All it took was one year in England to convince Pep Guardiola that the possibilities of soccer are not, in fact, endless. After Manchester City’s manager spent the better part of the past decade trying to revolutionize the position, the club has dropped £118 million on a trio of traditional up-and-down-the-line fullbacks over the past two weeks: Benjamin Mendy (Monaco, £48.88 million), Kyle Walker (Tottenham, £43.35 million), and Danilo (Real Madrid, £25.50 million).
In a four-man defense, the modern fullback is asked to do a near-impossible job: contribute to the attack, press high up the field when the ball is lost, and recover all the way back to your own defensive third whenever the press gets broken. Guardiola knows this, and in his years at Bayern Munich, he used Philipp Lahm and David Alaba as a pair of what came to be known as “inverted fullbacks.” On defense, they’d function as typical fullbacks, on each side of a pair of center backs. But once Bayern had the ball — and they usually did — Alaba and Lahm would slide into the center of the field and give Guardiola two extra center mids. With two more bodies in the middle of the field, the nominal midfielders could slide higher up the field, and then so could the attackers. This allowed Bayern to maintain dominant levels of possession while also maintaining an overwhelming number of players in the final third. At the best, Bayern were able to suck the life out of a game and put their opponent under constant pressure.
Now not every team has a pair of fullbacks who can double as elite ball-playing midfielders; in fact, Bayern were probably the only one. Guardiola compared Alaba to God, and Lahm was one of the most versatile, controlled, and dynamic players of his generation.
Still, in his first year at City, Guardiola tried to turn a handful of league-average fullbacks — mainly Gael Clichy, Bacary Sagna, and Pablo Zabaleta — into Alaba and Lahm. It sort of worked at first, as Guardiola’s side won their first six Premier League games by an 18–5 margin. But things began to fall apart as opposing teams forced the fullbacks to become a bigger part of City’s transition from defense to attack. Asking Clichy to find a way through Bournemouth’s midfield was one thing; forcing him to stand up to Tottenham’s coordinated and hyperactive pressing was another. After the impressive start, City went on to win just one of their next five matches.
Over the remainder of the season, Guardiola experimented with a number of approaches: a back three, playing an aging-and-ineffective winger at fullback, and shifting his best center mid into the back line. And while City’s season turned on a number of near-misses against their closest competitors, the defense always felt like it was being held together by paper clips, gum, and whatever Pep could massage out of his head.
Now, it seems like Guardiola has decided that the easiest way to solve the fullback problem is to forget that it even exists. By bringing in Walker and Mendy — Danilo is a depth signing more than anything — Guardiola has two athletes who will stick to the sideline and get balls into the box. Walker can do things like this …
… but his output isn’t particularly impressive; rather, his value comes from his ability to cover so much ground that he’s able to be present in all phases of the game. Mendy, meanwhile, consistently beats opponents off the dribble, and he’s one of the best crossers of the ball in the world. Rather than lofting crosses toward the penalty spot, he gets to the endline and drives balls along the ground. That kind of service is harder for a defense to deal with and easier for an attacker to finish:
Mendy and Walker are two of the most expensive defenders ever, but City are working from a different perspective than almost any other club. They have so much money to spend that it doesn’t matter if a transfer fee for a certain player seems like a massive overpay. (By signing two more players who performed well against his team, Pep continues to study at the Doc Rivers School of Talent Acquisition.) Their transfer budget is higher than everyone else’s, so if they can agree to a fee for a player Pep wants, they’re going to do it.
Based on what we know about Guardiola’s tendency toward transformation, it’s odd that he’s devoting this many resources to these straightforward kinds of players. But it doesn’t mean that he’s gonna stop innovating; he’ll just do it somewhere else.