Attacking left-backs like Benjamin Mendy, Marcos Alonso revolutionising the Premier League
Three games into the new Premier League campaign is somewhat premature for assessing 2018-19's tactical trends, but it's been easy to identify certain patterns from the 30 matches thus far: lots of goals, lots of heavy pressing and -- in particular -- a seemingly high number of attacking contributions from attack-minded left-backs.
Left-back was the weakest position in the Premier League last season. You really had to scramble around to find a player deserving of a place in the "Team of the Year," with Chelsea's Marcos Alonso eventually getting the nod despite a pretty average campaign.
After just one game of this campaign, however, the strong favourite for that 2018-19's left-back slot was already Manchester City's Benjamin Mendy, who could revolutionise the nature of the full-back role. On the opening weekend against Arsenal, Mendy showed his impressive ability to play left-back in two different ways -- either drifting inside and creating space for a winger on the outside, or overlapping and crossing. He collected assists in both ways, for Raheem Sterling and Bernardo Silva respectively, and is the clearest difference between the City of last season and the City of this season. He collected another assist last weekend and showcased his crossing ability in the 1-1 draw with Wolves on Saturday, too.
Other left-backs have played starring roles in attack, too. Marcos Alonso, in particular, has contributed significantly in every game: he won a penalty in the 3-0 opening day victory over Huddersfield, assisted Pedro Rodriguez's opener and then scored a late winner in the thrilling 3-2 victory over Arsenal, and was effectively responsible for both goals against Newcastle at the weekend, first winning a penalty and then forcing DeAndre Yedlin into an own goal. Alonso is an interesting case, a player signed specifically to play wing-back in Antonio Conte's 3-4-3, who has tucked back into a four-man defence under Maurizio Sarri, seemingly without losing any of his attacking threat.
Three other left-backs found themselves on the scoresheet last weekend. Nacho Monreal continued his fine goal-scoring form from last season by hitting Arsenal's equaliser against West Ham, while Ryan Bertrand smashed home a brilliant long-range goal in the loss to Leicester. Jose Holebas of Watford, meanwhile, was somewhat fortunate that his right-footed cross drifted all the way into the far corner against Crystal Palace.
Others have impressed with more accurate crossing. Andrew Robertson continues to shine for Liverpool and Ben Chilwell has pushed forward to good effect for Leicester so far, while his understudy Christian Fuchs scored a quite magnificent long-range strike in the Carabao Cup over Fleetwood Town in midweek. Leicester have also suffered from a left-back's attacking contribution this season: Luke Shaw scoring the opener in Manchester United's opening day victory over the Foxes. In an otherwise bleak start to the campaign, Shaw's performances have been arguably the only bright spot for Manchester United.
While full-back is unquestionably the least glamorous position in football, left-backs tend to play a more attacking, more spectacular role than their right-sided equivalents, a concept that can be traced back to Giacinto Facchetti's attacking role in Helenio Herrera's Inter side of the 1960s. He defined left-back play for the next couple of decades, and other Serie A sides playing the so-called "Italian game" always featured a rampaging left-back and a more cautious one opposite on the right.
Lefties are more about overlapping and crossing, more likely to fancy themselves as a long-range shooting specialists, more likely to demand unreasonably glamorous shirt numbers like Roma's Aleksandar Kolarov and his number 11. Right-backs are steadier, more reserved, more boring. It fits with the general perception that left-handers are more creative than right-handed people, but also has more specific footballing causes.
First, there remains a general perception that left-backs must be left-footed. It's difficult to recall many examples of top-class right-footed left-backs: Paolo Maldini and Gianluca Zambrotta are obvious exceptions, but they were regarded as excellent left-backs despite, rather than because of, their right-footedness. The template is still about overlapping and crossing on the run, and therefore regardless of whether they boast particular defensive qualities, young left-footed attacking players are often recast as left-backs. Jordi Alba and Marcelo, for example, could clearly play in more advanced positions at a high level.
Right-back is different. You want a right-footer, of course, but the majority of players are right-footed, and therefore players converted into this position are just the most solid, reliable and unspectacular players who probably won't quite make it in other positions like defensive midfield or central defence. The World Cup provided a good example of this: Thomas Meunier and Benjamin Pavard were both highly impressive, but appeared more workmanlike ex-centre-backs rather than creative players.
The second issue is that left-backs are often allowed more space to overlap into -- again, because more players are right-footed. If a manager can call upon one left-footed and one right-footed winger -- Bayern Munich's Arjen Robben and Frank Ribery, for example -- he can deploy either conventional or inverted wingers as he likes, and the side will play symmetrically. What often happens, however, is that both wingers are right-footed, so the right-sided winger naturally goes down the outside, and the left-sided winger naturally cuts inside -- Jose Callejon and Lorenzo Insigne for Napoli, for example.
Therefore, space opens up on the overlap for the left-back, but not the right-back, who instead plays a steadier and safer game. It's extremely rare, for obvious statistical reasons, to find a left-footed winger on both flanks, so the reverse pattern rarely happens.
There are some exceptions, of course. Arsenal right-back Hector Bellerin has played a major part in Arsenal's attacking moves under Unai Emery, and Tottenham's Kieran Trippier has continued his good form after an impressive World Cup.
But left-backs have outscored right-backs 5-0 in the Premier League thus far, and it's unlikely that margin will be overturned over the next 35 games.
Left-backs and right-backs both have roles but when it comes to attacking prowess and "sexiness", the players on the left are acres ahead of their counterparts on the right.