Who's the Premier League's Best Right-Back?
The full-back position has changed massively throughout the years.
From tough-tackling, fearless defenders like Ashley Cole and Gary Neville through to overlapping wing-back who struck fear in the opposition such as Jordi Alba or Dani Alves.
Now, in the modern-day, we have a mix of the two.
Whilst the developments of the traditional ‘winger’ has meant full backs need to be as sturdy as ever, they’ve also needed to be one of the team’s most creative outlets.
These days such players are filling out EPL defences, while bringing in a new one can completely turn your season around. While different sides play different systems, the one constant is the full/wing back whom both occupy similar roles and areas of the pitch.
There are various layers that determine how good a full back pertaining to defensive stability all the way through to one’s creative aptitude.
Let’s look at the contemporary right-hand side of a back 4/5, using a variety of metrics to arrive at a conclusion as to who indeed is the EPL’s very best right back.
On the surface, a defender’s job is to defend. They’re part of a defensive unit with their principal priority being to stop the opposition creating chances and scoring goals
When looking at defensive statistics, there are many factors that need to be considered: How often does this side need to defend? How are they instructed to defend? Do they perform their defending higher up the pitch? The metrics that are going to be looked at from the previous EPL season are blocks, tackles won, interceptions and % of dribblers tackled. These will provide a broad idea about both the defensive awareness and skill of a player.
When the art of tackling is concerned, the two metrics of % of dribblers tackled and tackles won are clear indications of a player’s ability. For the former, perhaps surprisingly, Liverpool’s Trent Alexander Arnold leads all-comers at 57.9%, with Nelson Semedo coming in second with 55%. Tyrick Mitchell and Kyle Walker share third place with 54.3% with Aaron Wan-Bissaka trailing with 52.5%.
For the latter, Luke Ayling leads that race pretty convincingly with 67 tackles won, 14 ahead of Semedo with 53. Wan-Bissaka was not too far behind with 52 and rounding out the top 5 was Matty Cash and Joao Cancelo with 44 apiece.
Equally as important as the art of tackling is being able to read the play. Getting a toe in before the ball gets through the lines or placing yourself in the perfect position to stop the cross or shot. The two metrics of blocks and interceptions are ideal for calculating this. For interceptions, Wan-Bissaka is first with 66, with Ayling, Matt Lowton, Cancelo and Joel Ward all being very close, with 58, 55, 53 and 52 respectively.
For blocks, the front runners are the same. Wan-Bissaka and Ayling are ranked 1 and 2 with 113 and 81. Matty Cash and Vladimir Coufal take up the next two positions with 77 and 74, before, surprisingly, Kyle Walker-Peters rounds out the top 5 with 70.
A Clear theme was apparent and perhaps obvious prior to assessing these stats which is that Manchester United’s Aaron Wan-Bissaka is by far and a way the best defensive Right Back in the league. However, his ‘tacking’ ability might not be as good as people think, ranking 3rd and 5th for the two metrics that cover that. However, his reading of the game is beyond exceptional. Leeds United's Luke Ayling proved to be a dark horse as well while Trent Alexander-Arnold peaked his nose into an area of the pitch which is often (and incorrectly) perceived to be a weakness of his.
With the occasionally boring - yet important - defensive side of the game out of the way, let’s look at the creative side of the EPL.
Just like in defence, there are two sides of build-up play, carrying the ball and passing the ball. While there is a heavy emphasis on the full backs to do the latter, there’s still an expectation that they can apply be adequate ball carriers as well. The metrics used to determine how creative a full-back is are passes into the 18-yard box, key passes, completed crosses into the 18-yard box and carries into the final third. The same applies in attack as in defence, the way each side is structured and instructed to attack will skew some stats, as some sides put a lot more emphasis on full backs than others.
Considering that most full-backs are - with all due respect - wingers, midfielders, or centre backs who couldn’t quite break into the first team, passing should be one of their chief abilities.
Looking at how players can thread the eye of the needle, passes into the 18-yard box covers that perfectly. Again, Alexander-Arnold leads it with 101, before a big jump down to Joao Cancelo in second place with 64.
Chelsea’s recently minted UCL champion Reece James makes his first appearance here, ranked third with 45, with Lowton and Coufal rounding out the top 5 with 43 and 40.
Another stat that covers that notion is key passes, and unsurprisingly, Alexander-Arnold leads that again with 73. Coufal, Cancelo and James are all within 6 of each other, with 46, 44 and 40 respectively. Wan-Bissaka is in 5th place with 30.
Looking at the main idea of full backs, especially in the modern game, is one’s ability to send in crosses. How often, and successful, a full back is at the crossing game goes a long way in determining how good they are. When looking at that metric, it comes as no shock that Alexander-Arnold leads another creative metric relating to passing. 32 for Trent is 8 in front of 2nd place Reece James with 24, just in front of Coufal who is on 23. Cash and Semedo round out the top 5 with 16 and 14.
While Carries aren’t the be-all and end-all for defenders, they do play a major part in the build-up for play and therefore how much they contribute to the team. Carries Into the Final Third is the best way at showing how comfortable a player is on the ball. Semedo leads this metric, with 83, not that far ahead of Wan-Bissaka in second place with 79. Cancelo and Ayling are equal third with 73 and Alexander-Arnold rounds it out with 72.
Was there any surprise that Alexander-Arnold would annihilate the competition in this category? He showed that he’s once again leaps and bounds better than anyone else when it comes to the attacking side of the game in the EPL.
To determine who is the best right-back in the league, you need to look at what you desire in a right-back. If you want a defensive beast who won’t let anything past, then Aaron Wan-Bissaka is your man. If you want an attacking outlet that adds another dimension to your offence, look no further than Trent Alexander-Arnold. If you want a mix of both, as well as versatility and physicality, then Reece James is the perfect option.
In such a subjective role like a full-back, it's almost impossible to determine an out and out best player though what is certain is that the EPL currently hosts an extremely deep range of talent in this department.
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