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The ‘modern’ Serie A full-back and their involvement in a team’s attacking play

By: Stats Perform

The role of the full-back has evolved substantially in recent years, going way and beyond its traditional emphasis on defending. Adaptability and good technical ability are now essential requirements for the modern full-back, along with the key defensive attributes.  

On top of this, a full-back who is used to operating in a back four now needs to be able to perform as a wing-back in a 3-5-2 formation given that many coaches, notably Antonio Conte, champion this system.

The role assigned to each full-back or wing-back provides a great insight into a team’s overall style of play, irrespective of their own personal attacking and defensive strengths. Using the Opta sequence framework, we analyse how Serie A full backs last season were involved when their teams were in possession.

Involvement in passing chains

The table below lists the top 20 players across all positions who were involved in the most passing sequences per 90 minutes. These include open play and set play situations, as well as from goal kicks and recoveries in the opposition half.

Player* Team Position Involvement per 90
Jorginho Napoli CM 70.0
Aleksandar Kolarov Roma WD 64.9
Marek Hamsik Napoli CM 64.6
Mário Rui Napoli WD 64.0
João Cancelo Internazionale WD 63.0
Miralem Pjanic Juventus CM 61.7
Marcelo Brozovic Internazionale DM 61.2
Lorenzo Insigne Napoli WF 61.0
Luca Cigarini Cagliari CM 60.6
Alex Sandro Juventus WD 57.3
Josip Ilicic Atalanta AM 57.0
Elseid Hysaj Napoli WD 56.8
Kalidou Koulibaly Napoli CD 56.5
Luis Alberto Lazio WF 56.3
Raúl Albiol Napoli CD 56.0
Federico Viviani SPAL CM 55.6
Alessandro Florenzi Roma WD 55.5
Remo Freuler Atalanta CM 55.1
Milan Badelj Fiorentina CM 54.9
Lucas Torreira Sampdoria DM 54.7

Players* who have played a minimum of 1000 league minutes


The highlighted rows show that six of the top 20 players were ‘wide defenders’. Roma’s left back Aleksandar Kolarov was involved in 64.9 sequences, ranking him second to Jorginho across the entire league. Behind him in fourth place overall is Mario Rui of Napoli, a team renowned for their strong left-hand side and build-up play.

After breaking into Inter’s first team in December, right back João Cancel developed into a key player for Luciano Spalletti’s side, making it three full backs in the league’s top five for passing sequence involvement.

It is also important to mention Juventus’ Alex Sandro, the fourth most involved wide defender, as Juve adopt a different style to Roma, Inter and Napoli.

Does a team prefer to cross or retain possession in the final third?

There is little doubt that player output is influenced by the overall team strategy. How a team attacks will almost certainly impact a full back’s level of involvement.

In Serie A, Inter and Roma attempted more crosses than any other team last season and as we can see by the player involvement of sequences which ended in a cross, Cancelo, Kolarov and Florenzi appear in the league’s top three.

Total sequences ending with a cross per 90 minutes

Team Sequences ending with a cross   Wide defender Team Involvement in sequences ending with a cross
Internazionale 26.4 João Cancelo Internazionale 16.6
Roma 25.3 Aleksandar Kolarov Roma 13.4
Milan 23.0 Alessandro Florenzi Roma 11.2
Chievo 21.3 Cristiano Biraghi Fiorentina 10.4
Sassuolo 21.1 Davide Calabria Milan 10.4
Sampdoria 20.9 Bruno Peres Roma 9.4
Fiorentina 20.8 Fabrizio Cacciatore Chievo 9.3
Genoa 20.2 Ricardo Rodriguez Milan 9.2
Atalanta 19.7 Alex Sandro Juventus 8.7
Cagliari 19.3 Mário Rui Napoli 8.3
SPAL 19.2 Faouzi Ghoulam Napoli 8.2
Lazio 18.8 Danilo D’Ambrosio Internationale 7.9
Udinese 18.7 Massimo Gobbi Chievo 7.3
Juventus 17.7 Vincent Laurini Fiorentina 6.8
Napoli 17.6 Ivan Strinic Milan 6.7
Benevento 17.1 Gaetano Letizia Benevento 6.4
Verona 17.0 Gianluca Di Chiara Benevento 6.3
Crotone 16.8 Bruno Martella Crotone 6.3
Torino 16.1 Stephan Lichsteiner Juventus 6.3
Bologna 14.5 Davide Faraoni Crotone 6.1

Similarly, both Chievo and AC Milan also see their full-backs from both sides being heavily involved in cross ending sequences.

On the other hand, Napoli and Juventus have a much lower crossing ratio, which is why Alex Sandro and Mario Rui are involved in far fewer cross-ending sequences.

