Buidling Dreams Together


Alessandro Bastoni, Inter Milan, and left-sided centre-backs

On the evening of June 10th, the footballing world watched as Manchester City finally vanquished their Champions League demons when they beat Inter Milan 1-0 in Istanbul. Whilst I came away from the evening with copious amounts of alcohol to digest, the Nerazzurri and Simone Inzaghi had a much tougher pill to swallow; the fact that they played well enough to beat Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City. Flash forward to today and Inter Milan are dealing with aftermath of another Champions League exit. However, the Italian side find themselves in a much better position domestically than ever before.

Inter are currently sat top of Serie A and rank amongst Europe’s best for most goals scored (70) and fewest goals conceded (13). There are those who feel that it was the narrow loss to Manchester City that gave them the belief that they can take on anyone in Italy. A large chunk of the Milanese side’s success has to be attributed to their ability to adapt. The club’s financial situations means that the personnel can change from season to season, with notable departures last Summer such as André Onana (Manchester United) and Milan Skriniar (PSG) threatening to destabilise the side. However, Simone Inzaghi has been visionary in redefining Inter’s 3-5-2 formation so that it allows them to go toe-to-toe with the very best.

Simone Inzaghi

At the base of this set-up is a defensive unit made up of Yann Sommer, Stefan de Vrij, Benjamin Pavard and Alessandro Bastoni.

All of these players have to be comfortable on the ball as their attacking system is largely guided by how the opposition chooses to press them. When they have the ball, Inter welcome the opposition onto them as they want to create space in behind for their wingbacks and attackers to run into. Therefore, they require defenders who not only can defend but also start and participate in periods of possession.

This ‘Libero’ role (defender and playmaker) becomes increasingly difficult if you are placed on the wrong side of the defensive unit and are forced to pass with your weaker foot. This is why many managers now show a preference for left-footed centre halves as they can bring greater balance to the team.

For the role required, Alessandro Bastoni fits the player profile perfectly. The 24-year-old ranks in the top percentiles across Europe for passes attempted (69.32), progressive carries (1.82) and shot-creating actions (2.16) and is similar to the likes of Mario Hermoso (Atlético Madrid), Levi Colwill (Chelsea) and Jules Koundé (Barcelona).

Equally, some of the most historic centre-back pairings have benefitted from a left-footer on the left side. For example, the AC Milan European cup winning side of 1990 benefitted from the balance struck between Franco Baresi on the left and Alessandro Costacurta on the right. Similarly, in 1993 Marseille won the Champions League with Marcel Desailly and Basile Boli as their defensive pairing. More recently, top-level Premier league managers such as Arteta and Guardiola have reiterated the same desire for positioning a left-footer on their more natural side, highlighted by the acquisition of players like Gabriel at Arsenal and Nathan Ake at City.

However, what specifically is it about these players and the way that they play that makes them so in demand in the modern game? I will break it down into four different areas to highlight the benefits.

The first advantage relates to the way in which a defender receives the ball from the GK at the beginning of a phase of play and their starting position in that moment. For example, having received the ball, a left-footed player will naturally step wider on the pitch to give themselves more time to scan what’s in front of them, therefore making it easier to progress the ball further up the pitch. However, a right-footed player will tend to step inside and towards a generally more crowded area of the pitch. Consequently, opposition teams can use this a pressing trigger and attempt to reclaim the ball in the opposition’s final third

Player (1) receiving the ball with right foot
Player (1) receiving the ball with left foot

Moreover, a right-footed centre-back will likely receive the ball in a lower starting position than a left-footer in order to give themselves a better chance to successfully move the ball away from danger in the event that they are pressed. Once again, the opposition team can use this as a pressing trigger as the team in possession has already surrendered some territory to cater to the needs of the right-footed player. Therefore, with a left-footed centre back, a team will have an improved ability to play out from the back whilst simultaneously maintaining and gaining territory.

The second advantage is to do with the way in which a defender may clear the ball when under pressure from the opposition team. For example, a sweeping movement to clear the ball up field is more natural movement for a left-footed player than it is for a right-footer. The latter, whose natural inclination is to firstly receive the ball square-on, must allow the ball to come across their body before clearing it. However, these additional few moments will give the opposition more time to press and potentially block an attempted clearance.

The third and final advantage concerns how a left-footed can be a naturally more adept playmaker on the left side – crucial for passing in-between the lines and switching the point of the attack. When looking to play out from the back, the angle with which a left-footer passes the ball and begins the phase of play can be hugely beneficial. For example, a pass from a left-footer will move on an outward arc so consequently it will be the furthest it can be away from an opposition player whilst still reaching the intended recipient (illustrated in the image below). What’s more, the trajectory of the ball will likely already be moving up the pitch so the LB will be able to take the pass in their stride. However, a right-footed player’s pass will bend inwards and closer to the opposition and will likely need to be brought under control and moved forward by the left-back themself. This seemingly small difference can have a big impact on the tempo a team plays at, especially at the highest level.

Pass made with left foot

Finally, when a midfielder is about to receive a pass through the lines from a left-footed centre half, the ball will likely be played into their right-hand side (as if they were facing their own goal). This means that the player will receive the ball further away from the oncoming opposition than they would have if they’d received the ball from a right-footed player. Consequently, the recipient has more time to turn and move the ball to another teammate, therefore meaning that overall ball progression becomes easier for the team.

Player (5) receives ball on right-hand side

However, are there any disadvantages to having a left-footed centre-back?

Inverted wingers, built in the mould of Arjen Robben, can cause these left-footers defenders some issues. These types of players are very skilled at playing with great agility, able to cut inside and across a defender at a moment’s notice. When they make this movement across the defender’s body, the left-footer is thrown off-balance and forced to use their weaker side. Consequently, in an attempt to counteract this teams will use deeper lying ball-winning midfielder who can provide support to the defence – prime examples include Boubacar Kamara (Aston Villa) and João Palhinha (Fulham).

Overall, left-footed centre-backs are becoming more and more synonymous with the modern game, highlighted by the growing preference for more heavily possession-based playstyles. It estimated that just 20% of players at the very top of the game are left footed so this distribution will naturally reflect in transfer fees. Players like Alessandro Bastoni are quickly becoming the must have commodity in modern football.

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