This article profiles the 20 best buccaneering full-backs in world football today.
This signifier is perhaps an over-used epithet, but its casual usage doesn’t change the joy and excitement provoked by the sight of a full-back gallivanting forth, tearing down the flank or dribbling past opponents and swinging in crosses.
“Buccaneering” suggests high-risk and reckless activity, and indeed, while some of the figures celebrated on this list occasionally stray too far or attempt one shimmy too many, the very best have made it because of their boldness and their consistent contributions from deep, lateral positions.
For the purpose of this piece, only players who are primarily known as full-backs have been considered. Thus, the likes of Jonathan Schmid and Gareth Bale have been overlooked. Despite his prominence as a central midfielder these days, Philipp Lahm was eligible for inclusion due to his continued role at right-back for Germany and his historic contributions in this position.
All statistics have been sourced from WhoScored.com.
Santos’ Cicinho is a right-back-cum-right-winger who loves to dribble, to take on players and to guide his team forward.
His diminutive stature can be an occasional problem in a defensive sense, but offensively, there are few full-backs in the world who are given such licence to leave the concerns of their half of the pitch behind them and seek their fortunes deep in enemy territory.
In his last 27 starts, Cicinho has scored three times and set up five goals. His pass success rate of 79.1 per cent is commendable and he has been Man of the Match on three occasions, just one indication of his influence.
The one key thing that may hold Serge Aurier back from being a world-class right-back is that, at the moment at least, he looks as accomplished as a central defender.
It is rare indeed to find a player who has both the speed and technical prowess to be an awesome threat down the flank, but who also possesses the presence, physique and maturity to be a solid defensive shield either in the centre of a back four or on the right of a back three.
The regular sight of Aurier storming down the right touchline in Ligue 1 has clearly piqued the interest of Arsene Wenger. The Arsenal boss has kept tabs on the Ivorian and has earmarked him as a player who could become the natural successor to Bacary Sagna.
He could well be “One to Watch” in Brazil next summer.
Versatile Uruguayan Alvaro Pereira has had a tough time of it of late. The left-sided player has struggled to establish himself at Internazionale and has moved to Sao Paulo on an 18-month loan deal.
The switch to Brazil should allow him to regain his form and fitness ahead of the World Cup—if he can achieve this, then he is perfectly capable of replicating his form of four years ago when he was one of the Celeste’s star men during their run to the semi-final.
It’s easy to forget that Pereira was once a long-term target of Chelsea—he has the class to thrive anywhere from full-back to left midfielder and manages to combine fine attacking play with astute positioning and defensive work.
He is on the brink of reminding the world of his talents.
Senegalese full-back Boukary Drame may be one of the less-heralded figures on this list, but he is a talented competitor who is truly coming into his own at Chievo after a fairly mediocre career.
Anyone who watched Chievo’s recent 1-1 draw with Internazionale will be acutely aware of his ability to cause havoc in wide areas as an attacking, progressive full-back.
It was Drame’s cross that split the defence and allowed Alberto Paloschi to fire home the opener. Along with Gennaro Sardo, he has been a key figure for Chievo and has emerged as one of the Flying Donkey’s key offensive weapons.
Such impressive performances have lead to interest from Marseille. The French giants will be encouraged by the West African’s capacity to dribble past opponents (he has averaged 2.7 successful dribbles per game so far this season).
Few African nations could dispose of a full-back with the likes of Marseille and Milan on his CV and not skip a beat. However, that’s exactly what Nigeria did when Stephen Keshi decided to axe Taye Taiwo and install Elderson Echiejile as his first-choice left-back.
Elderson’s sharp overlapping runs were a crucial tactic in the Super Eagles’ run to the African title in January 2013, and he even found the net with a stooping header in the semi-final against Mali. Here is a defender who loves to find himself in the opposition box.
The bosses at Monaco have clearly decided that he could be a valuable component of their project down on the Riviera. The principality club recruited Elderson during this transfer window, giving him a four-and-a-half year deal. He certainly has the ability to develop into one of Ligue 1’s star full-backs.
Porto full-back Alex Sandro is another name to have been associated with Manchester United as the club begin to search for an eventual successor to Patrice Evra.
The Brazilian has followed a well-worn path of talent to have emerged in South America, to have been snapped up by Porto and then to thrive in the accommodating confines of the Portuguese league.
Sandro is a full-back who loves to get forward and who has polished his ability to send in effective, tempting crosses—in his limited appearances so far this term, he has managed an impressive average of 3.2 crosses per game.
