As many have come to realise, the modern game has essentially changed our expectations in terms of what the role of ‘fullback’ should be. Generally speaking, those fullbacks who are able to contribute to their team’s offensive phase have become increasingly valorised, by coaches and by the public alike. And while fullbacks were once simply expected to fulfill their defensive duties, they have now been crafted into a complete part of team systems.
In Italy, Antonio Conte was probably the first to introduce this new notion of the position, by means of his 3-5-2. In this structure, the ex-Lazio man Stephan Lichtsteiner operated on the right flank, reinvented by Conte as a predominantly offensive footballer after having played in a 4-man defence for the better part of his career. Bombing up and down the wing for the whole duration of any given game, Lichtsteiner exploited his superb physical qualities to deliver assists, a fair amount of goals and much, much more for Juventus. It’s fair to say that this tactic, amongst others, paid dividends for the bianconeri.
This evolution of the fullback’s role is enough to justify Andrea Conti’s price tag: 24 million euros, the amount that Milan have recently paid Atalanta to make the 23-year-old wingback a rossonero. Conti disposes of many of the (rare) qualities that Europe’s elite teams tend to look for in a fullback: but what exactly are these qualities, and what limitations come with them? Let’s find out while analysing the strengths and weaknesses of Conti himself, one of the season’s revelations and one of Italy’s hottest prospects.
If Conti’s main assets were to be summarised, one could say that he is a player who makes a tangible difference when going forward in a multitude of ways, some subtler than others. The clearest form of Conti’s offensive contribution, as witnessed this season, is his goal-scoring prowess. His eight goals scored for Atalanta, which made him the season’s most prolific European defender, vouch for this. Another form of offensive contribution comes, obviously, in the form of assists, of which Conti delivered a significant five last season. Both his assists and his goals are a product, or rather a consequence, of what is in fact one of Conti’s main qualities: his great sense of timing and off-the-ball movement.
As a matter of fact, Conti rarely scores or assists as the result of a personal endeavour with the ball at his feet. Rather, he is often the terminal with which his team’s play culminates. Unlike other interpreters of the role of the modern fullback/wingback, Conti is not particularly skillful or creative. The Marcelos and Maicons of this world could surprise the opposition with long shots, dribbling sprees and quick passing combinations in tight pockets of space. Conti, on the other hand, is more prone to seeking situations where his actions can be limited to a pass or an attempt for goal. One touch, two touches max. That’s why he is more notable for his off-the-ball movements as opposed to his ability to combine with teammates and participate in ball-distribution. In a sense this is a limitation, but if his movements are exploited by his teammates, this limit can be largely compensated for.
This leads us to discuss Conti’s most subtle manner of offensive contribution, which is intrinsically related to his off-the-ball-movements. His perpetual runs into space, in fact, are helpful even when they do not directly lead to a goal or an assist on part of the 23 year-old. When Conti bursts forward, attention is diverted either towards him or towards others. Of course, this favours the more creative players, which exploit the Conti-decoy to gain an extra second to make the right decision. The decision is often either a personal initiative, or one that rewards Conti’s runs. In either case, an opportunity to create danger arises.
His other qualities also render his movements more effective: namely, his aggressiveness, his physique and his propensity to move forward. Conti is agile, extremely quick and has the necessary stamina needed to move forward and track back frequently and efficiently.
You must’ve noticed that, when talking about the player’s strength, I have focused predominantly on his attacking play. And although he can also be deemed defensively sound, there is a reason as to why his characteristics are more useful in the opposition’s half of the pitch.
Needless to say, in spite of Conti’s afore-mentioned resistance, he cannot always, without fault, track back to help in defence. Disposing of a player like Conti and giving him license to go forward comes with certain defensive risks. It is the coach’s duty to be conscious of this and to balance his team accordingly.
Conti’s impetus while going forward is also reflected in his defensive attitude. He does not shy away from anticipating his direct opponent and rarely waits for his adversary to make the first move. He is clearly confident in his physicality, particularly his pace, given that he always tries to push his opponent towards the wing: Conti knows that 9 times out of 10, he will be rapid enough to deal with it. Naturally, this is a risky attitude, which fully relies on Conti’s ability to read the game. Once more, his teammates must adapt to suit his bold style of play, conscious of the fact that it can sometimes go wrong.
Both these points lead us to consider his main weakness, which is probably his niche set of characteristics, which requires a system able to exploit them. If engrained in the right dynamics, Conti can provide sufficient defensive solidity and, more significantly, an above-average attacking contribution. If not, Conti can be a liability more than he can be an advantage. Thus, Conti has everything he needs to be a crucial player, but it depends on his coaches, and whether they realise how to fully take advantage of his specialist skill-set.
By: Federico Manasse/@FedericoManasse