COMMENT By Solace Chukwu Follow on Twitter
The strategic importance of the full-back has never been higher than it is today. In this light, is it perhaps about time a state of emergency was declared on the continent?
It may be a simplistic summation, but the logical resolution of the premise above is that the development of the African game is linked to the development of its full-backs. It is worrying then that, even more so than in previous years, the continent's options in this area were quite underwhelming.
This was neatly illustrated at the World Cup in the summer.
Congratulations to the final five defenders nominated for the @Goal Africa Team of the Year 2018.
Which of this quintet will make the final cut?@AchrafHakimi, @WTroostEkong, @salouf5, @YoucefAttalhttps://t.co/PickTAbbVZ pic.twitter.com/oNl3KGUheE — Ed Dove (@EddyDove) December 22, 2018
No African side progressed beyond the group stage in Russia, and while there were a humber of factors upon which this failure was founded, it was notable that only two of the five representatives had truly impressive full-back options.
Incidentally, those two – Morocco and Senegal – produced Africa's best performances and, in the case of the Teranga Lions, were a whisker away from advancing.
It is to them that the continent can look to for solace: Achraf Hakimi has gone from highly-rated to one of the elite full-backs in Europe at Borussia Dortmund, while Noussair Mazraoui, in his first full season as a first-team player, is coming on in leaps and bounds at Ajax, and has made his way into the Atlas Lions squad under Herve Renard.
The exciting Hamza Mendyl is also in the mix, and while he has not come on at quite the expected pace, mooted interest from Arsenal in the summer goes to show his talent is well regarded.
Senegal would famously become the first team in World Cup history to miss out on progress due to their disciplinary record. However, beyond that remarkable bit of trivia, Aliou Cisse's side were quite refreshingly wing-based in their attacking.
Playing a flat 4-4-2, both full-backs – Moussa Wague (now at Barcelona B) and Youssouf Sabaly – got forward dangerously, and combined for the second goal in their pulsating 2-2 draw against Japan.
As is clear, these two nations boast excellent options, but there is little to set the pulse racing besides. Some of that is down to misfortune at club level, especially where it concerns the likes of Faouzi Ghoulam and Victor Moses.
Revealed: The second batch of defenders shortlisted for the @Goal Africa Team of the Year 2018.https://t.co/z9uyDzlJjP
Congrats to @MedhiBenatia, @EBIONOME pic.twitter.com/7GQ8aUohaG — Ed Dove (@EddyDove) December 20, 2018
On form, the former is one of the very elite in terms of standing in European football. However, surgeries and rehabilitation, first for a torn anterior cruciate ligament and then for a fractured knee, ruled him out of action all year up until November.
Moses, for his part, has fallen victim to the tactical preferences of new manager Maurizio Sarri, whose system at Chelsea does not incorporate wing-backs.
Having been so pivotal under the previous regime as to have no natural competition, he now finds himself out in the cold, with rumours pointing to a return to boyhood club Crystal Palace.
His situation is instructive, however, in the sense that it shows the degree to which tactical considerations shape what is required of footballers. Beyond the individual circumstances of some of the continent's previous leading lights, there is the fact that even the default movements and responsibilities of full-backs are evolving.
Congratulations to the first five defenders shortlisted for the 2018 @Goal Africa Team of the Year.@kkoulibaly26, @Janinevanwyk5 @UBeaubo @matsraoui https://t.co/7dVsoELaPv pic.twitter.com/hBKQc6Gx4R — Ed Dove (@EddyDove) December 20, 2018
Where once the prevalence of the 4-4-2 meant that full-backs could see the play and pick up some acceleration to go past the wide midfielder, wingers high up present a different challenge.
According to FIFA's Technical Report of the 2018 World Cup, "In general, fewer traditional overlaps are occurring due to teams’ dynamic interchanging of positions."
More and more, full-backs are required, not simply to chug up and down the line, but also to come inside, to 'underlap' and play in more central areas in order to avoid being nullified by the opposing winger.
It is no coincidence that Mazraoui and Hakimi, the continent's eminent full-backs, are capable of this: the former by virtue of his rounded development at Ajax, and the latter by opening up a whole new vista of passing options playing on the 'wrong' side.
It seems then that, until and unless Africa can remain ahead of the curve, both where the newest tactical evolutions in the game is concerned and in terms of development, there will continue to be a paucity of truly top-level 'laterals'.