At only 22, there is a lot more to come from this talented Brazilian who already looks like a better prospect than his elder compatriot, Fabio.
While Elderson Echiejile is a fine full-back who should thrive at Monaco, the position he has been signed to fulfil was not a particular area of weakness for Les Rouge et Blanc.
The side’s current left-back is 21-year-old Layvin Kurzawa, a product of the club’s academy who has represented France at U-19, U-20 and U-21 levels.
While Kurzawa is also eligible to turn out for Poland, French fans should expect him to battle it out with Lucas Digne to be named as Patrice Evra’s successor with the national side.
Comparing the two this season, it is clear that Kurzawa has had the biggest impact in Ligue 1. He has played 19 times to Digne’s nine, has scored three times, set up two goals, averaged 1.3 shots per game and has been named Man of the Match on five occasions—more than once every four games.
Digne’s run to the French first team may not be as straight forward as some anticipate.
After bursting onto the scene in 2010, Ricardo Rodriguez enjoyed a swift burst of progress and soon established himself as Felix Magath’s No. 1 left-back at Wolfsburg.
The Swiss international didn’t exactly live up to his €7 million transfer fee, but he looked dependable and helped Die Wolfe to a comfortable mid-table berth.
In 2012-13, however, the club’s fortunes changed and Magath was disposed of and Lorenz-Gunther Kostner was brought in to settle the ship. Rodriguez was dropped and his momentum culled.
He’s unlikely to suffer the same distress anytime soon!
Rodriguez’s stats this term place him among the world’s most-effective players at his position. He makes an average of 1.9 key passes per game and makes, on average, 2.5 successful dribbles per game.
Subtly, quietly, Seamus Coleman has established himself as one of the Premier League’s most-consistent and most-effective wide players.
He has featured on 22 occasions for Everton this season, scoring five times in the process and averaging 1.2 key passes per game. Leighton Baines, on the left-hand side, may steal the headlines, but Coleman is a similarly invaluable player for the Blues.
His pass accuracy of 87.5 per cent is also admirable, and under Martin O’Neill and Roy Keane, Coleman should realise the international impact that Giovanni Trapattoni once identified would be part of his destiny.
After a fairly rocky start to life in the Premier League, as part of the massed French contingent at St James' Park, Mathieu Debuchy has begun to demonstrate his class on a regular basis.
His performances have attracted the attention of Paris Saint-Germain, no less, who are keen to acquire the French international right-back either in January or the summer. He has also become a key player in Alan Pardew’s side, and was sorely missed following his New Year’s Day red card against West Bromwich Albion.
It is to his credit that Debuchy has managed to overcome his unconvincing start to life in the North East to establish a reputation as one of the EPL’s best in his position. His defensive contributions have, rightly, been praised, but his all-round play and regular marauding runs have also set him apart.
After a few years of wondering whether it will or won’t come together for Gregory van der Wiel, the Dutchman’s career is finally well and truly back on track.
He endured a tricky time after joining Paris Saint-Germain due, in no small part, to the terrific performances of Christophe Jallet, the veteran defender and French international who stepped up an extra gear to keep the former Ajax man out of the side.
These days, it is Jallet who watches on from the sidelines.
The bald Cognac native has made only eight appearances for PSG this season, while van der Wiel has made 18 starts—the momentum has firmly swung back in his direction.
The Holland international has set up more goals (seven) than any other player on this list and his pass accuracy rate of 90.4 per cent is behind only the Bayern Munich pair of Lahm and Alaba.
The Japanese left-back has all the qualities required in a modern full-back and has the potential to be one of the star men at the World Cup next summer. Along with Atsuto Uchida, Nagatomo should provide Japan with energy and width—they will doubtlessly be a vital weapon.
Nagatomo has fantastic pace, awesome stamina and loves to charge forward during matches. Fortunately, he has the fitness and the work rate to ensure that his defensive responsibilities aren’t compromised.
His versatility is also a valuable asset for both Japan and Internazionale.
On his day, Fabio Coentrao is an attacking full-back as complete and composed as any on this list. Unfortunately for the Portuguese star, however, those days come too few and far between for his club side.
The Real Madrid player's defending and passing is competent, but he is firmly established as the back-up to Marcelo at club level. A move to Manchester United has been mooted, and the Red Devils would be recruiting a player who would be a very effective replacement for Patrice Evra.
His inconsistencies and peripheral role at club level are not replicated in the international context. For Portugal, he is a key man and will relish the prospect of a World Cup in another Lusophone country next summer.
