By Vaughn Pollman and Brian Maurer
Jaylin Lindsey playing against the Seattle Sounders (Photo courtesy of Charlotte FC)
Charlotte FC’s head coach, Christian Lattanzio, has rotated his fullbacks (FBs) about as much as any position this season. In this article, we are going to take an analytical approach to try and understand his reasoning for this and also see if there is a FB pairing that stands out above the rest.
Lattanzio has used eight FB pairings this season through 20 games. The three pairings that have been used the most are Jaylin Lindsey and Harrison Afful (four games), Lindsey and Nathan Byrne (five games), and Byrne and Afful (five games). Since the other five pairings Lattanzio played were outliers and often only used once it is best to take a look at what these three right-back/left-back pairings are adding to the team.
Lindsey-Afful: This pairing was used in the earlier stages of the season primarily and started when Charlotte FC got their first win of the season on the road against Orlando City. They were then selected for four straight matchups, losing to Real Salt Lake in the fourth match. Lattanzio reverted away from using them together after that loss.
Lindsey-Byrne: This pairing has been used off and on, primarily being used in home matches (three out of five times). This pairing is also undefeated when they start together (3-2-0).
Afful-Byrne: This pairing has been used occasionally, primarily on the road and when Kerwin Vargas is used at right wing. This has been the pairing Lattanzio has stuck with in difficult road matches (e.g., at Philadelphia and Columbus).
These three FBs have all provided unique traits to Charlotte FC in different situations and setups. Afful has regularly been used as a double pivot in the midfield, Byrne has been asked to play both FB positions and center back (CB), and Lindsey has been asked to stretch the field wide.
Here are the season heatmaps of these three players to provide a better understanding of the positioning and roles they have been asked to fill:
Heatmaps pulled from Sofascore.com
Afful and Lindsey have been asked to play as inverted fullbacks. Lindsey is also asked to play a bit wider and higher up the field as a wingback. Byrne has been chiefly asked to sit back in a back three when in possession. This is likely why Byrne has been used so frequently, Lattanzio prefers him as the fullback who sits back to cover the backline when Lindsey or Afful push forward into the midfield.
Formation and Play Style
Charlotte FC has been deploying what on paper looks like a base 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 formation when looking at a lineup card, but it adjusts whether the team is in possession or setting up in a defensive posture.
For much of the season, Lattanzio has asked one of his FBs to get into an inverted position, inside of the wide midfielder when in possession. This movement creates a double pivot alongside a defensive midfielder, often, Derrick Jones, shifting the team’s general shape into a 3-2-2-3 or what is more simply known as the W-M formation. The W-M formation in the modern game has most famously been implemented by Pep Guardiola at Manchester City. No surprise, considering Lattanzio’s time with Manchester City’s Elite Development squad.
Now why is Lattanzio looking to get one of his fullbacks into this inverted position? The first is to create a numerical advantage in the midfield against an opponent’s midfield three. Secondly, with proper positioning, it opens passing lanes to quickly bypass defenders and advance the ball up the field directly by making natural passing triangles. Thirdly, with the midfielder and winger movement, it can make the field feel larger in possession with the ability to quickly contract and get compact and narrow defensively.
While it sounds simple, it is rather complex in actuality. It requires players to be quite versatile. Players must shift lines as well as lanes. Multiple teammates must work in harmony and are tasked with covering a great deal of ground, knowing when to advance and when to retreat quickly off multiple triggers. Opponents have taken advantage of this high-risk approach, looking to quickly switch the point of attack and get the ball into the space vacated by the inverted fullback, whichever side of the pitch the Crown gives them.
As highlighted in our recent State of The Crown article to stop these quick transition moments the Crown either needs to be clinical in counter-pressing, looking to quickly regain possession after losing it in midfield, or close space to the ball carrier to prevent a long switch or if the switch is made, to prevent an entry ball into the Crown’s defensive box from a wide area. This is where the Club has struggled greatly.
While not explicitly expressed, it is clear that field tilt is a central tenet of Lattanzio’s system, and arguably so is gravity. Not in the sense of to the center of the earth or even to the ball, but gravity to areas of the pitch, situationally. Just one example is the FB’s inverting to push and pull the opposing defense to create the desired numerical advantages in select areas of the pitch. When a player on the backline hits a long diagonal switch to a speedy winger like Kamil Jóźwiak or McKinze Gaines or a midfielder hits a line-breaking pass, the weight of threat and pressure shifts rapidly.
One of the Crown’s best stretches recently came when Lattanzio elected the field tilt to get reversed with much of the attack coming down the right side when Jóźwiak was in form. At this time, Lindsey was earning starting minutes and was the FB being asked to get inverted while Byrne switched from his usual deployment and played at left-back instead of right, to make way for Lindsey’s minutes. Of course, this meant that Afful went to the bench since the team did not require two fullbacks to play in this inverted fashion.
