As the new season approaches here we take a look at some of the young full-backs to impress across Europe last season that may well feature even more heavily next time around. The following five all featured at least 10 times last season and, based on our ratings, emerge as some as the hottest prospects in their position, all going into the 2012/13 campaign under the age of 23.
Gotoku Sakai (Stuttgart - on loan) - 7.27
American-born full-back Gotoku Sakai joined Bundesliga outfit VfB Stuttgart on loan from J-League side Albirex Niigata in January with a view to a permanent deal upon the contract's expiry next summer. The 21-year old's performances since making the switch should mean that the eventuality is all but assured already.
In 14 starts for the German side, playing 8 times at right-back and 6 at left, Sakai proved to be a real asset as the team went on to win 9, draw 3 and lose just 2 of the youngster's said appearances in an excellent end to the campaign. His defensive contribution was superb, averaging more interceptions per game than any teammate (4) and only fewer tackles per game (3) than William Kvist. He also shone in an attacking sense, proving to possess strengths in terms of key passing (1.3 per game) and crossing (1.2 per game / 29% accurate) to help him register a hugely impressive 4 assists.
In terms of areas for improvement, an overall pass accuracy of 74.1% is fairly modest, while his main weakness seems to be in aerial duels, winning just 3 of 15 (20%). However, at this early stage it seems the good certainly outweighs the bad, and you will be able to witness Sakai's talents at this summers Olympics, where he will represent Japan. His international future is far from certain however, as he is yet to represent his nation at senior level and is available to play for both USA and Germany. Given his form though, Stuttgart are unlikely to leave such things to chance, so he won't be going anywhere other than London for the Games in the coming weeks.
Tony Jantschke (Borussia M'Gladbach) - 7.08
Gladbach manager Lucien Favre has had a busy summer in attempting, and by all extents and purposes succeeding to recover from what looked set to be a summer exodus for the Bundesliga's surprise package last season. Undoubtedly the team's best talent Marco Reus left for Dortmund, while centre-back Dante and midfielder Neustadter also moved clubs to Bayern and Schalke respectively.
Another man who will have no doubt caught the eye of many a suitor is 22-year old right-back Tony Jantschke, with the club thus far able to fend off interest in another of their prized assets. The defender has played at every youth level for Germany and became a mainstay in Favre's side last season with some excellent performances. Strong in the air, winning 1.3 aerial duels per game (61% success rate), Jantschke is a willing worker, winning 3.5 tackles and 2.8 interceptions per game last season - the best and third best averages respectively for his side.
His range of passing is strong, averaging 4.5 long balls per game (73% accurate) with an 80.8% pass accuracy overall, though he rarely delivers telling crosses into the box having found a man with just 7 all season. There are certainly stronger, young attacking full-backs in the game, but Jantschke's calmness in possession and defensive graft should ensure he becomes a top player.
Oliver Sorg (Freiburg) - 6.96
22-year old Oliver Sorg established himself as a starter in the Freiburg senior team midway through last season and his versatility in being able to impress equally at both left and right-back saw him become an important player. Having come through the youth ranks at the club his emergence into the side came a little later than many but he has proven to have learned his trade well as a key player for the club's second string.
Defensively Sorg excels, not only averaging the most at Freiburg for both tackles (3.9) and interceptions (3.8) per game but also in the top ten for both categories in the entire division. With 3.4 clearances per match he also tops the league for clearances per game of all out-and-out full-backs and despite all this he has never represented his country at any level.
A number of areas to improve on do become evident, however, winning just 0.5 aerial duels per game and he certainly looks to avoid crossing, having completed just 2 at a meagre 8.7% success rate. Offensively, though, he does like to dribble having averaged 1.4 per game with a very impressive 62% success rate. If a club was willing to take a punt on a player with numerous qualities, Sorg could well turn out to be a bargain.
Massadio Haidara (Nancy) - 6.88
Nancy left-back Haidara is only 19 but after breaking into the first team this season, and particularly since January, he looks to be a real prospect already. His displays in the latter half of the season drew interest from afar, with Aston Villa strongly linked prior to Alex McLeish's departure. It was believed that new manager Paul Lambert may have been given the option to progress with a move, though all has gone quiet since and it remains to be seen whether the English club will regret that decision if they don't try to do so.
A French youth international of Senegalese descent, Haidara has quality going both ways, which is key to a full-back in the modern game, with an average of 2 dribbles per game certainly a standout statistic. With an exceptional 68% success rate his skill in this regard is clear to see, aided by his superb athleticism and pace. He may lack a final product thus far, averaging just 0.3 for both crosses and key passes per game, but there is obvious potential there.
Defensively he contributed more interceptions per game (2.8) than any other regular starter for Nancy and also weighed in with 2.4 tackles a match. At this early stage, his concentration levels could be called into question a little, but as is the case with any teenager learning the trade, he will only improve and if he isn't snapped up this summer there is sure to be interest later down the line.
Lucas Digne (Lille) - 6.74
Although former Ligue 1 champions Lille may be resigned to losing Mathieu Debuchy this summer, the emergence of full-back Lucas Digne from the youth ranks on the opposite flank may soften the blow. At just 18 Digne made 13 starts towards the end of the previous campaign and showed real quality, with a maturity beyond his age likely to see him feature even more next season.
The French youth international looks to bomb forward when possible and contributes in an attacking sense to average 0.6 for both dribbles and key passes per game. While he looks to get the ball into the box as early as possible, Digne could certainly improve on his cross accuracy of 11.5% but for a player of his age, the willingness to attempt over 3 a match is impressive and will only reap rewards later in what looks set to be an illustrious career.
Defensively, averages of 1.9 tackles and 1.8 interceptions per game are decent, while figures of 4.5 for clearances and a superb 1.9 aerial duels won per game are more impressive, with his height certainly attributing to a more than capable 74% success rate in the air. Confident in possession and not shy to receive the ball, Digne's 80.5% pass success rate should not be underestimated and Lille will be hoping to hold onto what could be a another young gem for as long as possible.