The ‘left-back’ problem – a brief history
It’s difficult to pin-point exactly where the infamously familiar ‘left-back problem’ first reared it’s ugly head. The end of the 90’s saw the reasonable Stephane Mahe operate to some success, and before him the ageing Tom Boyd. Once Mahe had departed, Martin O’Neill took the problem in his stride – his initial favoured 3-5-2 formation didn’t need a true left-back and midfielder Alan Thompson made the wing-back position his own. What current Assistant Manager Thompson lacked in pace, he made up for in passion, big game aggression and a cracking left-foot. A strange brand of wing-back, almost like a left-sided David Beckham. A few others filled in at times – Bobby Petta was more like a winger and struggled with the defensive responsibility, as did a few other bit-parts, such as Steve Guppy or Ross Wallace.
It was the post-2003 switch to 4-4-2 that underlined the need for a bona fide left-back to complement the pacey and attacking Didier Agathe on the opposite side. But that player simply was not available, and so the right-footed Jackie McNamara stepped up his game in perhaps his best seasons for the club. His maturity, defensive awareness and positioning allowed him to sit deep and stick to defending, but the lack of available attacking option frustrated O’Neill. He never did permanently sign a true left-back.
Gordon Strachan saw the full-backs in a different, less pragmatic light. For a team that would domestically boss possession, it is often the full-backs who find themselves in the most space and therefore have genuine attacking responsibility. In Strachan’s Utopian football ideal with two nimble and creative inverted wingers plus two strikers, the full-backs had to provide pace and width, and he therefore sought only attack minded full-backs.
With Jackie McNamara fading, here began one of Strachan’s biggest failings – the inability to find a left-back of the quality to satisfy his strategy. Mo Camara was signed from Championship side Burnley and while on the face of it, sure enough an attacking wing-back – he was a terrible player and excruciatingly out of his depth (demonstrated in the infamous 5-0 defeat to Artmedia Bratislava in 2005). He was immediately removed, and right-back Mark Wilson plugged the gap – with Celtic going on to win the first of three in a row. The second season Strachan signed Lee Naylor for £600k plus Charlie Mulgrew (ironically Celtic’s left-back in the final game of the 10-11 season) from Wolves.
Naylor enjoyed a superb first season getting himself in the running for player of the year as Strachan drove towards that second title. But his form would drop dramatically, and just as Camara was out of his depth at every level, Naylor was found to be out his depth in Europe. From the highs of that first season, the following three proved to be a slow fall from grace – for the first pick left-back and entire team alike.
Tony Mowbray, took charge in 2009 and was the next to be flummoxed. He, like Strachan, played a brand of 4-4-2 that blended the line between full-back and wing-back. A perfect example on the right would be Strachan’s signing; Andreas Hinkel. Danny Fox was one of some fifteen players brought in that year – again from a Championship side and after a promising start, sadly, was a false dawn. Solid defensively, accurate delivery and good going forward, he should’ve been the answer. But after only fifteen appearances, Fox departed the club under a muted cloud of mystery. Going into Neil Lennon’s reign as manager, the decade old problem lingered.
Step in Emilio Izaguirre.
In the previous 3 attempts, past managers had plumbed the depths of England’s lower tiers, but Neil Lennon broke the mould casting his net as far away as Honduras. Internationalist Emilio Izaguirre signed for a mere £600k from Motagua, agreeing a four-year-deal in time to begin the 2010-11 season. Despite featuring at that summer’s World Cup in South Africa and playing very well against the eventual winners Spain, little was known of the Latin American.
It quickly became apparent that Izaguirre is flat-out in a different league to Camara, Naylor, Fox et al. He possesses ferocious pace, beats a man like a tricky winger, and his open play delivery is exceptional. The one drawback (if it can be considered that) is his intense, typically latin-American compulsion to get forward. In fact his style of play and control of his entire flank is reminiscent of Dani Alves at Barcelona.
The image on the left shows Celtic’s formation against Rangers in February’s 3-0 victory, and this was a particular case where Izaguirre’s dominance of the left-flank transformed the side. He created the space for play-maker Kris Commons to cut inside into more dangerous areas. Typically the opposition full-back is drawn to follow Commons inwards, leaving Izaguirre one-on-one with his opposite number (on this occasion, this happened to be the lethargic El Hadji Diouf). This wide player is forced to pay close and exhausting attention to Izaguirre’s eager running, forcing either the reluctant abandonment of his own attacking intentions or a potentially fatal abandonment of his defensive duties.
Walter Smith was forced to change his strategy swapping Diouf for Steven Naismith – simply to cope with Celtic’s left-back, and this was a familiar opposition tactic throughout the SPL campaign. For example, Dundee Utd in November’s 1-1 draw used Johnny Russell and Derek McInnes has used the pacy Jeno Myre-Williams to attempt to stifle Izaguirre. Forcing the opposition into actively changing shape is a small victory in itself.
When the opposition have not specifically set out to stall Izaguirre’s careering down the wing, his impact has been devastating. But what is most indicative of his hugely attacking style is the amount of time he spends in the opposition’s territory. While he often feels the wrath of the team-mate whose job it is to cover (whichever midfielder is sitting back – Beram Kayal for example is often fairly vocal in protestation) it’s impossible to deny Izaguirre’s attacking success. In one-on-one situations he attacks like a winger, getting to the by-line to flash a cross behind the defence.
The diagram below illustrates the 6 ‘official’ assists he picked up this season (in red), along with the location of his final pass within a play that led to a goal (in orange).
While 6 assists is a decent haul, it’s worth bearing in mind that Andreas Hinkel achieved 10 in the previous season (which also underlines what an under-appreciated success the German has been). Regardless, it’s the supremely attacking nature of Izaguirre that catches the eye. While Aiden McGeady would cause chaos on the right, often absorbing two players allowing Hinkel time to cross, Izaguirre doesn’t need that luxury, causing the damage himself.
In fact, depending on circumstance this season, Neil Lennon has opted for a more reserved left midfielder ahead of Izaguirre, like Joe Ledley or Charlie Mulgrew. This situation works favourably in two ways: firstly, Iziguirre can bomb forward with more confidence that an adept defensive player can cover and secondly, the best attacking full-backs are most effective with space to burst into – James Forrest has been used on the left at times and with his natural intention to hug the touch-line (drawing the opposing defender into that area), Izaguirre’s effectiveness suffers, as he’s literally running into the back of his own marked team-mate. This principle echoes the Strachan ideal – wingers that cut-inside to allow space for attacking full-backs.
Like Beram Kayal, Izaguirre’s storming first season has generated significant tabloid column-inches. With Manchester United allegedly interested, he (like most) wouldn’t rule out a move to Old Trafford this summer. Perhaps other “giants” are keenly interested. But Neil Lennon has been concise and bullish “We have had no bids from anyone. All it is is speculation coming from you lot, so just drop it.” Music to the ears of supporters.
Having proven himself to be the best left-back in the SPL and surely the best-left back for Celtic in over a decade; whether he moves on during this transfer window, next or at all in his playing days, it will be too soon for Celtic – another long and arduous search for a left-back of similar ilk, is inconceivable.