The modern game is constantly evolving and the role of the fullback has completely transformed over the last decade. Under Zinedine Zidane, the fullback has become integral to the team’s success. Arguably, in the diamond formation, the right and left back position hold the most responsibility. Whoever is playing in that position is pushed to the absolute limit both physically and mentally. They are tasked with controlling an entire flank. Each must act as an outlet for the three central midfield “brainiacs”. More than being an outlet, both fullbacks are expected to contribute to the attack-- registering assists and goals. Quality crosses, quick one-two interplays, and isolating defenders 1v1, their job encompasses it all. But on top of that attacking workload, the fullback has to be able to defend their flank 1v1 and oftentimes 2v1 in transition, cover the weak-side on crosses, and track late runs from the opposing winger/fullback. Marcelo and Carvajal did just that against Gremio and their performance left many encouraged ahead of El Clasico. They were both world-beaters and at the absolute top of their game in the final months of last season. Those performances were the X-factor in Madrid’s crusade toward the La Liga and Champions League double. If the Royal Whites are to have success against Barcelona, Carvajal and Marcelo will need to build on their recent positive performances.
Historically, the fullback position required a limited skillset; hardworking, defensively sound 1v1, a direct and accurate long ball, and the ability to maintain the defensive shape of the back four. As for the attacking side of the game, the old school conventional way of thinking was simple—if one fullback goes to attack in the opposition’s half then the other remains “at home” in the backline. Fullbacks were never seen as catalyst to the attack or game-changers, but that is exactly the role Marcelo and Carvajal play.
Take note of the position of both Marcelo and Carvajal, they are the second and third highest players up the pitch in this screenshot. For the diamond to perform and for Madrid to produce their best attacking football—the fullbacks need to be able to provide the width and get up and down the flank. Both are high and wide at the same time. Zidane does not expect them to be “safe” at home within the defensive line—he wants his team to stop counter attacks and cut off the opposition’s attacking outlets high up the pitch. With Casemiro holding, and oftentimes dropping into the backline, Madrid can line up in a 3-4-3 or 3-5-2 in transition. Tactics and formations shift throughout a match. In attack, Marcelo is often a left winger, defensively, in a block of eight-- he is a solid left back, and in transition, he often has to step out to the opposing fullback and play the role of a midfielder.
Theo and Achraf have been identified as players with all the raw capabilities to play this role: pace, power, stamina, and high defensive IQ’s. Yes both are still very raw, but they were identified and selected because of specific skillsets they possessed. They are young players capable of being molded to play in this type of system. To the contrary, a player like Alvaro Arbeloa—a solid defender with great tactical nous, even a World Cup winner during his playing days—may not fit the system as he lacks the athleticism and attacking prowess demanded for the current set-up.
Against Gremio, Marcelo and Carvajal both shined. Each dominated their entire flank. Injuries, suspensions, and inconsistent starts to the season have meant that their late-season form from 2016-2017 has yet to be replicated. Marcelo was a constant nuisance for Gremio’s defense and with the skillset he possesses, he can provide an attacking threat unique to any other player in world football, let alone fullbacks. Likewise, Carvajal was a stalwart at the back. Luan, Gremio’s most dynamic attacking player, could not even get a sniff of goal playing against Carvajal. They both provided the width that is lacked when playing a midfield diamond. Zidane is expected to roll out the Cardiff XI and utilize the diamond formation, if he does so, Marcelo and Carvajal performances will be the key to a Madrid victory.