utilize skill and speed to create goalscoring opportunities.
Left backs often find themselves in 1v1 situations where they have to match their opponent in terms of speed and physicality.
Dominant fullbacks can effectively shut down opposition attackers by forcing them away from goal, blocking crosses, and winning 50/50 duels.
2. Defensive Cover
While a left back’s main role is to defend, they must also provide effective cover if the ball is on the opposite wing.
When the opposition attacks down the right side, the entire defensive line shifts across to cover any immediate threats and prevent crosses.
In this instance, the left back tucks in accordingly to act as the last line of defense if the ball makes its way into the box.
Positional sense and awareness are critical in these situations. The left back must track the ball while keeping an eye on their winger and late runners to the back post.
That's why the key to defensive covering as a fullback is correct body positioning.
A left back should open their body toward the play and be able to point at the ball and their winger with either hand.
3. Maintaining the Defensive Shape
A dominant defensive line works as a unit.
During training sessions, coaches often use bands to connect each defender. This ensures they all move as one and maintain a solid defensive shape.
A disjointed backline leaves gaps for the opposing team to exploit.
Left backs must be in constant communication with their center backs to keep the shape.
In possession, the left back is typically whitening their cleats along the sideline, moving up and down the wing to offer a passing outlet.
Out of possession, the left back tucks in 10 to 15 yards to reestablish a solid defensive shape.
The winger drops back to offer cover in the wide areas and track any overlapping runs.
If you’ve ever seen a live game, you may have noticed that the defenders are constantly talking (screaming), making sure gaps are plugged and everyone is in the right position.
4. Developing Relationships with Wingers
In addition to forging bonds with fellow defenders, left backs must also develop relationships with the wingers on their team.
The left back and left winger attack and defend in tandem, creating mismatches and overloads when they are in possession.
Fullbacks and same-sided wingers should know each other’s strengths, weaknesses, tendencies, and habits.
This ensures they can flow between attack and defense seamlessly and work together to create goalscoring opportunities.
Give-and-go passes, dummy runs, and overlaps are key actions in a fullback-winger partnership.
5. Orchestrating Attacks
In the modern game, left backs are becoming more influential in the opponent’s final third.
4-3-3 formations are the most popular setups among elite teams, with fullbacks providing essential width in attacking scenarios.
If the left back takes up an advanced position, the left winger is free to attack central areas and occupy the opposing defenders.
Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool is a perfect example of how to utilize fullbacks to orchestrate attacks.
Their primary fullbacks, Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andrew Robertson, have consistently led their team’s assist charts over the past 5 seasons.
Trent, in particular, is widely regarded as one of the most technically gifted creators in the Premier League.
Despite criticisms about his lack of defensive abilities, he can drop the ball on a dime and is easily one of Liverpool’s most dangerous attackers.
Primary Skills of a Left Back
Left backs are a special breed...
While there are always outliers in sports, you can usually spot a left back from a mile away.
They're akin to bulldogs on the field, displaying ferocious intensity, a strong work ethic, and excellent stamina.
To dominate as a left back, you must hone your skill set in the following areas:
Skill #1. Technical Defending
Fiery left backs are known for their aggressive approach, putting their bodies on the line where most others wouldn’t.
However, the elite-level defenders display a fine balance of physicality and technical mastery.
"Technical defending" refers to tackling capabilities (standing and sliding), blocking, heading, and first touch.
A good left back should be able to outwit their opponents in 1v1 situations by demonstrating patience and timing.
The best defenders are rarely caught square. Instead, they show their opponents one direction (away from goal), stacking the odds of winning the duel in their favor.
In addition to stopping opponents, dominant left backs should be able to cut out attacks and crosses in a controlled manner.
This can involve redirecting crosses or clearing dangerous balls into safe areas for teammates.
Skill #2. Positioning and Movement
Elite positioning and movement ensures a defender remains a step ahead of their opponent.
As discussed, a left back works as part of a defensive unit and rarely strays from the backline.
A dominant left back makes the game look easy and relies on strategic positioning and movement to snuff out attacks with ease.
Skill #3. Aggressiveness
Fullbacks are notoriously feisty.
Aggression and tenacity are common traits among left backs.
