Once upon a time, full-backs were not considered essential parts of a team and they were viewed as nothing more than extras in defense – providing addition cover while the ‘main’ defensive work was done by the center-halves.
Essentially, they were considered as players neither good enough to play as wingers not strong enough to play in central defense and more than a few number of fans thought of the position as an irrelevant one, with Jamie Carragher once infamously quipping ‘nobody wants to grow up to be a Gary Neville’.
However, tactical evolutions in the last half-century have placed an ever-increasing number of responsibilities on full-backs, with the result being that the modern-day full-back has become arguably the most important player in the team.
Today, full-backs are tasked with providing width and supplying the crosses in attacking plays, while also combining these forward runs with defensive duties and consequently, they are usually the players with the most distances covered in matches.
Due to the versatility of full-backs and the width they provide from defense, these set of players function almost as auxiliary wingers and wide running players in the mold of Ryan Giggs and Shaun-Wright Phillips are slowly going in extinction in favor of inverted wingers.
As such, it is not an uncommon sight to see full-backs spend a lot of time in the opposition half and even though they might still be ‘defenders’, there are hardly any players who contribute more to their team’s attacking play.
Many top teams in Europe build their gameplan around their full-backs, with Liverpool, Manchester City, and Real Madrid being prime examples and as such, the players occupying this role must possess a requisite level of technique, stamina, and skill to successfully execute their duties.
Even in the days of static full-backs, some men showed greater attacking impetus and were regular contributors to attacking plays and here at Sportszion, we shall be having a rundown of the top 11 most attacking full-backs in footballing history.
Honorable mentions: Cafu (Brazil), Wim Suurbier (The Netherlands), Jose Antonio Camacho (Spain), Phil Neal (England)
#11 Ashley Cole (England)
Ashley Cole is unarguably the best left-back to ever to grace the Premier League and one of the greatest of all time.
He represented Arsenal from 1999 to 2006, winning numerous trophies with the club including the unbeaten Premier League campaign in 2004 before incurring the wrath of the club’s fans by transferring to Chelsea in the summer of 2006.
At Stamford Bridge, Ashley Cole enjoyed even more success and won the Champions League in 2012, while he is also England’s most-capped full-back with 107 caps won between 2001 and 2014.
#10 Nilton Santos (Brazil)
Nilton Santos is the first of a handful of Brazilians to make this list and was a key component of the Brazilian squads that triumphed in consecutive World Cups in 1958 and 1962, contributing immensely from his position at left-back.
Playing opposite his namesake Djalma Santos (more on him later), Nilton was one of the first full-backs to embark on runs forward and paved the way for future stalwarts in the role like Roberto Carlos and Marcelo.
The Rio de Janeiro native possessed excellent technique that made him adept in the art of both defending and attacking and once famously quipped: ”I have never envied today’s players the money but the freedom they have, to go forward.”
He was called ‘The Encyclopedia’ because of his all-encompassing knowledge of sports and scored one of the most memorable goals in World Cup history at the 1958 Word Cup when he embarked on a mazy run forward, dribbling across the field before finishing off with a superb shot – all the while ignoring the calls of his coach Vicente Feola who kept insisting that he should retreat to his defensive position.
The now-late Nilton Santos represented only Botafogo in his professional career, turning out for the club a whopping 723 times in the domestic league, while he also won 75 caps for the Brazilian national team.
#9 Javier Zanetti (Argentina)
Javier Zanetti was the definition of a consummate professional and executed his duties with distinction for over two decades.
After spending the first three years of his career in his native Argentina, turning out for Talleres and Banfield, Zanetti joined Inter Milan in 1995 for his first sojourn in European football and over the next 19 years, he played his way into the annals of Inter Milan folklore.
The Buenos Aires native rose through the ranks to become club captain at San Siro, with his finest hour coming when he captained the team to their first European treble in 2010.
In total, he represented the Nerazzurri a record 858 times, while also winning 143 caps for Argentina and his versatility saw him deployed at both right and left-back.
#8 Giacinto Facchetti (Italy)
Giacinto Facchetti was the symbol of the Grande Inter side that conquered all before them under the legendary management of Helenio Herrera and opposite fellow full-back Tarcisio Burgnic, he played an integral role to the successful implementation of the ‘catenaccio’ defensive system at both club and international level.
To date, Facchetti is regarded by many to be one of the first truly attacking full-backs and Inter Milan fans still consider him one of the greatest players in the club’s history.
In his day, the Treviglio native revolutionized the left-back role and was voted as runner-up in the 1965 Ballon d’Or, which was an extraordinary achievement considering that full-backs did not receive much acclaim back then.
Facchetti represented only Inter Milan in his professional career and was an exemplary player both on and off the field, possessing pristine leadership abilities highlighted by the fact that he captained both Inter Milan and his nation for many years.
Upon his retirement, Inter Milan put his jersey number 3 into permanent disuse, while also keeping him on their payroll until his death in 2006.
#7 Marcelo (Brazil)
Marcelo is the latest in a long line of marauding Brazilian full-backs and for the last decade, he has been an integral part of the highly successful Real Madrid squad that made history in the Champions League.
