Inverted: How Spain's next hybrid midfielder emerged from Guardiola's shadow
Girona's new full-back is a star for the modern age
If you could distill this season of European football into a single tactical trend, it might be full-backs inverting into midfield. In Spain, a twenty-year-old has quietly emerged as one of the concept’s most exciting proponents.
Defenders moving into midfield. The concept isn’t new, but the 2022-23 campaign has served as its most overt display yet.
Pep Guardiola, the guy who was at this with the likes of Philipp Lahm almost a decade ago, would be the first to play down his individual responsibility as innovator. Someone has done it before – his mentor Johan Cruyff, for one – and someone will revive it in the future, long after it dies away. But right now, where Guardiola goes, others follow.
The Premier League has provided this season’s most high-profile examples. The two best teams in the land, Manchester City and Arsenal, both released defenders into midfield as a staple of their play. Oleksandr Zinchenko revolutionised North London, while Manchester City introduced the world to Rico Lewis, a teenage academy graduate hand-crafted to play Guardiola’s dual-role. Erik ten Hag moved Manchester United’s full-backs into midfield, as well as their centre backs sporadically. Roberto De Zerbi and Brighton were at it. And Trent Alexander-Arnold, whose campaign with Liverpool began disjointed at right-back, finished among the Premier League’s most influential central players.
Predicting football’s next turn is a thankless task, but defenders moving into midfield feels like a safe sub-plot from here. The question is not whether this feature will stick around, but rather: who precisely will it serve? Does such a system require the overwhelming possessive football usually reserved for the elite? Or will it trickle down, becoming a tactical weapon regardless of resource?
In Spain, a 20-year-old might provide the shadow of an answer. Though this specific strand of versatility hasn’t been quite as abundant in LaLiga as it has England, newly promoted Girona have defied the limits of their resources and shot up to a ninth-place finish - all while inverting their young full-back into midfield. His name is Arnau Martínez.
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