Quality full-back play among the contenders visibly absent at the 2018 World Cup so far
Seven days into the 2018 World Cup, arguably the defining feature has been the all-around quality. The matches have been positive, the ball has aided beautiful long-range goals, the refereeing has largely been good, there have been few reports of crowd trouble. Everything is going well.
That quality extends to the on-field performances. International tournaments are often handicapped by negative, defensive-minded displays, but throughout this tournament, we've seen purposeful possession play and good attacking combinations. There have been wonderful individual attacking displays, such as those by Cristiano Ronaldo and Diego Costa, authoritative midfield performances by Hector Herrera and Isco, solid defensive showings from Diego Godin and Hector Moreno, and goalkeeping masterclasses by Rui Patricio and Guillermo Ochoa. What's been notably lacking, however, is good performances from full-backs.
There was once a time when having the best full-back pairing at a tournament offered a decent guide to winning the competition: Bixente Lizarazu and Lillian Thuram in 1998, Roberto Carlos and Cafu in 2002, Gianluca Zambrotta and Fabio Grosso in 2006 and Sergio Ramos and Joan Capdevila in 2010. Germany's experience in 2014 was somewhat different. Desperately lacking proper full-backs and using Philipp Lahm in midfield, they slightly stumbled through the group stage despite an obvious weakness at full-back when going forward. Lahm's reverting to right-back saved them, but Benedikt Howedes on the other flank was somewhat robotic when pushing forward down the left, as you'd expect of a right-footed centre-back by trade.
This time around, the favourites largely struggled in their opening games, and the key theme was the complete lack of any side with full-back quality on both sides of the pitch.
Germany are the obvious place to start. In theory, they're better equipped in these positions than they were four years ago, with Joshua Kimmich enjoying a wonderful season for Bayern Munich. Kimmich, though, was arguably Germany's main problem in their surprise 1-0 defeat to Mexico, repeatedly overlapping extremely aggressively and sometimes ending up in centre-forward positions when Germany had possession. This opened space for Hirving Lozano, who counterattacked into the space behind him and on one occasion turned inside to fire home the winner.
On the other side, a couple of poor performances in friendlies meant left-back Jonas Hector was replaced by Marvin Plattenhardt for the opening game, but Mexico sensed little threat from him, with right-sided midfielder Miguel Layun essentially ignoring him, tucking inside into central midfield and allowing Germany to switch play to the nonthreatening Hertha man.
Brazil and Spain were in a similar situation to one another. Both have an excellent, left-footed full-back, Marcelo and Jordi Alba respectively, who galloped forward to create their side's most dangerous passing combination. Marcelo pushed past Switzerland's Xherdan Shaqiri, who showed little interest in defending, and combined with Neymar and Philippe Coutinho, who curled home Brazil's wonderful opener from his inside-left position. Alba, meanwhile, led Spain's threat against Portugal by combining with Isco's drifts and Andres Iniesta's mazy runs.
Neither side, however, had anything comparable on the opposite flank. The absence of Dani Alves means Brazil are relying on Danilo, hardly a full-back who continues the fine tradition of Brazilian right-backs such as Carlos Alberto, Cafu and Alves, and the Man City player looked ponderous in possession throughout the 1-1 draw with Switzerland. Spain were without Dani Cavajal, who returned for the side's second match vs. Morocco, but Fernando Hierro's decision to select Nacho instead of Cesar Azpilicueta or Alvaro Odriozola was curious to say the least. Yes, he scored a superb goal, but he was poor in possession and fouled Ronaldo needlessly for the penalty that resulted in Portugal's opener.
Argentina also offered little from full-back in their 1-1 draw with Iceland. Right-back Eduardo Salvio, a converted midfielder, pushed infield when attacking and looked nervous defensively, while left-back Nicolas Tagliafico lacked defensive recovery speed and showed little on the overlap.
France's situation is interesting because they were without their first-choice duo of Benjamin Mendy and Djibril Sidibe against Australia, leaving them to play Lucas Hernandez and Benjamin Pavard instead. Hernandez is more of a centre-back who attacks with intent rather than finesse, while Pavard looked particularly nervous and consistently wasted possession. Without them stretching the play, France's wide forwards weren't able to drift inside and combine.
England and Belgium, slight outsiders, are playing a different system, with Gareth Southgate and Roberto Martinez both favouring a three-man defence with wing-backs. In their opening game, both had problems. England's right-wing-back, Kieran Trippier, showed tremendous quality when crossing, but the left-sided player was Ashley Young, a right-footer who always wants to cut inside rather than push down the outside. England's play therefore badly lacked left-sided width.
Belgium were more difficult to judge, against a defensive Panama side. Yannick Carrasco, more of a winger, pushed high down the left to allow Eden Hazard inside, but Thomas Meunier was frustratingly conservative. That said, the situation might be reversed against strong opposition, with Meunier defensively solid and Carrasco exposed.
Portugal, meanwhile, found right-back Cedric Soares overloaded in their first game against Spain, and their left-back Raphael Guerreiro struggled badly against Nordin Amrabat in their narrow win over Morocco. Uruguay's Martin Caceres, meanwhile, has looked ponderous at left-back. Of the lesser sides, perhaps only Japan's left-back Yuto Nagatomo has turned in a truly outstanding performance, helping Japan to a 2-1 upset win over Colombia.
So far, however, we have yet to see a side playing with two good full-backs. If that's to change, it seems likely to be because of players returning from injury: Carvajal has returned for Spain, and France should welcome back the old Monaco pairing of Mendy and Sidibe soon. If those players are up to full speed quickly, it will be a significant advantage over the other contenders for the 2018 World Cup, and we might see substandard full-backs targeted defensively, or ignored offensively, throughout the knockout stage.
Michael Cox is the editor of zonalmarking.net and a contributor to ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Zonal_Marking.