The 31-year-old joined the LaLiga giants from Fluminense in January 2007 and he has since played his way into being considered one of the greatest Brazilians to ever play for Real Madrid.
The Rio de Janeiro native started his career out as a left-winger and this explains the ease with which he launches attacks moving forward and his pristine crossing and overlapping runs have been crucial to Real Madrid’s successes and while he might not exactly be famed for his defending abilities, going forward, there are few as good as Marcelo.
#6 Djalma Santos (Brazil)
Djalma Santos made history as the first player to b inducted into three separate World Cup All-Star teams (a feat that has since been equaled by Franz Beckenbauer and Philip Lahm) and in his prime, the former Brazil international was a joy to behold with his overlapping runs down the right flank.
He began his professional career with local club Portuguesa and also represented Palmeiras with distinction before retiring after a brief spell with Atletico Paranense.
In a testament to his longevity, the late Djalma Santos is one of only 50 players to have made over 1,000 official appearances (he was the first in history to achieve this feat) and was incredibly never sent off in his 22-year career.
#5 Philipp Lahm (Germany)
Philipp Lahm joined the Bayern Munich Academy in 1995 to continue his developmental career and spent six years in the junior teams before making his bow for the senior side in 2002.
The Munich native spent the next 15 years (bar a two-year loan period at VFB Stuttgart) with the Bavarians and made over 500 appearances for the club, winning a plethora of trophies with the pinnacle of his club career coming when he captained Bayern Munich to a treble in 2013.
A year later, he skippered Germany to World Cup glory in 2014 and retired three years later as one of the best players of his generation.
Though primarily right-footed, Philipp Lahm was adept in the use of both feet and this versatility saw him deployed as left-back in the early stage of his career, while his technique ad passing ability also saw him utilized as a midfielder on occasion.
#4 Paolo Maldini (Italy)
Paolo Maldini is one of the greatest players of all time and is widely regarded as the best player in the illustrious history of AC Milan.
He spent the entirety of his 25-year career with AC Milan and made a name for himself as a highly talented teenager and despite playing alongside legendary players like Franco Baresi, Marco Van Basten, Frank Rijkaard, and Carlo Ancelotti, Maldini was unfazed and in his role at left-back, he was instrumental to the legendary Rossoneri team guided by Arrigo Sacchi in the late 1980s.
In total, Il Capitano represented AC Milan over 900 times and to date is the player with the record for most appearances in Serie A (although Buffon would soon overtake him) and won everything winnable with Milan at club level including five Champions Leagues and it came as no surprise when he had his jersey number 3 retired by the club upon his retirement.
On the international scene, Maldini also starred for Italy on 126 occasions although he was unable to match his club success with the Azurri.
#3 Dani Alves (Brazil)
It is unarguable that Dani Alves has been the standard-bearer for right-backs in the last 15 years and he has represented some of the world’s biggest clubs with distinction.
The Bahia native spent just one year in Brazil with his native club, before embarking on his European sojourn when he signed for Sevilla in 2002.
After six seasons in Andalusia, he was made the first signing of Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona era and with the Catalans, Dani Alves became the best right-back in the world, with his marauding runs forward and pristine delivery playing an integral role to the successes enjoyed by the club.
He formed a particularly effective relationship with Lionel Messi on the field and for many years was the player responsible for the most assists to the Argentine icon until he was recently surpassed by Luis Suarez.
He is considered as one of the greatest Brazilians to play for Barcelona and after leaving Camp Nou in 2016, further trophy-laden spells were undertaken at Juventus and PSG before he ended his European spell with a transfer back home to represent Sao Paolo.
To date, Dani Alves has won over 40 major honors at both club and international level, making him the most decorated footballer in history.
#2 Roberto Carlos (Brazil)
Roberto Carlos made a name for himself as an attack-minded left-back who represented marquee clubs like Real Madrid and Inter Milan as well as the Brazilian national team.
The Sao Paolo native was famed for his bursts of speed, freekick ability, sublime crossing ability and was nicknamed “The Bullet Man” due to his immense shot power and accuracy.
Roberto Carlos had a highly successful career and won everything winnable club level including multiple Champions Leagues, League titles and Super Cups, while he also lifted the World Cup and Copa America with Brazil on the international stage.
On an individual level, he was also highly distinguished and made it to the podium of both the FIFA World Best Player and the Ballon d’Or.
#1 Ronald Koeman (The Netherlands)
With 239 career goals, Ronald Koeman is the highest scoring defender in history and made a name for himself with his performances for Barcelona, Ajax, PSV, and Feyenoord.
The finest moment of his professional career undoubtedly came in 1992 when he skippered Barcelona to her first European Cup triumph, scoring the only goal in a victory over Sampdoria at Wembley.
The 56-year-old is also one of the greatest freekick takers of all time and delved into management upon retirement.
He has enjoyed relative success on the bench, having managed Holland’s ‘Big Three’, as well as Southampton, Everton, and The Netherlands national team.