By exploring the ratio between passes made and crosses delivered in the final third, we can highlight how these defenders are involved in attacking play.

As we can see from the tables below, Napoli are completing on average 12.8 passes in the final third before delivering a cross and their right back, Elseid Hysaj, has the highest ratio of any wide defender. Mario Rui and Juventus’ various full backs also have higher ratios compared to the players we highlighted as being involved in crossing sequences, which further highlights the contrast in the different style of play adopted by their respective clubs.

Total passes completed in the final third before a cross per 90 minutes

Team Sequences ending with a cross   Wide defender Team Involvement in sequences ending with a cross
Napoli 12.8 E. Hysaj Napoli 9.1
Atalanta 8.6 I. M’baye Bologna 6.8
Juventus 7.9 K. Asamoah Juventus 5.8
Lazio 7.0 Mário Rui Napoli 5.7
Torino 6.5 A. Masina Bologna 5.3
Bologna 6.4 D. D’Ambrosio Internazionale 5.2
Sampdoria 6.2 S. Souprayen Hellas Verona 4.8
Milan 6.1 A. Ferrari Hellas Verona 4.5
Roma 5.6 S. Lichsteiner Juventus 3.5
Fiorentina 5.5 A. Sandro Juventus 3.3
Genoa 5.3 B. Bereszynski Sampdoria 3.1
Internazionale 5.1 A. Kolarov Roma 2.9
Benevento 5.0 R. Rodriguez Milan 2.9
Sassuolo 4.9 C. Molinaro Torino 2.8
Crotone 4.7 J. Cancelo Internazionale 2.8
Udinese 4.4 M. Gobbi Chievo 2.7
Chievo 4.4 B. Peres Roma 2.7
Cagliari 4.4 F. Cacciatore Chievo 2.4
SPAL 4.2 A. Florenzi Roma 2.4
Hellas Verona 3.8 L. Venuti Benevento 2.4
D. Calabria Milan 2.4
Ivan Strinic Sampdoria 2.1
M. Caceres Lazio 2.1
L. De Silvestri Torino 1.9
D. Faraoni Crotone 1.7
C. Biraghi Fiorentina 1.6

Attacking behaviours

A full-back’s actions in attacking situations can also help us establish how they fit into their team’s overall strategy. As well has highlighting their role, it can also help a club categorise full-backs in a scouting context.

We know from our findings that Cancelo focuses on delivering crosses into the box in attacking situations, but from looking at the number of shots attempted by full-backs per 90 minutes, we can see that as well as delivering balls from wide positions, both Roma full-backs also have the license to shoot.

In contrast, Napoli’s full-backs are more involved in build-up play but are less inclined to cross or shoot.

Serie A full-backs: shots per 90 minutes

Player Team Shot per 90 min Player Team Shot per 90 min
A. Kolarov Roma 1.9 G. Di Chiara Benevento 0.5
A. Florenzi Roma 1.5 K. Asamoah Juventus 0.4
M. Fares Hellas Verona 1.1 F. Peluso Sassuolo 0.4
M. Caceres Lazio 1.1 F. Depaoli Chievo 0.4
C. Biraghi Fiorentina 1.1 I. M’baye Bologna 0.4
G. Letizia Benevento 0.9 I. Abate Milan 0.3
R. Rodriguez Milan 0.9 A. Ferrari Hellas Verona 0.3
C. Ansaldi Torino 0.9 E. Hysaj Napoli 0.3
B. Martella Crotone 0.8 Pol Lirola Sassuolo 0.3
A. Sandro Juventus 0.8 N. Murru Sampdoria 0.3
L. De Silvestri Torino 0.7 Mário Rui Napoli 0.3
D. Faraoni Crotone 0.7 S. Souprayen Hellas Verona 0.3
F. Cacciatore Chievo 0.7 M. Gobbi Chievo 0.3
J. Cancelo Internazionale 0.6 S. Lichsteiner Juventus 0.2
B. Peres Roma 0.6 L. Venuti Benevento 0.2
D. D’Ambrosio Internazionale 0.5 B. Bereszynski Sampdoria 0.2
A. Masina Bologna 0.5 M. Sampirisi Crotone 0.1
D. Calabria Milan 0.5 C. Molinaro Torino 0.1

To emphasise this point, here are the shot maps from last season for four of the full-backs we have discussed in this blog. Each shot map only shows unassisted shots, which means that the player had the choice to pass or cross at that point in a possession phase, but elected to shoot instead.

Of course, what we have discussed in this piece doesn’t take into account the tactics adopted by the opposition or the specific context of each game, however it should provide a small insight into key differences in how different teams have utilised their full-backs in attacking phases over an extended period of time.