Being a full-back isn’t the most stylish of positions within the game of football, and it requires an overwhelming amount of selflessness. They’ll never dominate the accolades or be recognised for the immense shift they put in, covering the ground down the flanks week after week. Their task is almost an impossible one; the idea that they’ll be in the right place at the right time, in both attack and defence, is something of a presupposition and failure to abide sees them culpable for what unfolds around them.
That’s why there’s such a dearth of world-class full-backs, with an inherent desire to play in such an underappreciated role a rarity. The most technical youngsters often want to play as forwards, while the best defensively are usually at centre-back or in holding midfield. Football’s equivalent of the runt of the litter, full-backs have often been deemed not skilful enough to be wingers nor defensively apt to be centre-backs, with Jamie Carragher once remarking: “No one grows up wanting to be the next Gary Neville.”
The very best full-backs make the position an art form, though. An embodiment of the spirit of sport, Cafu remains one of the most coveted players in world football – a born winner who became the most complete full-back of a generation. So too are Philipp Lahm and Dani Alves, who occupy the top bracket in the modern era, embodying the transformation from a traditional back to one brimming with attacking verve and opportunity.
Modern-day full-backs have a greater emphasis in the attacking third, with defensive duties often playing second fiddle. Being confident and agile in possession at the back has become embedded in the game today courtesy of, amongst others, the influence of expressive Brazilian sides intent on displaying their attacking prowess throughout the 1970s, 80s and 90s. As a result, the physical demands of such a role are exceptional, requiring a niche skill set that few players hold.
Arriving on Merseyside as a relative unknown, John Arne Riise was the first signing of the 2001 summer, joining from Monaco for £4m, Becoming somewhat of a cult hero at Anfield, the red-headed Norwegian played a crucial role in Gérard Houllier’s counter-attacking style, embodying the very nature of a modern day full-back before many were truly appreciated by the masses.
His debut would be the perfect audition for what he brought to Liverpool across a seven-year tenure. Marauding into the box, Riise scored in the European Super Cup win over Bayern Munich in August 2001, tapping home from a Michael Owen cross.
A first season in the English top flight would see ‘Ginge’, as he was so fondly known by his teammates, bag 10 goals in total, showing no trouble adapting to the Premier League and helping Liverpool bring home the Charity Shield and European Super Cup, adding to an impressive treble from the previous campaign.
Developing a reputation for his lethal left foot, Riise’s ability to strike the ball with such purity and power saw him score some sumptuous goals. You need not look further than his clinical strike at Goodison Park as proof of his attacking ability; sprinting half the length of the pitch, the Norwegian’s weaving run endeared him to Reds supporters across the globe.
Just two months later and the fans were to get yet another sight of his sweet left-foot – this time against Manchester United. Still regarded as one of the most devastating goals in Liverpool history, Riise unleashed a thunderous free-kick strike from outside the penalty area that reached 70mph before cannoning in off the underside of the bar, tearing the roof off Anfield. It wasn’t yet Christmas and the Norwegian had become a Kop favourite. Ripping off his shirt in celebration quickly became his trademark.
The man with one of best strikes of a football in Premier League history, his left-foot was feared and justifiably so. Few players could strike the ball like him, and such was the quality of that goal against Fabien Barthez at Old Trafford that Liverpool fans sang about it for years after.
Riise’s declaration to his artform was very much the practice makes perfect ilk: “I used to spend five or six hours a day practising my shooting technique when I was young.” We could tell, John. He rounded off his first season by scoring two goals on the last day of the 2001/02 campaign against Ipswich – goals that ensured Liverpool second a second-place finish in the Premiership.
From an attacking perspective, the now 22-year-old was delivering, scoring 14 goals in his first two seasons. What stopped the Norwegian from becoming a true great was, like many modern-full backs who’ve come to the fore since, his tendency to defer defensive duties. An own goal against Southampton felt cataclysmic for Liverpool’s Premier League title challenge in 2001/02, raising fears over his ability in one-on-ones.
Enduring seasons below his best in 2002/03 and 2003/04, it took Rafa Benítez’s arrival and a subsequent move further up the field for Riise to rediscover his form, occupying a significant role in the memorable journey to Istanbul while playing all but one league game in 2004/05. Highlights included a goal against Charlton at Anfield, a brace against West Brom, and the fastest goal in a League Cup final ever, scoring after just 45 seconds with a brilliant volley against Chelsea. The club’s top scorer in away league games that season, Riise developed a knack for putting the ball in the back of the net.
An ever-present during Liverpool’s march to the Champions League title in 2005, the left-back also scored in the last-16 win over Bayer Leverkusen before helping towards a second-half turnaround at the Atatürk. Assisting Steven Gerrard with a pinpoint cross, Riise set Liverpool on their way before two more goals shortly after took the tie to penalties. The rest is, of course, history.
The next season, the Norway international scored Liverpool’s opener from a trademark free-kick in the FA Cup semi-final against Chelsea, striking through a gap in the Chelsea wall, while his penalty in the final over West Ham made amends for his Champions League final miss, ensuring FA Cup number seven for the Reds.
Three weeks later and Riise’s knack of scoring against Chelsea came to fruition again as a steaming run from inside his own half culminated in a tidy finish beyond Carlo Cudicini in the Community Shield. An own goal at home to Chelsea in the Champions League semi-final marked a tempestuous final year at the club, costing Liverpool a passage to their third final in four years. Despite that, and some of the fans turning their back on him during his final season at the club, his wholehearted approach was always appreciated at Anfield as the Norwegian joined other Scandinavians to become a hero at Liverpool.
While not as technically blessed or tactically aware as Fábio Aurélio, he should still be regarded as one of Liverpool’s best left-backs in the Premier League era. In his 348 appearances over a seven-year career at the club, he helped win a European Super Cup, two Community Shields, a League Cup, an FA Cup and the Champions League. It’s no mean feat.
His career epitomised the very definition of a modern-day full-back, perennially on the overlap to notch 31 goals in under 350 appearances – a fine return – while always needing to head back and shape up to repel opposition attacks. It’s a job like no other in the game and, despite slowing down towards the end at Anfield, he did it tremendously well.
By Leanne Prescott @_lfcleanne