“No one wants to be a full-back.” This was the point voiced by Jamie Carragher on Sky Sports Monday Night Football.
“Nobody wants to grow up and be a Gary Neville” was the scathing jab thrown at the treble-winning, former United stalwart, standing precariously to his left. The common perception of full-backs of Neville’s ilk and from his era – bar some Brazilian exceptions – is one which lacks any elation nor provides any great importance, other than the one-dimensional assigned containment of the opposing winger.
Rudimentary, static, and chained to their defensive moors, full-backs rarely dared explore the uncharted waters that lay ahead. Former Italian striker and football manager, Gianluca Vialli, famously once stated that the right-back was always the worst player on the team. Displaying neither the physicality or defensive ability of a centre back, nor the technical ability of a midfielder, Vialli’s deduction reverberates Carragher’s “you’re either a failed winger or a failed centre back.” This perception of a full-backs importance has changed drastically over the past two decades.
Dynamic, versatile and unbound, the full-back of the present day is allowed all the freedom their attacking ambitions crave. Required to possess the lungs of a box-to-box midfielder, a winger’s velocity, defensive awareness of a centre-back and the instincts of a striker, the complete player is required to operate effectively in this position. No one player encapsulates the duality of this modern-day full-back role more than Achraf Hakimi.
Born in Getafe, only ten miles from the Santiago Bernabeu, Hakimi like any fleet-footed bright-eyed youngster envisioned donning the white of Los Blancos. But unlike many he turned the vague veil of a daydream into a tangible reality, joining the famous la Fabrica – Real Madrid’s youth academy- at the age of eight.
Boasting ten pitches with the exact dimensions as the Santiago Bernabeu, 40 times larger and corridors lined with Los Blancos icons, la Fabrica is the quintessential representation of the club’s winning culture. Young hopefuls are told “when you pass through this gate, you are no longer a son of your parents; you are now a player of Real Madrid.” Thrust into a simulation of the pressures that the life of an elite footballer entails, Hakimi thrived.
Similar to players like Dani Carvajal and Sergio Reguilon, Hakimi earned himself a call up to Real Madrid Castilla and then eventually to the pinnacle of his childhood dreams, the senior squad. But growing up with the constant swarm of airplanes leaving Barajas airport – situated three miles from la Fabrica- can be deemed as a stark reminder of football’s cutthroat nature.
Hakimi made his La Liga and senior debut in a win over RCD Espanyol, registered his first goal for Los Blanco’s just two months later in a 5-0 thrashing of Sevilla and became the first Moroccan to claim a Champions League medal, when Real Madrid won their last and thirteenth final. But the right back only made two appearances in the competition and a mere nine in the domestic league, finding himself firmly stationed behind Carvajal in the squad rankings, minutes were hard to come by for the then 18-year-old. Seeking more experience, a loan opportunity would emanate from the mecca for talented young footballers, Borussia Dortmund.
Life in the sharp sunlight yellow of Dortmund worked wonders to illuminate the talent possessed by Hakimi. Under Lucien Favre, the Moroccan international was encompassed by the attacking mindset which made Dortmund one of Europe’s most enthralling teams. Given all the encouragement and freedom to operate further forward, Hakimi relished in this environment. During his two-year loan spell, he would register 14 assists and score seven goals in the Bundesliga from right back, left back, right midfield and left midfield, while also averaging 4.09 touches in the box per 90, more than any other full-back in the German topflight. But it would be in the competition where he was starved for minutes but consoled with a medal, where he put his real attacking talent on display.
“Grupo de la Muerte” or “Group of Death”, was a term coined by journalists at the 1970 world cup in Mexico. It is used to describe a group containing the best teams in the competition, pitted against each other to survive the tumultuous opening round. It can be utterly spine tingling for neutrals while being equally spine chilling for those fans who are unlucky enough to be involved. This term has become prevalent in a football fans vocabulary and is a prerequisite for the inevitable dismissal of a colossal. In 2019-20, the Champions’ League group of death contained, Barcelona, Borussia Dortmund, Inter Milan and Slavia Praha. With two games remaining, Barcelona sat comfortably atop, with Borussia Dortmund’s trip to Inter Milan the crucial decider for runner-up. 2-0 down at half time against the defensively sound Inter, Dortmund were to a rational mind, dead and buried.
