Technically, Trent Alexander-Arnold is a full-back but like former Hull City defender Andrew Robertson on the other side of Liverpool’s team, in practice he is anything but. Although you would not have said it before the start of this season, Huddersfield’s Sorba Thomas is definitely a wing-back now.
Thomas and Alexander-Arnold each have 11 assists in all competitions already this season.
It is an increasing trend in modern football that the goal-makers – and scorers – are more often coming from deeper. This is not an obituary to the winger or wide forward – Mohammed Salah has made nine Premier League goals this season and Raphinha is far and away Leeds United’s biggest goal threat both as creator and scorer. West Ham United’s Scottish manager David Moyes was talking another Hull graduate – Jarrod Bowen – up for England at the weekend after his latest goal helped knock the Whites out of the FA Cup.
But Middlesbrough’s Isaiah Jones has just been named Championship player of December for his barnstorming performances from right wing-back.
Hull and Rotherham United have had great success lately (all season in the Millers’ case) by playing out-and-out wingers at wing-back. Keane Lewis-Potter is as important to the Tigers as Thomas is to the Terriers. Chiedozie Ogbene is not far behind at the New York Stadium.
Darren Moore pulled the same stunt to great effect lately, which is why Sheffield Wednesday were so disappointed Wolverhampton Wanderers recalled Theo Corbeanu and loaned him to Milton Keynes Dons instead. When Leeds played three at the back against Burnley, left wing-back Junior Firpo looked more like a former Barcelona player than he ever has for them. Last season, it was all about Luke Ayling and converted winger Ezgjan Alioski bombing on from full-back.
Chelsea’s hot streak has cooled since the wing-backs behind a lot of their goals, Reece James and Ben Chilwell, got injured. Ralf Rangnick has designed a whole narrow formation around attacking full-backs, although the least said about how that is going for Manchester United the better.
Thomas is another who joined as a forward and coach Carlos Corberan’s stock move when chasing a game is to bring Ollie Turton on at right wing-back and push the Welsh international further on. In the recent win at Nottingham Forest they played one behind the other in a rare Huddersfield 4-4-1-1 but usually when each game kicks off, Thomas is prowling from the deep.
Corberan explained earlier in the season he felt Thomas is better there because he can receive the ball with less in-his-face pressure, and with it a clearer picture in front of him. The numbers bear that out. Although his set-pieces have created plenty of goals, his open-play crosses have been fundamental to Huddersfield’s successes this season. So has their 3-4-2-1 formation.
Now, though, Corberan has a difficult decision. Pipa, Huddersfield’s best player of the coach’s debut season until a nagging groin problem got the better of him, is fit again and the rampaging right-back started at Turf Moor on Saturday but Thomas came off the bench to turn the tie his team’s way.
Pipa and Thomas can play in the same team. They can line up one behind the other in a 4-3-3, 4-4-2 or 3-4-3. Pipa showed last season he can play on the left, but Harry Toffolo has made four goals in his last four games there. He could probably play on the right of a back three, but Matty Pearson has been one of Thomas’s rivals for player of the season expertly filling that slot.
Thomas can play elsewhere too, but the key would seem to be getting him into positions where he can wrap his right foot around inswinging crosses. That might not mean just getting him as high up the pitch as possible.