As Liverpool legend Jamie Carragher once said: “If you’re a full-back, you’re either a failed winger or a failed centre-back. No one grows up wanting to be the next Gary Neville.”
It was, of course, a partial jibe at his Sky Sports colleague, but Carragher had a point. The full-back position is something of an enigma in football, a role which so few players have ever truly mastered. Several individuals stand out, though.
The likes of Cafu, Roberto Carlos, Ashley Cole, Dani Alves and Philipp Lahm are some of the finest players of their craft in recent times but a cursory look around Europe’s top leagues today will reveal a dearth of truly high-quality full-backs.
Given that approximately only 20 percent of professional footballers are naturally left-footed, it follows that elite-level left-backs are the rarest of breeds in the modern game. While David Alaba and the Brazilian trio of Alex Sandro, Marcelo and Filipe Luis are among the few who can be considered in the top-bracket, the Premier League arguably does not have a single left-back who could be legitimately considered as world-class.
Tottenham Hotspur’s Danny Rose comes closest, but even he fails to match up to the very best in his position outside of England and in past seasons in the Premier League.
It is unsurprising, perhaps, given the complexities of the role and what it demands. The modern full-back must be a competent defender while simultaneously providing much of their team’s width as a crucial attacking outlet. In the respective tactical systems deployed by the likes of Jürgen Klopp and Mauricio Pochettino, the absence of orthodox wingers means that the full-backs are tasked with offering virtually the only consistent sources of width and delivery into the box from wide areas.
An exceptional level of fitness and stamina is therefore an essential requirement of any top-level full-back, while a burst of pace is also an important quality, as is the technical ability to cross consistently and accurately into the box to create goal-scoring opportunities. It’s a hugely extensive and complex skill set which very few players possess, requiring a higher level of physical endurance and tactical intelligence than virtually every other position on the field.
It is often that case that modern full-backs are very useful and willing attackers but have major defensive deficiencies. In the Premier League era, two figures instantly stand out as the finest left-backs in England – Ashley Cole and Patrice Evra – who both possessed the perfect balance and blend of defensive and offensive qualities required to truly excel as specialists in the role.
Yet there is a third figure, whose name is rarely ever mentioned in the conversation around the Premier League’s best left-backs, whose brilliance has seemingly all but faded into obscurity since leaving Liverpool in the summer of 2012.
Having progressed through the São Paulo youth system, Fábio Aurélio played a crucial role in Rafael Benítez’s Valencia side that won the club’s first La Liga title in 31 years in the 2001-02 season, before going on to establish himself as one of the finest left-backs in Spain, netting double figures in goals in the 2002-03 season.
It would be the presence of Benítez that would eventually lure Aurélio to England, joining Liverpool on a Bosman transfer in July 2006 following the expiration of his six-year contract at Valencia, becoming the first ever Brazilian footballer to play for the Merseyside club.
Making his debut in Liverpool’s 2006 Community Shield victory against Chelsea, Aurélio would become a key cog in Benítez’s side throughout the 2006/07 season, with Aurelio showcasing his tremendous creative ability with two assists, for Peter Crouch and Daniel Agger, as Liverpool ran out 4-1 victors over Arsenal in March 2007.
A month later, however, an Achilles tendon injury sustained in Liverpool’s Champions League clash with PSV ended Aurélio’s debut season, and it would come to serve as a warning sign for the injury-ravaged seasons that would follow the Brazilian throughout his career in England.
Read | How Marcelo replaced the irreplaceable Roberto Carlos
A 3-1 victory against Bolton in March 2008 would see Aurélio bag his first goal for the club, dispatching a sumptuous volley into the top corner from 20-yards, following a Xabi Alonso corner. While John Arne Riise had previously built a reputation for his lethal left foot during his time at Liverpool, Aurélio’s ability to strike a ball so cleanly with such power was heavily reminiscent of the Norwegian.