As noted previously, Lattanzio has mixed up how his lineups quite frequently. These adjustments have provided varied results for the team and, more specifically, for the FBs. While he has only used a combination of Afful, Lindsey, or Byrne at home half of the time, in those five games Charlotte FC is undefeated (3-2-0). Lattanzio has almost exclusively used a combination of Afful, Lindsey, or Byrne for away matches leading to a 3-2-4 record. All but two of Charlotte FC’s points have come when two of these three FBs are playing.
When looking at underlying numbers Charlotte FC has been poor this year. FB pairings are not the final deciding factor of poor performances, but looking at the expected goal differential (xGD) for each pairing’s starts may provide some indication as to which pairing has been able to add the most to the club so far.
The Lindsey-Byrne pairing has the club's best xGD/90 among these three pairings (-.45). Afful-Byrne is at -.60, and Afful-Lindsey is at -.93. All three of these underlying xGD numbers are poor, but the Lindsey-Byrne pairing looks like there may be some promise. It should also be noted that each pairing has a rather small sample size which also limits how much that can be gleaned from the team’s xGD.
Overall, it is splitting hairs a bit when looking at the xGD of the FB pairings. The Lindsey-Byrne pairing stands as the best, but the Afful-Byrne pairing is not far off. The reason that these two pairings stand above the Afful-Lindsey pairing is likely because Byrne provides a better balance to either Lindsey or Afful who are asked to push forward in possession. When Afful and Lindsey are both on the field together this can create a defensive liability, as seen when they played together against Real Salt Lake.
When looking at these three players’ passing stats you also can get a sense of their roles on the team. Contrary to what might be expected Byrne leads in progressive passes per 90 (5.10) and final third entry passes per 90 (4.90). Afful and Lindsey both are more involved in helping create shots. Afful averages two shot-creating actions from live passes per 90. Lindsey averages 1.13 SCA per 90 from live passes.
This can be explained in part by their positioning. Byrne typically plays a little deeper than the other two FBs and thus is going to be more involved in distance passes that progress the ball forwards. Lindsey and Afful play higher up the field in possession leading them to be more involved in creating shots in the attack.
Defensively, Lindsey has been the most productive of the three. He is averaging 3.30 tackles and interceptions per 90; more than either Afful or Byrne (3.00 and 1.99 respectively). Lindsey is also the leader in blocks per 90 with 1.86. This does not confirm definitively that Lindsey has been performing the best on defense but just that he is producing more defensive actions. Charlotte FC’s defense has been poor, looking into individual defensive statistics will come with some major variability because of the overall performances.
Twice so far this season Lattanzio has used a CB at FB, another tactic utilized by Pep Guardiola’s positional play. Most recently he opted to play Bill Tuiloma as the RB with Guzmán Corujo and Derrick Jones taking up the CB roles and Lindsey playing out left. The backline continued to utilize a back three in possession setting up the WM formation but this setup created some variation as to who was set where and when. Often, Jones would push forward into the double pivot alongside Ashley Westwood. However, other times Jones would stay back and either Lindsey or Tuiloma would move forward along the flanks.
By setting up in this way it allowed for a quick switch into a double pivot from Jones and simpler less inverted assignments from the FBs. A similar setup was used against Nashville SC. In this match, Adilson Malanda was lined up on the right-hand side and Jones would sometimes drop into the backline both in or out of possession allowing Byrne and Malanda the ability to stay back in a back five or push forward.
This wrinkle has not been used frequently and has likely been utilized because of injuries and suspensions. However, this setup has allowed for a bit more flexibility and unpredictability in how the team builds up from the back.
Lattanzio has done a decent amount of rotating at several positions. FB has been one of them. Through all the FB rotation, there have been three clear regular candidates that have emerged. Of those three the pairing of Lindsey-Byrne has been the most used recently and, overall, has been involved in the most team success.
Using team success to measure which FBs have provided the most to Charlotte FC is tricky for a couple of different reasons. First, Charlotte FC’s team defense has been really poor so any individual Charlotte defender's defensive contributions are going to be skewed in a negative direction because of the team's performances. Second, Lattanzio’s heavy rotation along the backline makes it difficult to know who is having how much of an impact as they are all constantly being put into different areas and roles and alongside different teammates week after week. This also creates really small sample sizes to analyze.
Lattanzio has expressed multiple times that he wants a few additional pieces signed during the summer transfer window. This could likely include some defensive support. If new signings do indeed come in then rotation at FB will likely also continue. Ideally, by the end of the season, a more definitive starting backline will have formed. This does not bode well for the prospects of the team defensively this year, but if some cohesion is built by the season’s end the backline should show a more positive trajectory moving into next season.