On club football’s greatest stage, with 45 minutes to resurrect a fantasy, enter stage right, Hakimi. It would only be five minutes into the second half when he would score his and Dortmund’s opening goal of the night. If one had no knowledge of the team – nor the realisation that no centre forward in their right mind would wear the number five jersey – it would be easy to mistake Hakimi for Dortmund’s striker. Making a darting near post run before cutting back and sweeping Mario Götze’s cross into the far corner, the wing-back demonstrated the predatory instincts of a veteran number nine. A Julian Brandt goal would tie the game before a telepathic one-two with Jadon Sancho, gave Hakimi the opportunity to slide the ball under the flailing Samir Handanovic. Ecstasy among the raucous black and yellow wall and unadulterated anguish for the travelling Inter support. The 22-year-olds magnum opus had placed him centre stage for top managers across Europe, but the most intrigued sat in the opposing dugout.
Antonio Conte recognised the potential impact Hakimi could bring to his squad. Three at the back formations with high-flying wingbacks have become synonymous with the former Chelsea manager’s name, recognizing the attacking prowess Hakimi possessed, a couple of months later, Conte had his man, with a deal of around £40 million enough to convince Real Madrid. This acquisition can be deemed a master stroke by the Italian, “one of Inter’s best successes in the market in the last ten years” according to club legend Ronaldo and it is easy to see why.
In Hakimi’s first season, Inter broke their Scudetto duct, winning the league for the first time since 2010 and like Maicon in that iconic Jose Mourinho team, he played a pivotal role. Conte is hugely reliant on his wingbacks when attacking and defending. When in possession both wing-backs operate high and wide in a 3-3-4 formation, either crossing for Romelu Lukaku and Lautaro Martinez in the middle or making darting runs into the box for crosses coming from the opposite side.
When in defensive transition Inter deploy a heavy man-to-man press, forcing the ball out wide and the opposition full-backs up the pitch where they are left isolated, allowing Hakimi and Ashley Young to win the ball back and launch the counter, which has become a crucial part of their game, scoring the most goals from the counterattack in the league in 2020-21. The Moroccan’s importance to this team can be conveyed from the fact that, no side has attacked more down the right and less down the left then I Nerazzurri in the Serie A this season. A crucial attribute which Hakimi has contributed to this side and a major contrast between the triumphs of this season and the failure of last is, speed.
A quality possessed by many wide players and an almost unnegotiable prerequisite in that position in the modern era, very few players if any compare to Hakimi. In fact, it would almost be an understatement to label the 22-year-old as ‘fast’. If not for the singed blades of grass left in his wake you would think his feet never touched the ground. In full flight Hakimi has the violent velocity of a cheetah but the graceful agility of a gazelle allowing him to change direction in one swift efficient movement, coupled with the speed of thought to match, as a whole he possesses a formidable weapon.
The re-emergence of total football has led to full-backs being adaptive, all rounded and versatile as a necessity. In an interview with the Athletic, Juventus technical coach, Antonio Gagliardi said, “a player should no longer be defined by their position but by the job they do”. Evidence of this can be seen throughout the top leagues and teams in Europe.
Pep Guardiola has asked Joao Cancelo and Kyle Walker, to operate as inverted fullbacks, pushing up centrally when in the build-up phase acting as auxiliary midfielders, Joshua Kimmich has become one of the best midfielders in the world after seamlessly transitioning from full-back just like his predecessor Philipp Lahm and Trent-Alexander-Arnold alongside Andrew Robertson played crucial roles in Klopps success’ at Liverpool. Although this is not new with the likes of Marcelo, Dani Alves, Roberto Carlos and almost every other Brazilian full-back demonstrating their brilliance in the past, it is becoming more and more prevalent.
Hakimi perfectly encapsulates the modern-day fullback and with their importance growing more and more. Who wouldn’t want to be a full-back?