Jerry Seinfeld tells a joke – indeed it’s the first joke he ever told – about the plight of left-handed people. “So, I am left-handed,” it goes, “and left-handed people do not like that the word ‘left’ is associated with negative things. Left feet. Left-handed compliment. ‘What are we having for dinner? Leftovers.’ You go to a party, there is nobody there. ‘Where did everybody go?’ ‘They left!’”
As they say, it’s funny because it’s true. But turn your gaze from the comedy stage and towards that of top-flight English football and something rather different comes into view. Because, right now, being left is not a negative, specifically in regards to left-backs. Every team has always had at least one but rarely has it been the case that so many have been so good at the same time, from an attacking point of view especially.
Andrew Robertson, Aaron Cresswell, Lucas Digne, Luke Shaw, Kieran Tierney and Sergio Reguilón to name six, and that’s before you get on to Oleksandr Zinchenko, James Justin, Matt Targett, Ryan Bertrand, Ezgjan Alioski and Ben Chilwell. It is quite the roll call and leads to an obvious question: is this most unsettling of times a golden age of Premier League left-backs? And if so, has it come about via fluke or design?
Graeme Le Saux is is well placed to comment given he was one of the finest left-backs of his generation, winning 36 England caps as well as being part of the Blackburn team that won the title in 1995, and regularly watches the current crop as a television pundit, most notably for the US broadcaster NBC. Le Saux is in little doubt that what we are seeing in the Premier League – and further afield – is no accident. Rather it is a trend that has come about through targeted factors which have led to a once-novelty player becoming the norm.
“I don’t see myself as being different to any of the current left-backs,” says Le Saux, who also works as a director at Real Mallorca. “At Blackburn especially I was encouraged to get forward and be creative and I’d set myself targets in regards to how many crosses I wanted to get into the box every game for the likes of Alan Shearer, Mike Newell and Chris Sutton. I wasn’t happy unless I delivered at least three in each half that led to chances for those strikers.
“You then had the likes of Bixente Lizarazu and, of course, Roberto Carlos, and a little bit later Ashley Cole and Leighton Baines. All really good, attacking left-backs. But there were very few. Now we see an entire generation of left-backs who stand out as much as anyone on the pitch, and that is down to coaching – young full-backs in general are being taught and encouraged to be outlets; to get ahead of the ball as opposed to staying behind it and holding their position in a back four.”
The significant role full-backs, and left-backs especially, play from an attacking point of view is backed up by statistics. After January’s final round of Premier League games, three of the top eight assist providers in the division were left-backs: Robertson, Cresswell and Digne, all of whom had provided five assists, more than, among others, Roberto Firmino and Raheem Sterling. Robertson, meanwhile, was sixth for chances created (38) and led the way for crosses from open play (103) and passes (1,575), and this during a season when the 26-year-old’s form for Liverpool has been mixed to say the least.
Premier League left-backs rule, and there is no doubt that full-backs broadly now tend to be as good offensively as they are defensively – if not better. Going back to Le Saux’s point that this has come about through coaching, another question arises: have full-backs become adept at getting forward because that’s what the modern game has increasingly required of them, or has the modern game become a prominent environment for full-backs who are adept at getting forward because so many have come through? Is it chicken or egg?
“From a tactical point of view, the game has been narrowing for some time – there are fewer wingers so it’s been more and more up to full-backs to provide the width going forward,” Le Saux says. “I don’t have the science to back it up but I have a strong feeling that for many years now kids who have played full-back in 11-a-side football, at whatever level, have been told to get forward and leave it to the holding midfielder to provide security to the two centre-backs, and that will have been in reaction to the way the game has been going.
“All full-backs now need to be comfortable on the ball and tactically astute so they know when to go and when to stay. Physically they also need to be at a high level given the distances they need to cover. That is what makes Robertson so impressive – it doesn’t matter how hard he works in a game he always looks like he’s got something left. He’s a fantastic athlete.”
The Scotland captain has been this country’s best left-back for a couple of years at least but undeniably faces competition in that regard from the current crop, and from no one more so than Shaw, who after years of struggle has been outstanding for Manchester United this season. The 25-year-old has been strong defensively – seen most vividly in his handling of Mohamed Salah during last month’s goalless draw at Anfield – and offensively has significantly improved compared with the previous campaign. There have been more crosses, more touches in the opposition area and more chances created, all of which has led to his assists contribution shooting up from zero to three, his two most recent coming in Tuesday’s 9-0 thrashing of Southampton, when, attacking-wise, Shaw arguably had his best game for Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s side.
“He’s now playing at his level and key to that is him trusting himself physically,” says Le Saux. “There were always periods in a game when he was on his haunches and blowing, thinking he couldn’t keep going. He’s got through that with the run of games he’s had and he now has confidence in his ability to keep getting up and down the pitch. As a full-back there is no better feeling in the world.”
As good as Shaw has been he is not as important to his team as Tierney has become for his, with the 23-year-old now firmly one of Arsenal’s best players, from an attacking point of view especially. Across north London, Reguilón has been a revelation for Tottenham since arriving from Real Madrid last September. “He has a phenomenal engine and can whip a ball in from anywhere,” says the football writer, and Spurs supporter, Harry Sherlock. “He’s become a key member of José Mourinho’s best XI and the fans are already wondering if Real will come knocking for him in the summer; they have a buy-back clause, after all.”
“For sure there’s a really good crop of left-backs in the Premier League, and as a former left-back myself I’m delighted they’re finally getting the credit they deserve!” Le Saux says. “In all seriousness, I reckon if you covered their faces, put them in a lineup and just looked at their bodies, you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. They’re all stocky but not too broad, not too tall and have near identical power-to-agility ratios. There are exceptions like Dan Burn at Brighton, who does a good job in that position despite being way over 6ft, but, by and large, that’s the standard blueprint for all modern full-backs. There is a definite type now.”