Full Backs or Wing Back – What’s The Difference?


The new season is under way there has been a lot of discussion about what the differences are between full backs and wing backs. Let’s take a look.

If you want to waste time and frustrate yourself, start a conversation/debate on Twitter about positions, what you call them, what that means, and what that implies about their roles.

This is probably why there is so little intelligent discussion among football fans about these things. We seem to be under the impression that we invented the game so any discussion of tactics was somehow inherently cynical and as a nation have always seemingly been a step behind the rest of the world.

This would also explain the over-the-top nationalism that takes over the English sporting press any time a major international tournament rolls around no matter how hopeless our players are.

Similarly, we are wary of anyone who speaks of “Total Football” as a stand-alone concept.

Here’s the truth about “Total Football”: it is a 40-year-old concept that has been fully integrated into the global culture and tactical awareness of the game.  Anyone gushing about “total football” in 2011 is likely to be someone who is stuck in a bygone era where 442 is the be all and end all of tactical approach to the beautiful game.

That might seem harsh but I myself was guilty of this until just a few short years ago. I always thought that the only formation to play was 442 and all the other ‘Fancy Dan’ tactics were just showing off.

What do these things have to do with anything?  Well, I bring it up because of the ongoing difficulty I have with talking about defensive positions  and comparing “3-man” defences to “4-man” defences and what the differences are between a “3-man” defence and a “5-man” defence.

More over, what is the difference between a full back and a wing back.

So let’s begin with a glossary:

Full back: to understand what a Fullback is you have to understand the 2-3-5 formation, from which modern football evolved.

No one has played the 2-3-5 for quite some time but even so the terminology of that formation has had the odd habit of sticking around.  Obviously, in the 2-3-5 you had 5 forwards, 3 half backs, and 2 full backs.

Over time, the center half back dropped back to become a central defender with the fullbacks taking up wider positions. Eventually the center half was given a partner and full backs took up even wider positions.

This also explains the British habit of referring to central defenders as “centre halves”.

At any rate, full backs are the outside defenders in a “back 4” defence.

Center back: See above.  The old “centre halves” ought to really be called centre backs.  And here’s a twist: in a “three-man” defence, all three defenders are usually considered “centre backs”.

On the surface, this doesn’t make much sense, but it eventually will, and I hope to help explain that.

Wing back: This term bothers some people, but the “wing back” is evolved from the full back and is best described as the wide defensive midfielders who support a more central back three in a  “3-man” defence.

This leads some to question if the back 3 is really a more defensive formation, with wing backs essentially being full backs lined up in the midfield.  More on that in a bit.

CDM: Central defensive midfielder.  Yes, he (or she, i guess I should be equitable) is probably best thought of as a defensive player.  This may bring on the question of what happens if a team uses two CDMs, as in a 4-2-3-1?

While in some cases this does throw a wrench into my way of thinking, it is also worth considering that in many 2-man CDM partnerships, one of the two is really more of a deep-lying playmaker, while the other is more of a “ball-winning” midfielder type; and it would be that ball-winning type we would include here.

Back 4 vs. back 3

If you want to upset people, suggest that a back 3 is really a MORE defensive tactic.

I don’t want to turn this into comprehensive breakdown of ramifications of “spare defenders” and single-striker systems and midfield match ups and width, but given that in all but the rarest exceptions the outside midfielders are expected to help provide wide defensive cover (as explained above in the “wing back” definition) this seems to have some credence.

The key to running a back three often depends on how free your wing backs are to attack, and your opponent running a narrow system (like a midfield diamond or 4-3-1-2) can help this cause.

We saw this is Serie A last season, with narrow formations almost de rigour but a few clever teams decided they could run 3-4-1-2 (or similar shapes) and allow their wing backs to run rampant.

Before the season started, I suggested that the best way to look at it is that a “back 3” really includes 3 players on the deepest defensive layer and a “back 4” uses 2 players on the deepest defensive layer.

Both use essentially 5 defensive players, just arranged in different configurations.

The CDM:

What we are seeing more and more is that the CDM is becoming more of a “sweeper” which is to say an “auxiliary” center back free to push forward into the midfield.

This has led to back 4 systems becoming more and more hybridised between a “back 3” with wing backs and “back 2” with fullbacks and a CDM.

The CDM evolved to counter the classic “number 10” or “playmaker” but that player has gradually faded away with the decentralisation of the playmaker role.

But the CDM has stuck around and seems to be evolving into a reprise of the “libero”

Wing backs verses Full backs:

And here’s the crux of the conversation. Asking whether the difference is if wing backs are really midfielders and full backs are really defenders entirely misses the point, as they are essentially the same player, the difference being the freedom they have to attack based upon who is in the middle of defence and who they have in front of them on the other team.

An opponent with a tridente of a center forward and two forward wingers can pin those wing backs back, leaving 3 CB’s to cover one man in the middle and wing backs little freedom to go forward and you find yourself bunkering with 5 defenders.

Of course you can respond by freeing a CB into a “libero” role and have him essentially become a midfielder and now you have a back 4 with a spare man – which is always the goal when defending.

An opponent running a diamond midfield would allow those wing backs a lot of freedom, with their defensive responsibilities primarily being against the opposing fullbacks (although the diamond generally calls for full backs to push high in support of the narrow midfield) you have 3 defenders against 2 strikers in the middle, leaving you the desired spare man.

But I digress, as in the interest of keeping this to some reasonable length it simply does not make sense to break down every possible tactical match-up.

On the importance of full backs:

Full backs are pretty important and the level and style of your full backs seems to serve as a pretty good litmus test of the overall quality of the football involved.

I think that it could be fair to say that we don’t see the type of full back play in the Premier League that we see in other parts of the world, and this speaks to the overall level of the Premier League.

Full backs are so often some of the quickest, fittest, and more well-rounded players in modern football and are often really box-to-box players who need to be able to tackle and cross while possessing pace and stamina.

But this isn’t to say that the full backs in the Premier League are superior as few things could be further from the truth.

One thing I have observed from watching full backs in various European leagues and at international level is how many touches the full backs get and how it is usually the case that the full backs are usually in the top three when it comes to most touches in a match.

What this seems to illustrate is the impact of that second layer of defence, the three higher players in the “W” and how much of an impact they have on the game both in possession and in defending.

If there is anything “total football” has taught us it is not that anyone plays any position but that everyone plays TWO positions.

Full backs retain their original name but they are in fact also wide midfielders. The CDM retains his original name but he is also an ACB (auxiliary center back).

When a full back pushes forward it is not the outside midfielder who covers for him, as outside midfielders are also wingers, but the center back who slides outward. The centre midfielder(s) then slide back to cover the centre back(s) who have moved to the full back position.

We have become accustomed to multiple roles within one position and multiple layers within the forward banks and the midfield banks but this way of thinking has seemingly not yet crept in to how we view the back third of the pitch.

Perhaps it is high time that changes and maybe the English football fan needs to modernise how he views players and the positions they fill.