Filipe Luis may have amassed only four caps for Brazil since making his international debut in 2009, however, it shouldn’t be too long before the Atletico Madrid man usurps Maxwell to establish himself in the Selecao squad—after that, his sights will be set on Marcelo, and the starting berth.
A leg break suffered earlier in his career has, naturally, affected his progress, but Luis has gradually made up for lost time to establish himself as one of La Liga’s finest full-backs.
He is an expert overlapper who rarely hesitates to make headway in the opposition area. His composure and all-round skill set should guarantee a career at the very top of the sport.
Everton’s Leighton Baines has established himself as the Premier League’s finest left-back over the last 12 months. One could quite convincingly make the argument that he is the division’s best full-back full stop.
While Baines appears to be too calm, too composed, too in control to really be described as buccaneering, he is certainly a figure who loves to charge forward and impose himself in the opposition’s half.
He is an adequate player defensively, but his main strengths come in attack.
He is an expert at knowing when to overlap the player ahead of him and has developed a telepathic understanding with Steven Pienaar. His set-piece play also deserves a mention—Baines has become one of the EPL’s deadliest free-kick takers.
Despite all of the praise that so regularly comes his way, I would still argue that David Alaba is critically underrated.
The Austrian has come from nowhere—having learnt his trade as a central midfielder—to become one of the best left-backs in the world.
At only 21, he already has the complete repertoire of attacking and defensive qualities and is as versatile as almost any other world-class player in the game.
He is a two-time Bundesliga champion, a European champion and a Club World Cup champion. He is a three-time Austrian Footballer of the Year and will be one of the best players missing from the World Cup this summer.
Perhaps most of all, though, he is an exquisite attacking threat.
His passing accuracy is an awesome 90.9 per cent, according to WhoScored.com—only one player who operates on the flank (Alvaro Arbeloa) has achieved a more consistent pass rate this season, though the Spaniard cannot match Alaba’s offensive contributions.
I know. I know. Philipp Lahm is no longer to be known as a full-back, or rather, is no longer to be known as simply a full-back.
However, while the Munich stalwart has been converted into a central midfielder by new Bayern boss Pep Guardiola, he still remains Germany’s first-choice right-back and is likely to occupy this position at the World Cup next summer.
Also, it feels like a slight injustice to refer to Lahm as “buccaneering”—this is a word that implies recklessness or risk-taking. But these aren’t terms that one readily associates with a player as composed and as experienced as the national captain.
The truth is, though, that Lahm still possesses those attacking qualities and indeed, remains one of the world’s finest attacking full-backs. His passing is as strong and as consistent as anyone on this list (reflected in his terrific pass completion rate of 92.2 per cent so far this season), and he knows, almost intuitively, how to time his runs and exploit the space in front of him.
The world will remember him as one of its finest-ever attacking full-backs.
Even though injury derailed the final stages of Dani Alves’ 2013, the right-back still did enough to claim the right-back spot in the FIFA team of the year.
Some may say that anyone with above-average defensive and attacking ability would manage to look good in a side as star-studded as Barcelona’s, but it’s hard to argue that the Brazilian’s consistent performances and effortless attacking menace add another dimension to the Catalonians’ offensive attack.
He is a fast and direct attacker, and there are few modern full-backs who have all the tools, in such a refined form, as Alves.
The defender would take his reputation to another level at the World Cup next summer; he was back-up to Maicon in South Africa four years ago, but he will be the undisputed main man this time around.
For many, Jordi Alba is the missing piece of the jigsaw for both Barcelona and Spain. While the style of both clubs, particularly the latter, has a tendency to become a process of attrition, Alba’s forward forays ensure that the opposition are opened up enough for talented midfielders to operate.
He, along with Pedro, offers vertical movement in sides that can occasionally tend to focus on lateral passing play.
As well as being a vital attacking threat, Alba is also defensively consistent and should, once again, be a key man for Spain next summer. His pass completion rate of 87.7 per cent is testament to his excellent technical control and concentration.
Some of the other players on this list may be able to eclipse Marcelo’s defensive composure or mental faculties and decision-making, but few, if any, can better his attacking threat.
Marcelo is the latest in a strong tradition—an unparalleled tradition—of Brazilian full-backs and brings speed, intelligent link-up play and excellent footwork to the table. He may not possess explosive acceleration or powerful thighs quite like Roberto Carlos, a predecessor for the national side, but he contributes, offensively, with similar efficacy.
A pretty perfect representation of the modern full-back—Marcelo will relish demonstrating this to the world in his homeland next summer.