The Left-Back Position in Soccer: Things to Know

The left-back position in soccer is very important. In this article, I will cover things you need to know about the left-back position. First, I will discuss characteristics a left-back must have to be successful. Second, I will talk about different types of left-backs. Third, I will cover a few tactical nuances any left-back can easily add to his/her game.

Before I start, I have to say the obvious thing here. Contents of this article also apply to the right-back position. However, I wrote a separate article for right-backs. You can read it here. This is to accomplish two things. I would like to give due respect to the right-backs that have left their mark on this game. I would also like to help those searching for information specifically about a right-back position find a right-back specific article.

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Key Characteristics for a Left-Back Position in Soccer

For starters, most players in a left-back position in soccer tend to be left-footed. Shocker, I know. However, it is most definitely not a requirement. Phillip Lahm, one of the best left-backs of all time, who played for Bayern Munich, was naturally right-footed. Gianluca Zambrotta, a legendary Juventus defender, was another right-footed left-back (who also played as a right-back at times). Both of these players are world cup winners and had very long and memorable careers.

The left-back position in soccer is responsible for more than just defending. Modern left-backs also provide a strong attacking outlet. The ability to cover the entire left side of the field is very important. This last point should be emphasized. A left-back’s main responsibility is to defend the left side. But, it is also to attack (and cover everything in between). Modern left-backs have free rein on their side of the field. They move up and down with ease and get involved in a play at all phases of the game.

The left-back position in soccer is physically tasking. Perhaps, only a central midfielder is asked to cover more ground than a left-back. In addition, left-backs do more sprints. As estimated by Ryan Alexander in Complete Conditioning for Soccer, a left-back needs to be able to cover about 6-7 miles per game, of which over 1000 yards can be in high-intensity work.

The picture illustrates the coverage area for a left-back in defensive and attacking phases.

Left-Back Position in Soccer in Defensive Phase

As a general statement, a player in a left-back position in soccer must be a good defender. In a defensive phase, he/she must be able to defend well in 1v1 situations. When defending, the player will often find him/herself face-to-face with an opposing winger. Left-back must also be good at defending headers as he/she will find him/herself defending a back-post against a center forward or a winger on crosses.

While defending, a left-back must also be good at reading the game. Reading the game, like many things, comes with experience and education. Being able to constantly monitor the offside line, players sneaking behind the position, or having a general awareness of the players on your and opposing teams’ sides are crucial. However, center-backs and goalkeepers are often in a better position to give directions. Therefore, being able to communicate (listen and give instructions) can be just as crucial.

Left-Back Position in Soccer in Offensive Phase

The picture illustrates two scenarios. In one scenario, LB (#5) has made an overlapping run towards the corner flag. If #11 plays the ball, LB will be in a good position to put in a dangerous cross. In the second scenario, LB gives #11 an outlet to recycle possession by staying behind him if #11 is not able to move the ball forward. In this scenario, the left-back will be able to move the game towards the right by passing to either #7, #6, #3, or #4. With recycled possession, the team will again try to attack from a different angle.

In the offensive phase, a left-back position in soccer has to provide support. Primarily, this position will help the left midfielder/winger find an outlet pass. Left-back can accomplish this in two ways: either by giving support from behind or by making an overlapping run. Once in a position of the ball, the left-back must be able to make a good cross or recycle possession with an intelligent pass.

In addition to being an outlet for a left midfielder/winger, the left-back can also find himself/herself attacking a back post area if a dangerous cross is coming from the right side. However, such a player is not generally expected to score goals.

Different Types of Left-Backs

There are different kinds of left-backs in soccer. There are attacking and defensive-minded players in this position. What constitutes a “better” type depends entirely on the coach and the team. For example, Joao Cancelo was not a very important player for Max Allegri at Juventus but has become crucial for Pep Guardiola at Manchester City.

Paolo Maldini, regarded as the best defender ever, was a defensive left-back (and also a center-back). Roberto Carlos was an offensive type. They both had incredible careers at Milan and Real Madrid, respectively. Together, they share 8 champions league trophies and countless other achievements.

Defensive Left-Backs

The left-back position in soccer has primarily always been defensive. After all, the main responsibility of a defender is to defend. Players like Paolo Maldini, Antonio Cabrini, Giacinto Facchetti, Phillip Lahm, Kaxa Kaladze, Alex Sandro, Ashley Cole, and Patrice Evra (to name a few) all curved out incredible careers. Players like Sandro and Ferlan Mendy are still enjoying wonderful careers even in the 2020s when more and more coaches seem to be focused on offensive left-backs. However, even defensive left-backs need to be able to go forward and cross the ball well.

