One of the keys to a successful Julen Lopetegui side is the full-backs, West Ham arguably have the strongest full-back pairing they’ve had in years, so how will they be used?

Vladimir Coufal is all but confirmed to start the new campaign at right-back under Julen Lopetegui. The left-back position might not be as clear however, the club recently announced that Aaron Cresswell has signed a 1-year contract extension to provide competition for Emerson for another year.

According to a report from ExWHUEmployee, Aaron Cresswell is expected to have a squad role this season, a lot similar to last campaign. However, new manager Julen Lopetegui is a huge fan of Cresswell and could potentially see more minutes than the 432 minutes he played in the Premier League last term.

When Lopetegui was appointed, the Spaniard was increasingly keen on keeping Aaron Cresswell around. He was really impressed with the defender in both legs of our Europa League Quarter-final victory over his Sevilla side in 2022. Cresswell had arguably one of his best defensive performances in years as we defeated the Andalucians 2-0 at the London Stadium after being defeated 1-0 at the Ramon Sanchez-Pizjuan.

However, despite Cresswell impressing the manager two years ago. Emerson is by far the most likely candidate to start on the left side of the defence. The Italian international had a very positive 23/24 campaign in claret and blue, despite the teams defensive woes.

In the first half of the season, Emerson was a lot of West Ham fans early shouts for Hammer of the year, however with Jarrod Bowen’s consistent goals there was only really one winner in the end. Emerson’s constant threat down the left side, link-up with Lucas Paqueta and availability make him a great fit for a position that’s so key for Lopetegui’s style of football.

The importance of full-backs to Lopetegui
Arguably the most important players for ‘Lopetegui Ball’ are the full-backs. Especially during his time in Seville, the wide defenders would push up very high. This was at its best during the 2019/20 season, with Jesus Navas on the right and Sergio Reguilon on the left. The latter’s form earned him a £20 million move to Tottenham Hotspur in 2020.

The full-backs were often provided with passes from midfield from playmakers like Ever Banega and Joan Jordan (previously linked to West Ham) as they were bombing up the wings. The full-backs would then look to direct the ball into the penalty area to create goalscoring opportunities for the striker which was usually Luuk De Jong or Youssef En-Nesyri, who has again been linked to a move to the London Stadium after years of rumours.

As a former winger, Jesus Navas was the one that was the more attacking of the two full-backs. This meant Reguilon was a bit more reserved. The defender who spent last campaign out on loan at Brentford would often link-up with the players on the left-wing more frequently. This would be ideal for Emerson who’s short passing and movement in tight areas is one of the strongest parts of his game. Also, as mentioned earlier his link-up with Paqueta who will likely start on the left wing or the left of midfield next season, if the betting allegations go his way.

Reguilon would also push very high up the pitch to defend, whereas the right back would stay deeper when not in possession, something that would suit the balance of Emerson and Coufal perfectly. Emerson can sometimes be uncomfortable when defending deep, but is a lot more comfortable higher up the pitch. The Italian is in the top 8% for tackles for full-backs Europe’s top 5 leagues over the past 365 days, further backing up his ability to play in a similar role.

Emerson has some similarities with current Sevilla left back Marcos Acuna, who was there for two of Lopetegui’s seasons at the club, playing a similar role to Reguilon. The Argentina international made 78 appearances in all competitions under the Spaniard, scoring two goals and providing eight assists. They both have similar dribbling ability which could be very important in starting attacks this season.

Vladimir Coufal – A surprise star?

The Hammers have recently been linked for an ambitious move for Feyenoord right-back Lutsharel Geertruida, who’s attacking threat and 6’1 frame makes him look like a great fit for the Premier League and West Ham. However, with Newcastle and his former manager Arne Slot interested in bringing him to Liverpool, as well as his big price tag. The move seems very unlikely at his stage, meaning Lopetegui is likely to have Vladimir Coufal and Ben Johnson (currently in talks for a new deal) as his right-back options next season.

When Lopetegui took over many fans would have been thinking would it be the end for players like Kurt Zouma, Tomas Soucek and Vladimir Coufal as starters, due to their limits in possession. However, while the first two could drop to the bench. Coufal could still be an important first team player under the new regime.

Despite being a completely different player to Jesus Navas, a former winger with bags of pace. Coufal could fit a similar role very well. The most important role in this position is crossing. As mentioned earlier, both wide defenders, especially the right-back is to instructed to get the ball into the box as soon and as early as possible. This is something the Czech Republic defender always looks to do, sometimes too much. However, with a more possession based and risky manager, there is likely always going to be someone in the penalty area, which couldn’t be said under Moyes.

Only Kieran Trippier and Alfie Doughty were the only defenders provided more assists than Vladmir Coufal in the Premier League last season, with seven. In a more attacking system that relies on the creativity of full-backs, both Coufal and Emerson could be on for their best seasons in a West Ham shirt.

By Daniel Luker