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The Lisbon Lions
It would be a travesty to attempt to hold a conversation on the modern fullback without Celtic entering the debate. To this date, only one British player has ever scored in more than one European Cup final – Tommy Gemmell, Celtic left-back. Funnily enough, for Gemmell’s goal in Celtic’s 1967 European Cup win the assist came from Jim Craig, Celtic right-back. Celtic took on an infamous Inter Milan defence that day in Lisbon, a defence that were near unbeatable due to their Catenaccio playing style, and pioneered the modern fullback.
Catenaccio, Italian for the Chain, is a style that involves a rigid back line with a sweeper behind them. Helenio Herrera, the Inter manager that revolutionised the style, declared it to contain attacking elements that many do not give credit for. It essentially utilises fast, counter attacking football using minimal passes to get towards the opposition goal with athletic fullbacks overlapping. Throughout Inter’s successes, the Italian side were notorious for scoring an early goal and then ‘parking the bus’ as it were. As back to back European champions in ’64 and ’65, Herrera’s side first lost out to Real Madrid over two semi final legs in 1966. However, the Milanese reasserted their superiority by beating the Spanish side 3-0 on aggregate to reach the 1967 final against Celtic.
The statistics for this game are a testament to the Inter defence, and to the goalkeeper, Sarti. Celtic had 45 shots over the 90 minutes, hitting the woodwork three times. The ball was crossed 40 times. Considering the fact that Inter did indeed get their early goal and retreat, and Celtic only finished with two goals, it must’ve taken something special to reach the breakthrough and, almost miraculously, it was a goal and an assist from Celtic’s two fullbacks that brought the score to 1-1, leading eventually to a victory both for Celtic and for football.
Jamie Carragher once joked about how “nobody wants to grow up and be a Gary Neville” when claiming that all fullbacks are either failed wingers or failed centre halves. While it may have been an offhand comment, he was still decisively wrong. Kieran Tierney grew up idolising Tommy Gemmell and modelled his playing style on him. The distinction here, in my opinion, is the type of fullback we refer to – traditional or modern. Gary Neville was an excellent right back for Manchester United and was a huge asset to the side, both in attack and defence. However, as football progresses, right backs with more attacking prowess and less defensive duties, like Dani Alves for example, are not only desired but revered.
Bixente Lizarazu was never the most glamourous of left backs but was talented enough to be part of France’s World Cup winning side of 1998 and also the Euros winning side of 2000. While this squad is perhaps remembered nostalgically for world class midfielders like Zinedine Zidane or scintillating attackers like Thierry Henry, it’s worth mentioning that in the group stages of the ’98 World Cup France only conceded once (to Denmark). Their defence was also only breached once in the knock-out stages, in the semi-final against Croatia. Carragher may have a point in that attackers are placed on a pedestal but it never pays to underestimate a solid defence; fancy fullbacks might get forward and score goals but at what cost?
What we would classify as a ‘modern fullback’ often makes us think almost of a deep winger. Somebody who isn’t in the team to defend at all. Somebody like Roberto Carlos. El Hombre Bala was perhaps one of the greatest attacking left backs of all time. Remembered most fondly for his free kicks or his goal against Tenerife that was dubbed impossible, Carlos was praised constantly for his attacking attributes – his crossing, dribbling and power. Nobody mentions his defensive skills and yet it’s widely received that he is one of the all-time greats for his position, a defensive position. Carlos is held in higher regard than Lizarazu and yet it was Carlos’ Brazil side that the Frenchman defeated in the 1998 World Cup Final. Despite winning the competition in 2002, his side then again lost to France in 2006 forcing the Brazilian into retirement due to the backlash he received for his lax defending which led to France’s winning goal.
This does not mean that traditional fullbacks are always a better provision than the modern variety. As with everything in football, it is circumstantial. Give me a centre half like Virgil van Dijk and I’ll happily accept Andy Robertson with his high press and offensive nature, but stick me with a liability who always has a mistake in them, (*cough* Efe Ambrose) and you’d better believe I want him covered at either side. It’s all about finding the balance between using your fullback as an extra attacker going forward but at the same time not leaving yourself exposed at the back. Tactically speaking, it’s a very tricky task. Step forward, Kieran Tierney.
What makes KT special?
As a fullback, Kieran Tierney gets forward more than most. You begin to realise just how critical he is to Celtic’s attack when you see what happens when he isn’t playing. A surprising catalyst for our attack, but a catalyst nonetheless. His driving runs forward leave the defenders with two options: close him down and leave a man open or let him run. With a dangerous left foot for crosses, neither option is appealing. This is, however, quite typical of an attacking fullback so why is Kieran Tierney any different?
KT rarely, if ever, gets caught forward. It sounds almost shockingly simple but that’s the whole truth. Not only does the young defender get stuck in near the opposition box but he’s right back to slam into their winger in plenty of time. Perhaps a more defensive right back in Lustig has assisted with this, the Celtic defence almost converting to a back 3 when Tierney is going forward, but the fact is that he’s one of the best young fullbacks in Europe. Modern Fitba have developed the visual aids below to show the left back’s influence for Celtic this season.
As you can see above, Tierney’s most common position on the ball is on the left wing, transitioning into the final third. Around this area, the heatmap also shows the most width. This shows that he is pivotal in moving from midfield to attack and consistently moves between the wing and half space to do so. The rest of the heatmap provides evidence for the notion that KT gets further forward than most fullbacks, and even some wingers, but also is deep enough when called upon defensively. Compare this with Jeremy Toljan and Mikael Lustig’s data below and already the differences are clear.
Another key defining point between KT and the two right backs is the average pass distance we can see in the pass sonars. The most notable difference is the long, forward balls from Tierney that Lustig and Toljan do not attempt. This could be down to more ambition and courage in KT’s passing or could be due to positioning: Toljan spends a lot of time perhaps a little too far forward, while Lustig seems too deep.
Pass frequency in each direction also tells a story: Tierney plays many more forward balls whilst also keeping up with the amount of sideways and backwards passes. This again shows just how involved he is and just how many positions he takes up throughout a game. Toljan’s positioning renders him only able to play short layoffs to those next to him or behind, while Lustig’s passing, despite having a tendency to be longer than Toljan’s, is also mostly focused sideways.
The final piece in the jigsaw that is Kieran Tierney is his attitude. Callum McGregor recently alluded to this being a fundamental contribution in the young star cementing his first team place. He also commented on how he has learned from KT and not just the other way around which, in my opinion, is the true mark of a leader. Somebody who broke into the starting side at the tender age of 17 and, with his die-hard determination, pulled up the performances of those around him.
Since that moment he has helped Celtic win 4 Scottish Premiership league titles, 3 Scottish Cups and 3 League Cups, including the famous Invincible season and, of course, the Treble Treble. To this date, he is still the only player to ever win 3 PFA Scotland Young Player of the Year awards and to do so consecutively is an even bigger achievement. I, for one, can’t wait to see the levels both Celtic and Scotland can reach with such an extraordinary talent at their disposal.
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