Kyle Walker: The modern right-back City rely on

Kyle Walker had an unenviable task when he swapped Tottenham Hotspur for Manchester City in the summer of 2017.

He was regarded as one of the finest right-backs in the country, so nobody was questioning the much-heralded new signing’s credentials, but he still had to replace a Club legend.

Pablo Zabaleta departed two months earlier with the fanfare you’d expect for a man who won the hearts and minds of supporters during a nine-year spell characterised by his unwavering commitment to the cause.

He was, to put it mildly, a tough act to follow.

But Walker grasped the baton handed over to him with both hands and, 184 games later, has proven himself to be one of the pillars on which Pep Guardiola has built the most successful side in the Club’s history.

City’s march to a Premier League and Carabao Cup double in the 2020/21 campaign means the No.2 has now lifted an astonishing nine major trophies since his arrival through the door on this day four years ago.

With this in mind, mancity.com spoke to the man himself, as well as a host of former players and coaches to learn more about his role in the team, his talents and, crucially, how a diminutive striker ended up as one of the best right-backs in the game.

“I don’t know a right-back or a full-back who started off there. I couldn’t get a game at centre-forward to be completely honest.”
Kyle Walker
“He was absolutely outstanding. It is probably the best debut I think I have ever seen from a young lad. He took to it like a duck to water, as if he had played there 50 times.”
Ron Reid - Former Sheffield United academy manager

Shackling tricky wingers or delivering pinpoint crosses on the overlap didn’t dominate Walker’s thoughts as a youngster in Sheffield.

In fact, he is proof Jamie Carragher was correct when he delivered that infamous jibe to Gary Neville.

“Two things for a full-back, you’re either a failed winger or a failed centre-back. Nobody wants to be a full-back as a kid,” said Carragher in one of Monday Night Football’s more memorable segments.

It was scoring goals rather than stopping them that was the aim of the game for a striker who joined Sheffield United’s academy as a seven-year-old.

At 16, by chance rather than design, Walker switched to right-back and within three years he was playing for the Blades’ first team in the Championship playoff final at Wembley Stadium.

“Jamie Carragher made a fair point,” says Walker after a brief laugh to highlight he saw the funny side of the former Liverpool player’s comment.

“I don’t know a right-back or a full-back who started off there. I couldn’t get a game at centre-forward to be completely honest.

“I signed my scholarship and there were better centre-forwards than me, even though I went to Lilleshall as a centre-forward at Under-16s. I was a late developer. I didn’t grow and I was very light.

“We played Nottingham Forest and they had a quick winger, but the right-back at the time wasn’t playing for one reason or another. The coach put me there and from that day on I have never played another position.

“At first, I thought why am I not playing centre-forward? Why am I not getting the goals and the glory? But you soon realise it’s quite enjoyable. Your role changes in the team and I enjoyed setting people up rather than scoring.

“I went from getting the odd 10 or 15 minutes in the first four months after I came out of school and into full-time football, to playing every game.”

Ron Reid can still vividly remember the day the youngster made his bow at right-back and whilst Walker acknowledges the switch in position required a shift in mindset when he realised he would no longer be basking in the glory of goalscoring, the former Sheffield United academy manager recalls a seamless transition from the youngster.

It proved to be the making of the boyhood Blade and, aided by a timely growth spurt, he made rapid progress between the age of 16 and 19.

“The Nottingham Forest left-winger never beat him once,” says Reid.

“It was incredible. We gave him another go there the following week and that’s how it happened.

“He got better and better as time went on. He was always technical, had a good first touch and could see a pass.

“He had reasonable pace, but he didn’t have the blistering pace when he first signed the scholarship. He was comfortable in the role, could defend against anybody and he was brave.

“When it came to scholarship time he had really started impressing. He really developed in the second year, when he had a growth spurt.  He shot up and I had a feeling then that he was going to be special.”

Reid’s thinking proved correct.

After a successful loan spell at Northampton Town, United’s academy boss began lobbying for Walker to be included in the first team squad and, despite making his debut in an FA Cup win over Leyton Orient in January 2009, it wasn’t until the following April that he broke into the side.

And, like that fateful academy game against Nottingham Forest, Walker’s full league debut against Swansea City remains etched in Reid’s mind for all the right reasons.

“I kept pushing to try and get him in the first team,” he adds.

“He should have been in the first team much earlier. Kyle Naughton got in at right-back, because at that stage he was a little bit ahead of Walker.

“But a few games before the end of the season Gary Naysmith did his ACL, so Naughton moved to left-back and Kyle Walker came in.

“He was absolutely outstanding. It is probably the best debut I think I have ever seen from a young lad. He took to it like a duck to water, as if he had played there 50 times.”

