Fullbacks have been an everchanging role, that has evolved from it’s role in the 90s as more wide centre halves, growing into players that are able to contribute in the final third. In one of the most famous clips in Monday Night Football’s history, Jamie Carragher said that fullbacks are either “failed wingers or failed centre halves.” While an element of that is true, with Manchester United finishing second in the Premier League last season with their first choice fullbacks being Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia, two players who were used during Sir Alex Ferguson’s reign in his latter years. Even current prospect Aaron Wan-Bissaka came through Crystal Palace’s academy as a winger, but was moved further back. It can paint this image of a fullback being a position that isn’t of grave importance, compared to the demand for well rounded forwards or centre halves with a vast range of passing. This is of course far from the truth. It’s a position that offers great flexibility and seperates a mid table team to a truly elite one. There have been huge innovations in this field, with like many of the changes in the modern game, go back to Pep Guardiola. The Catalan coach deployed Alves and Abidal more as wingers, with their need to defend absent thanks to Pep’s emphasis on possession. After his sabbatical, he became Bayern Munich’s and went to further innovate, using the incredible versatility and intelligence of defenders David Alaba and Philip Lahm, to use them more as inverted full backs. They would come inside and overload the midfield, to make the simple job of tracking them nearly impossible. Antonio Conte was another who changed how fullbacks could be seen, using two failed wingers in Marcos Alonso and Victor Moses as wingbacks in his famous 3-4-3 system at Chelsea. Both were athletic and could contribute effectively in the final third, giving the side plenty of numbers defensively and offensively.
One would wonder what does any of this have to do with Bernardo? It’s more for context, and how the original purpose of a fullback has changed so much since the turn of the millenium. It seems their role as defenders has been forgotten, but Bernardo is different. The Brazilian was part of the Red Bull machine, starting his career at Red Bull Brazil, and going on to play for RB Salzburg and RB Leipzig respectively. After having a very good season with Leipzig, he earned a £9m move to Brighton. It was a very good signing, like many of their signings last summer. It made a lot of sense for Bernardo as well. While playing 1350 minutes last season is fine for a player who still hasn’t hit his peak. Moving to a club that was willing to make the same step up was the perfect solution for both parties. Bernardo is apart of a strange new breed of defender, strangely being defensive first. As mentioned, the role of the fullback has changed over the years. Bigger sides realised that having as many players have attacking ability gives them such an advantage. It’s different at the other end of the table. Players like Bernardo, Wan-Bissaka and Chilwell are all really good defensively, but do not offer much on the attacking end. There is an assumption that all fullbacks now bomb forward and help the other wide players. They might help give an option for their teammates, but defending is their priority. Bernardo is the best example of this. In their most recent game against Tottenham, The Brazilian showed all of his best qualities. He is very good in the air, winning more than half of his aerial duels. His tactical versatility has been very impressive. He helps keep the defensive line and is so good in a one on one. Lucas Moura struggled in the first 30 minutes because Bernardo kept forcing him wide, making him so much less effective and persuading Pochettino to switch him and Son. He caused Tottenham a lot of problems when they were attacking. His tackling is by far one of his best attributes. He attempts 4.1 tackles per 90, and wins 80% of them. That’s better than Chilwell’s 65% and not far off Wan-Bissaka’s insane 92%. The 3 players mentioned rarely get dribbled past. Bernardo has only been beaten 0.7 times per game, showing just how solid he is. He definitely lacks attacking qualities, but that isn’t his role or his strength. Brighton are a side that will fear relegation for the next couple of years. They don’t want a full back who will make Marcelo eat his heart out, but someone who won’t get beaten and help make sure their side aren’t conceding preventable goals, and Bernardo is filling that void.
The next sensible question would be if Bernardo could handle a step up into a side that demanded more from their full backs offensively, and I wouldn’t think he could. It’s not to say that he couldn’t join a club with more prestige than Brighton, but he couldn’t join a side, like Tottenham or Napoli, who demand a lot from their fullbacks. He would have to join a side with a more pragmatic approach, where he could still focus on the defensive side of his game. One key area he would have to improve in however is his distribution, Bernardo has averaged a pass accuracy of 73% throughout his career, that would have to peak in the eighty’s if he could be relied on in possession. He turns 24 soon, which gives him less time to improve as other younger full backs, but some teams could truly use a player like Bernardo, where his offensive inability can be brushed aside when seeing just how good he is for his side defensively.