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Defend the Indefensible: Midge Purce at Fullback

Photo credit: Lucas Muller

Defend the Indefensible is a column where I take on topics that seem hard to justify and do my best to make sense of them. Today: where to play Midge Purce.

In their opening match of the NWSL Challenge Cup, Sky Blue FC featured Midge Purce at right back. The collective internet response was loud, and uniform. People were not thrilled. Purce is an excellent forward, though she has spent a lot of time over the past three seasons shuttling between forward, winger, and fullback. Many people were hopeful that her move this offseason to Sky Blue would signal an end to the merry-go-round and would finally let her settle at forward.

A couple days later, Sky Blue head coach Freya Coombe was asked about whether they would consider using Purce in a more advanced role. And while she did not rule it out, her answer suggested that Sky Blue are committed to exploring the option of Purce as a fullback:

To build for the future, I think it's important for us to see the bigger picture and be able to work players into a system. So it's definitely not something that we've ruled out. But it's interesting to see how the players are going to develop, and I'd like to see her develop role in the back and be able to spring forward from a deeper position and use the attacking talent that she's got.

I can’t claim to see inside Coombe’s mind, but I want to offer some thoughts that might help explain this decision. I won’t go so far as to say I agree with the choice. I do think it’s less cut-and-dry than much of the commentary seems to suggest, so it’s worth digging in.

Fullback is an important position, but not exactly a defensive position

Fullbacks play in the backline, so we’re accustomed to thinking of them as defenders. But in the contemporary game, that’s not really true. Modern fullbacks function primarily as wide attackers. They make overlapping runs to combine with the wingers ahead of them, or underlapping runs that slice into the seams left behind as the forwards go wide. In the first case, the objective is to whip in crosses. In the second case, the fullback becomes a de facto late-arriving striker.

In some ways, the critical defining feature of modern soccer is the changing role of the fullback. In the classic 4-4-2, width came from two wingers who shuttled up and down the sides of the pitch launching crosses at the forwards. Those wingers marked each other, generally leaving the fullbacks pinched in to defend those aerial balls. These days, the central midfield has become far more important, with most teams dropping at least one extra body into that space. Midfield wingers are a luxury that can no longer be afforded. Now, width comes primarily from fullbacks and wide forwards, and teams with weak attacking fullbacks are at a massive disadvantage. Not only do they lack a critical resource for stretching the opposition defenses horizontally and vertically, they also are unable to pose a enough of a threat to keep the opposing fullbacks honest. That’s a recipe for disaster.

For that reason, in many games the fullback’s primary ‘defensive’ responsibility is to pin the other team’s wide players back in their own half. Their defensive contributions can be measured as much by their capacity to the lines of encounter and limiting space as by their ability to defend per se.

That’s not to say that fullbacks don’t need to play any defense. But they do not need to be complete, all-around defensive heroes. You can’t really get around a center back who struggles 1 v 1, or who can’t win balls in the air. You can afford some limitations on those things with a fullback. The one truly non-negotiable skill for a fullback: defensive positioning. If you can’t win the ball through a direct tackle, or stand an attacker up, that’s fine. Just be in the right spot and usher play in the right direction and let the central defenders cover behind you.

Purce has some important skills that translate well to fullback

In an ideal world, your attacking fullback will pose multiple threats. They will be excellent crossers, good dribblers, and will possess a wicked long shot for when they follow play into the box. They will also have speed to burn and healthy lungs to ensure they can cover all that ground.

Purce isn’t a perfect fit, but she’s not too far off. She’s certainly fast, and also has a keen eye for goal. Those are, of course, the things that make her a top-level striker. And admittedly, as a fullback she will get fewer opportunities to exploit many of those skills. But she’s also an elite dribbler—one of the best in the league. And that is a skill she potentially has more opportunity to exploit at fullback, where she will regularly get the ball in space, with a chance to run directly at defenders. She can use that ability to turn those over and underlapping runs into direct goal-scoring opportunities.

Crossing is the potential weakness here. Purce isn’t a terrible crosser, but she lacks the kind of pinpoint accuracy and bend that defines the best in the business. That’s certainly less than ideal. But players can develop new skills, and there’s no reason this can’t be an area of improvement. It’s also not necessarily required. If your wide forwards are good crossers, you can certainly push your fullbacks to drag inward as they enter the final third. Criss-crossing runs from the fullback and forward can be difficult to defend, especially if the fullback is excellent on the ball, as Purce is.

Playing the long game

It’s easy to look at the current Sky Blue team sheet and ask why their best goal-scoring threat isn’t playing at forward. But this is a strange year. The Challenge Cup is a short tournament, and likely the only soccer these teams will get to play until 2021. For some teams, that means it’s the only opportunity to win some silverware, or at least to confirm their efforts to level-up. But for many other teams, that makes it a kind of freebie event. Sure you want to win, but really the goal is about testing ideas and setting yourself up to succeed when the next full season comes around.

Sky Blue are in that second camp. With a full year in 2020, they might have had the time to lock in many of the roster gains they made in the offseason. But over five games, that’s just not realistic. And it’s doubly hard when you remember that their two USWNT players—Mallory Pugh and Carli Lloyd—are out for the whole tournament.

So if the plan is to prepare for 2021, the question isn’t whether Purce is the best forward on this roster (she is), but whether they need her to play forward in 2021 and beyond. And the answer there is: probably not. Presumably, they’re planning on building around Mallory Pugh in that position. And they also have a wealth of young attackers that should provide more than ample firepower going forwardIfeoma Onumonu, Evelyne Viens, Imani Dorsey, and Paige Monaghan, just to name a few.

Given those conditions, it doesn’t seem so dangerous to focus on developing Purce’s defensive skills, priming her to really own that role once the full unit can be assembled. I won't say that I approve of the choice. But I do see the logic, and I'm not sure we can truly judge it until at least a year from now.