This weekend, Arsenal and Bournemouth faced the same problem at outside back. Arsenal’s two top right-defenders were injured, while Carl Jenkinson is still struggling for form. On the south coast, Charlie Daniels and Brad Smith both had not done enough in prior weeks to convince Eddie Howe they deserved the starting position against Liverpool.
In response, the Cherries shifted the right-footed Adam Smith onto the left. Arsenal approached the problem in a completely different fashion. Instead of slotting the specialist fullback Kieran Gibbs into the position, Arsène Wenger went with Gabriel, a center-back with no recent history as an outside defender.
It’s an interesting example of a strange footballing axiom.
Why do teams play right-footed players at left back, but never left-backs on the right?
Football used to be a simple game. It was one of intuition, tradition and common sense. The big men played at center-back and center-forward. The skilled athletes controlled the game from the middle. Left-footed players played on the left. Right-footers went on the right. Quick lads ran the wings, and the one that was always ‘a bit off’ found his way into goal. Positions determined numbers, while any non-black boots only determined the first player to get crunched in a tackle.
Today, there are few of these customs left.
On the field, many of football’s once-certainties have been erased in the blur of modernity. Players are arguably more complete than ever before. Strikers defend, goalkeepers use their feet, and a right-wing back is currently leading Europe in headed goals.
The idea of, “that’s just not how it’s done,” has mostly ceased to exist. Yet, the notion of the left-footed right back is still dismissed under those exact auspices. Even by pundits such as Gary Neville and Jamie Carragher that spent time as inverted fullbacks.
Yes, it’s a concept that just doesn’t feel right.
Any football fan can agree, there is just something about a left-footed swing of the boot that captures the imagination. It seems to add a degree of menace to a Hulk drive while simultaneously excusing a sizeable Andy Reid meal. The ‘cultured left foot’ has inspired a cult of personality. Roberto Carlos, John Arne Riise and Lucas Podolski built their entire careers around a singular left-sided presence.
Putting a left-footed player at right back almost feels like a waste. But is there anything more to it than a feeling?
There is no reluctance to use right-backs on the left. This weekend alone, Adam Smith, James Milner, Joel Ward, Matteo Darmian, and Fabio all started as inverted full-backs in the Premier League. Philip Lahm and Cesar Azpilicueta have both been highly successful on the left, while right-footed players Nilton Santos, Paulo Maldini and Giacinto Fachetti are considered by many to be three of the best left-sided outside backs in history.
So why do we not trust the opposite?
Perhaps the most common claim against this idea is that left-footed players only make up about 20% of the world’s professional footballers. Due to this shortage, statistically the odds of having a surfeit of left-footed athletes are lower. As a result, coaches tend to put them on the left from a young age to ‘balance’ the field. This lack of positional rotation often leads a player with an exceedingly proficient left foot and no semblance of a right. While there are some high-profile examples (Arjen Robben, Angel Di Maria, Daniel Sturridge), it is an argument that falls short among the many exceptions. There are versatile left-footed defenders like Robbie Brady and Gael Clichy that are technically adept with their right feet. Is there any reason to suggest they couldn’t have the same success at right back as a Joel Ward or Adam Smith on the left?
Logic tells us they could even be better.
In a game moving away from the low-percentage threat of crosses, the inverse right-back could become the new specialist defensive position. This past weekend alone, 75% of right-attackers in the Premier League were right-footed. Only 25% of those on the left favored their left foot. The common argument is that left –footed right-defenders would have a difficult time protecting the byline. By this accepted logic, opposite-foot left-backs would actually have a harder time against the superior number of right-footed wingers naturally moving towards the touchline. Yet, we see inverse left backs every week. In reality, players with a dominant left foot would actually be more useful in protecting the middle of the field from the higher percentage of right-footed left-wingers looking to cut inside for a through ball or shot.
Even on the attacking side, there is absolutely no reason to suggest that a left-footed player could not hold a different type of threat. For a team like Arsenal that don’t use a target man, a left-footed player like Kieran Gibbs would still be able to hold his width on the right. Instead of running into touch, his ability to check inside and find a quicker incisive pass to a creative attacker could actually be more valuable than Gabriel or Jenkinson that simply swings a ball into the box full of sub six-foot players.
At its heart, the reluctance to put a left-footed player at right back is an idea grounded in feeling rather than fact.
A left-footed defender wouldn’t change the future of the sport. It wouldn’t even turn a team’s season around. But it could mean a few points over the course of a year.
More importantly, it would be fun to destroy one of football’s last useless ingrained practices.
And for that reason alone, I’d love to see it happen.