Offensive Left-Backs

With the modernization of soccer, the left-back position in soccer is also evolving. There is more emphasis on offensive players. Players like Andrew Robertson, Joao Cancelo, and Alphonso Davies are getting a lot of recognition for their offensive abilities. However, this is not necessarily new. Marcelo, in the 2010s, and Roberto Carlos in the 2000s both dominated the left-back position even though they played a very offensive game. However, just like defensive left-backs need to attack, offensive left-backs need to be able to defend even more.

Key Tactical Tips

When Defending Left-Back Position in Soccer

  • Stay close to your left center back. Here, the idea is that you do not want to leave a big gap between yourself (LB) and a center back. If an attacking player gets in that space, they are likely to be in a good scoring position. In the illustration below, the left-back (#5white) needs to move closer to the center back (#4white) and instruct #8white to come deeper to defend #2red. Even if there is nobody to defend #2red, the left-back still needs to move more centrally. This is because the #11red is in a far more dangerous position than the #2red.
The circled area should never be unmarked as it is a very dangerous space.
  • Do not lose track of the runner behind. This happens far more often than it should even when top teams are playing. A left-back comes in centrally, (as suggested in the first bullet point) but fails to understand that 1) there is already an extra center back in the middle and 2) that there is a runner coming in from behind. That runner (#2red) now has free access to the goal at the back post.
Illustration: a man left unmarked at the back post.
  • Always keep an eye on the offside line. This too happens far too often. The left-back (#5white) forgets to move up with the rest of the defensive line. Now, the opposition player can be 1v1 with nobody close to him. Easily avoidable and highly effective.
Poorly executed offside trap.
  • Risk control under pressure. Conceding a corner-kick is better than leaving an opposition player 1v1 with your goalkeeper. A free throw is less risky than conceding a corner kick. Finding a free teammate is not always an option under pressure. We often see a frustrated player, unable to find a good outlet, make a bad decision and give away a goal-scoring opportunity. If there is no good pass, kicking the ball away as far as you can in any direction is always better than passing the ball to the opposition.
  • If you pass the ball back to the goalkeeper, avoid passing the ball directly between the goalposts. Mistakes happen. If your teammate goalie is unable to control the ball, a pass directly at goal can lead to a goal. While passing on either side of the goal-posts can only result in a corner-kick.
Example: how to pass the ball back to your goalkeeper.

Know your opponent (right winger/forward)

  • When facing a faster opponent, try to deny him space behind you. Instead of marking him very closely, step back a little. Deny your opposition the space to run behind you. Allow him to receive the ball in his feet. Example: Mbappe.
  • When facing a technical opponent. Mark him closely. If your opposition prefers to receive the ball to his feet (instead of running behind you), you will be able to defend better if you are glued as closely as you can. Example: Messi.
  • When facing a left-footed player. If you are defending 1v1 against a player who likes to cut inside on his left foot because his right foot is not as strong, try to force him to the right by denying him space to the left and opening the space to the right. Example: Salah.
  • When facing a right-footed player. If the winger you are defending is right-footed and prefers to cross the ball every opportunity they get, try to force them inside to their left. Example: Cuadrado.

When Attacking from a Left-Back Position in Soccer

  • Overlapping Runs are incredibly effective. Not only does it help your teammate under pressure to keep the possession but it allows the attacking move to grow flawlessly and can easily lead to a goal.
As illustrated here, the left-back overlaps the left midfielder/winger from behind (never run in front of your teammate. You can get in a way) and moves into a very favorable position for a dangerous cross. With this simple move, the left-back can open up two options for his/her teammate. First, the left-back making the run can receive the ball. Second, the left-back is forcing the defender (#2 red) to decide to either stay with the #8white and defend him or follow the #5white. This, in turn, opens up extra space for #8white.
  • Finding an open space at the back post. If your team is in an attacking phase from the right side, there is a good chance to overload the left side. However, before the left-back position in soccer attempts to attack that back post, he/she has to make sure the team is not outnumbered in the defensive phase. Overloading attacking numbers could allow the opposition to counter quickly and without much interference. In the illustration below, #5white leaves his 2 center backs to defend against 3 attacking players, which could easily be very costly for his team.
Attacking the back-post but opening a possibility for a dangerous counterattack.
  • Recycle possession intelligently. Not every attack has to end with a goal or a key pass. Being able to retain possession is sometimes as important as making a key tackle or scoring a goal. If there are no good options going forward, keep the ball and switch it to the other side.

Conclusion

Left-backs play an important role for their team. Good left-backs can control the entire left side of the field. Modern left-backs know how to defend and how to attack. Understanding the tactical nuances of a left-back position can help you improve your game. If you enjoyed the article (or if you think it can be improved), I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

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