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The Premier League’s Two Best Full Backs Are On A Whole Nother Level

Joao Cancelo of Manchester City is challenged by Trent Alexander-Arnold of Liverpool during the Premier League match between Manchester City and Liverpool at Etihad Stadium on November 08, 2020 in Manchester, England.
Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

The Premier League is a literal embarrassment of riches. It has more great teams, more good teams, and also more rich teams than any other league in the world. It is brimming with excellent players, and is home to the game’s best player on current form. The level of coaching talent, measured both at the very top and at the average, is unrivaled. And in this land where Manchester City clashes with Chelsea, where Antonio Conte matches wits with Jürgen Klopp, and where Bruno Fernandes tries to outshine Son Heung-min, somehow the most riveting competition at the moment is the one between two players at what is traditionally one of the least glamorous positions in the sport.

Calling Trent Alexander-Arnold and João Cancelo “full backs”—or, even worse, “defenders”—feels wholly insufficient. True, the two aren’t completely without precedent: Brazil has a long tradition of producing full backs with the creativity and flair of No. 10s, and in this era of high pressing, the position in general is assuming more weight in teams’ possessions and attacks than was commonly seen before. Still, the centrality of Alexander-Arnold and Cancelo to their respective teams’ performances is unique. Liverpool and Man City don’t play well with Alexander-Arnold and Cancelo, they play well because of them.

Alexander-Arnold demonstrated this fact once again on Saturday in a man-of-the-match-worthy showing against Arsenal. From the quasi central midfield position he’s thrived in this season, he helped dictate Liverpool’s tempo and served as the primary chance-creator. He assisted Liverpool’s opener with a typically perfect cross from a free kick—

—and set up Takumi Minamino with a tap-in that capped the Reds’ 4–0 beatdown:

The two assists gave him six for the season; only Mohamed Salah and Paul Pogba, with seven each, have more. The four key passes put his average at 3.5 per 90 minutes, the highest in the Prem amongst players with a minimum of six appearances. His team-leading long-pass figures are crucial to Liverpool’s strategy that is predicated on fast, direct attacks and frequent switches of play. He’s the main creator on one of the four best teams in the world. He is a full back. It is all so outrageous.

As for Cancelo, we’ve already extolled his virtues at length recently, so there’s no need to do so again here. Nevertheless, we’d be remiss if we didn’t point out his assist over the weekend, which was legitimately too pretty for words:

About a third of the way into the season, there’s already plenty to look forward to as the campaign rolls on. Will the title race between Man City, Liverpool, and Chelsea stay at this blistering pace and wind up one of the most intense ones the league has ever seen? Of the handful of contenders for the final Champions League spot, which one will claim for itself the coveted Arsène Wenger Trophy? Can Salah maintain this form and pull off the best individual season in Premier League history? With only six points separating Burnley in 18th place and Everton in 11th, might the relegation scrap be just as hard-fought and compelling as the battle for the title?

It’s a testament to how deep and strong the Premier League is that there is so much to get excited about at the top, through the middle, and even at the bottom of the table. It’s a testament to how special Alexander-Arnold and Cancelo are that some of the most intriguing aspects of the season will be directly determined by a pair of freaking full backs.

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