Although technique and positional sense are increasing in importance, physicality and aggression are crucial in a position where there are so many individual battles.
Skill #4. Reading the Game
A single lapse in concentration by any defender can result in a goal.
Fullbacks can sometimes get away with poor positioning due to central cover from other defenders. However, a left back can’t rely on teammates to make up for their mistakes.
A dominant defender must be able to read the game, anticipate runs, and position themselves correctly to break up attacks.
At a professional level, a player can improve their ability to read the game by studying tape and analyzing trends by opposing wingers.
The key aspects of a good film session involves studying regular running and dribbling patterns, where the opponent likes to receive the ball, and where they like to pass.
These factors allow the defender to anticipate attacks and close down opponents in the right places at the right times.
In amateur competition, players won’t have access to hours of tape on their opponents.
Instead, they can make reads in-game, while practicing solid fundamental positioning.
If they notice particular trends, they can adapt and make adjustments to combat them.
Skill #5. Stamina
A left back is one of the rare positions that involves spending an entire game running the length of the field, attacking and defending.
To dominate as a left back you must have excellent stamina to last a full 90 minutes.
What’s more, you must also be able to perform well until the very last second.
For example, failing to track a winger in the closing moments can result in a free header at the back post, potentially costing the team a win.
Again, instilling good habits and a strong positional sense ensures a left back is in the right position more often than not.
If you’re struggling to keep up toward the end of a game, always defend first.
Never take unnecessary risks that could contribute to your team losing the contest.
Skill #6. Speed
An elite modern left back should also be fast.
As well as keeping up with speedy wingers, they often have to chase down over-the-top passes, cut out through balls, and cover for teammates.
Interestingly, two of the fastest players in today’s game are fullbacks.
Alphonso Davies, the Canadian left back from Bayern Munich, clocked a staggering 22.68 mph in 2021. While PSG’s blistering right back, Achraf Hakimi, logged 22.66 mph in the same season.
This is approximately 4 mph away from the fastest 100m sprinters in the world every year.
Not bad considering the conditions are much more difficult on grass while wearing cleats.
Speed kills on the soccer field.
Skill #7. Striking Technique
Using Trent Alexander-Arnold as an example, many teams rely on their left backs to create attacking opportunities.
Possessing high-level striking technique can take your game to another level, allowing you to make goalscoring chances from wide areas.
In many cases, left backs begin their careers as wingers but lack the offensive qualities to make it in the professional leagues.
However, if they retain the ability to whip in a good cross, switch the play, or shoot from distance, they can be extremely useful to their teams as defenders.
We often see left backs assume free-kick and corner-taking duties.
Inverted Left Backs
Pep Guardiola is regularly uses inverted fullbacks to align with his philosophy of central dominance and midfield control.
Rather than hugging the touchlines in the build-up phase, at least one of the fullbacks moves into a central position, creating a numerical advantage.
The advantage allows midfielders and inverted fullbacks to make several quick passes, progressing the ball through the center of the field.
This is a highly effective way to break a traditional press.
However, it requires long hours on the training field to account for all scenarios. Simple mistakes will lead to easy chances for the opposition team.
In order to play as an inverted left back, a player must have excellent technical ability as well as great positional awareness.
There's no room for complacency with inverted left backs. It's a high-risk, high-reward strategy.
Inverted full backs often play on the opposite side to their strong foot so they can cut inside onto their favored foot.
Joao Cancelo is the perfect example of an inverted left back, dominating for Manchester City in the 2021/22 season.
A traditional left back operates as part of a 4-player backline.
With a solid defensive spine, wingbacks are afforded more freedom to attack.
Wingbacks typically occupy much more advanced positions, relying on the center backs to cover in behind.
Many teams depend on wingbacks to provide the width in their teams.
This makes them responsible for chance creation and goalscoring.
We’ve seen many effective wingback-oriented teams enjoy tremendous success in recent years, including Chelsea’s Champions League-winning side in 2020/21.
It’s no longer acceptable to ignore a left back in soccer.
Dominant left backs are highly skilled going forward or backward and are often the key difference at the highest level.
Refine your technical skills and master positioning to improve and excel in this niche position.