It would prove not to be a one-off either, as two months at the back end of the 2008-09 season would see Aurélio strike two of the sweetest and technically outstanding goals in Liverpool’s recent history. The first, in March 2009, a wicked free-kick against Manchester United at Old Trafford, would help Liverpool to an emphatic 4-1 victory against their bitter rivals.
The second was an ingenious piece of improvisation as Aurélio bent a free-kick low into the bottom corner past a stationary Petr Čech to give Liverpool a 1-0 lead against Chelsea in the second leg of a Champions League quarter-final tie. The match ultimately culminated in Liverpool’s exit from the competition following an enthralling encounter and a 4-4 final scoreline after Chelsea had won the first leg 3-1 at Anfield, but Aurélio’s goal is one that lives long in the memory. The audacity to even attempt the shot when every player expected a cross was one thing – the technique to execute it was simply sublime.
In the summer of 2009, however, Aurélio picked up an injury while playing beach football with his children – the kind of bad luck which would come to characterise his professional career.
Such was the regularity of his injuries that Liverpool offered Aurélio a pay-as-you-play deal in May 2010, which he duly declined, leading Benítez to announce the Brazilian’s imminent departure from the club. The Spaniard himself would exit Anfield that summer, to be replaced by Roy Hodgson – a man whose brief but dour spell on Merseyside would leave a grim legacy as Liverpool plunged into a state of despair under his management.
One of Hodgson’s first significant acts as manager was to re-sign Aurélio, offering him a new two-year contract which saw the Brazilian return for what was technically his second spell at the club in August 2010.
It seemed a smart decision at the time but Aurélio’s body would never allow him to fulfil anything near his vast potential, picking up another Achilles injury at the start of the 2010-11 season, eventually leaving Liverpool under the management of Kenny Dalglish in the summer of 2012 after having been limited to just three appearances in his final season at the club due to a knee ligament rupture.
After making just 134 appearances in six seasons at the club, with four goals and 14 assists to his name, Aurélio returned to his home country as a free agent, joining Grêmio, the side where his compatriot, Lucas Leiva – similarly plagued by injuries but nearing a decade of service at Liverpool – originally came from.
The injuries would not relent, however, and Aurélio announced his retirement from the professional game in 2013, aged 34. He never made a senior international appearance for his country, despite having been called up by Brazil in 2009, only to withdraw from the squad due to injury.
Benitez spoke extremely highly of the Brazilian, claiming: “He can cross the ball superbly and he is maybe a better passer of the ball than Xabi Alonso.”
Given Alonso’s reputation as one of the finest midfielders and passers of the last decade in Europe, such extraordinary praise speaks volumes of the Brazilian’s capabilities. This was a left-back who was not only able to defend well, bomb forward and cross the ball from out wide; Aurelio played the position with such sophistication, able to dictate and control games from the left-back position with his switching of play and quality in possession, as well as being an outstanding specialist set-piece taker, also displaying his tactical intelligence and adaptability in central midfield on several occasions when called upon.
Holding dual citizenship between two of football’s greatest nations, Aurélio combined Italian defensive steel with Brazilian flair – he had everything you could possibly want in an ideal modern full-back. Ever since the days of Riise, Liverpool have long struggled for quality in the left-back position. The likes of Emiliano Insúa, Andrea Dossena and José Enrique have all come and gone – Aurélio, though, was in a class of his own.
His was a career which promised so much and could have delivered so much more success but was ultimately curtailed by a plague of injuries that hindered Aurélio from fulfilling the true extent of his ability. In a similar fashion to the plight of Danish Liverpool defender Daniel Agger, one can only wonder about the heights Aurelio might have scaled had his body not failed him.
When fit, however, he was right up there with the very best in his trade, and it is a great shame that his talents are so seldom recognised and spoken of. During his relatively brief time on the pitch, Aurélio showed how he deserves – with little doubt in my mind – to be considered among the finest left-backs the Premier League has seen
By Joel Rabinowitz @joel_archie