Tuesday Topic: Friend wants left-backs to put their best foot forward

Chelsea's Ashley Cole and Cesar Azpilicueta tussle for the ball during a training session at Cobham Training Ground, Cobham.

Chelsea's Fernando Torres (left) celebrates with team-mate Cesar Azpilicueta after scoring his side's first goal during the UEFA Champions League match at Stamford Bridge, London.

First published in Sport
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After an impressive season playing left-back for Middlesbrough, Middlesbrough defender George Friend considers what it takes to be a right-footed player playing in his role ahead of a World Cup finals when Germany will boast one of the best international defenders actually playing in midfield

SHOULD being left or right footed dictate where you play? Is football’s traditional left-back position slowly disappearing from the top-flight game?

I hope not.

This season, especially in the Premier League, some unlikely players have been selected in what’s normally seen as a specialised position.

It’s often seen by managers and coaches as unfavourable for a right-footed player to occupy the left-back slot. There’s a worry that the balance of the team could be affected by doing so. The position is also considered easier to play if a natural left footer holds it.

Cesar Azpilicueta, or ‘Dave’ as he’s known by his Chelsea team-mates, arrived from Marseille specifically as a right-back. The Spaniard has now adopted a role on the opposite flank, becoming first choice ahead of Ashley Cole, who in my opinion is still one of the best in the world despite being overlooked by Roy Hodgson for the England squad at the World Cup.

Azpilicueta’s tenacity and defensive prowess has given him the upper hand this season and he looks very comfortable in his new position. His form, largely, is why Cole will not be going to Brazil, with Leighton Baines and the inexperienced but gifted Luke Shaw preferred.

Mourinho has been unconcerned about positioning Azpilicueta there. It has to be said the 24-year-old has justified his inclusion with some fantastic defending and extremely consistent performances for the Blues.

Similar to the Chelsea back four, Liverpool opted for a naturally right-footed player to line up out of position for most of the season.

Jon Flanagan, the ‘Red Cafu’ as he’s known on Merseyside, has made the position his own and has been on the fringes of a World Cup call himself. Unfazed, he’s starred against some top Premier League sides, demonstrating his trademark crunching tackles, while Liverpool have pushed for glory.

Flanagan, only 21-years-old, kept out on-loan left-back Aly Cissokho and even if Jose Enrique had been fit and available, I’m not sure he’d knock the young Liverpudlian off his perch.

In the Premier League you can go back as far as Manchester United’s Dennis Irwin to witness a right-back make the switch of flanks.

By slight contrast to Azpilicueta and Flanagan, the Irishman was remarkably two footed and swapped positions with complete ease after the arrival of Paul Parker in the 1991-92 season.

The best player I’ve seen transfer between the full-back positions is Germany’s Philipp Lahm, who is now even playing in the centre of midfield. Lahm will go down as one of the best full-backs in history and is a fine example of consistency and class.

With all this in mind, I’m still not convinced about defenders being played on the opposite side. But why would I be? Being a rather one footed left-back myself.

I believe, unless a player is gifted to the extent of Lahm or Irwin for example, the role is better occupied by a left-footer.

My reasoning is simple, the majority of left-footed players are more likely to produce a better forward pass, cross or clearance with that extra quality; it’s instinctive and innate.

The areas of the pitch that a left-back takes up are often destined for a born left footer. The touchline pass down the channel, the big diagonal across field or a curled cross into the box are all synonymous with the full-back position. In my opinion it works best with a naturally left footed player on that side.

I’m a huge advocate of wingers switching flanks, a left-footed right winger can be very tricky to play against. But personally when it comes to the back four, my preference lies with the man wearing the number three shirt possessing an organic left foot.

Lahm, Andreas Brehme, and one of my heroes, Paolo Maldini are notable exceptions, being hugely gifted with the ability to comfortably use either foot.

Natural lefties are uncommon, there’s an air of uniqueness and exclusivity surrounding them. I believe such players are perfectly suited to fulfil this specialised footballing position, by putting their best foot forward.

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