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Fast forward 12 years and Walker is closing in on 500 games as a professional, during which he has established himself as one of the best right-backs in world football.

The building blocks were put in place at Spurs where, in his words, “Mauricio Pochettino helped me tremendously”, but it is under the stewardship of Guardiola that Walker has taken his game and the position itself to the next level.

At Spurs, he was a major attacking outlet tasked with creating chances in the final third and since returning north, his versatility and tactical astuteness have underpinned his performances.

Whilst he remains an offensive threat, the Yorkshireman is more defensively minded these days, influencing the team in a myriad of ways, whether that be as an auxiliary midfielder or when his trademark turn of pace is required to snuff out a counter-attack.

“How Pep wants to play is unheard of in England,” he explains.

“You don’t train for that growing up. When I was at Sheffield United, it was about getting the ball out of my feet and clipping it into the channels.

“That was what the manager wanted and that’s what I learned growing up. At Tottenham it was completely different again. I was an attacking full-back.

“My role was about getting assists and making sure I was high and wide to receive the ball and if I could get in the box and get a couple of goals that was a bonus for me.

“When you get a new manager, they bring a new philosophy. It’s about adapting. As a right-back, you need to adapt to different situations and different wingers. That’s what makes the position so exciting.

“Since my first season at City, the manager doesn’t like to be overloaded in midfield, so he likes bringing one of the full-backs inside.

“He likes to utilise my pace in making sure I control the counter-attack, so I have become a little bit more defensive.

“The demands are incredible. If the opposition play with a two up-front, my position changes. If they play with a one up-front, my position changes. If they play with a winger cutting off the pass, my position changes.

“ I have got to adapt more than anyone else on the pitch to the other team. That is whether I need to attack more or defend more. You’re not in the same position throughout the 90 minutes. I enjoy it. Every game is a new challenge.”

Challenging could not be a more apt description of the right-back role at City.

It is a far cry from the days when full-backs in even the most dominant of teams focused primarily on stopping crosses, with the ability to overlap in attack merely a bonus.

They are both tasks Micah Richards perfected.

The former Academy graduate was a hugely popular figure during his own playing career in which he helped the Club to Premier League and FA Cup triumphs.

Like Walker, he was a fearsome one versus one defender blessed with remarkable pace which made him equally effective at the other end of the pitch, but he is in no doubt that City’s current No.2 has taken the position to new heights.

“Kyle Walker is brilliant. He is one of the most consistent performers I have seen for a long time. I think he has been amazing.

“This season, Kyle has been one of the best players in the team and that is rare for a full-back. He has been able to adapt to whatever Pep has wanted to do.

“Whether it is giving it to the winger, overlapping and putting in a cross; whether it is staying high and wide; or, whether it is going inside and making a three in midfield. He has passed every test.

“It’s been staggering and I don’t think Kyle gets enough credit for being able to adapt his game for what the team needs. He has taken full-back to the next level.

“Zabaleta and I got a lot of love because he was a warrior and I came through the Academy, but if you actually look at what Kyle’s done since he’s been here, it’s way more than me and Zaba.”

“I think Kyle almost changed the way City played. It gave them an opportunity to play more counter-attacking football because he gets forward and back as quick as anything.”
Richard Dunne
“I try and use my pace in the best way for the team, so we can utilise other people’s strengths. If I can let my winger or my attacking midfielder do less defending, then that is my job and if my pace allows me to do that, then brilliant.”
Kyle Walker

Walker has become one of Guardiola’s most trusted lieutenants at the Etihad Stadium.

The right-back has been a beacon of reliability and, during the 2020/21 season, the Catalan hailed him ‘an incredible signing’.

There is no doubting Guardiola and Walker have been good for one another.

The Spaniard loves players who dedicate themselves to the profession and who can meet the requirements of the gruelling three games a week schedule and that is an area where the man from the Steel City has excelled.

In his four full seasons at the Club, Walker has averaged 46 games per campaign and the fact he has started every cup final since he joined is a measure of the extent to which the manager feels he can depend on him when it matters most.

“I think the fact Guardiola chooses him and plays him so often is because he knows he will follow his instructions, he is intelligent, he understands the game and he knows what it takes to win matches,” explains Richard Dunne, who was a team-mate of Walker’s during his loan spell at Aston Villa early in his Spurs career.

“When you look at the different players and see how they take the tactical instructions that Pep gives, he is spot on. Every time he plays, he always seems to be in the right position. He always seems to know where to pass the ball.

“His delivery into the box is superb and having someone with his pace gives the rest of the players so many more options.

“I think Kyle almost changed the way City played. It gave them an opportunity to play more counter-attacking football because he gets forward and back as quick as anything.

“If he is attacking one minute, he can be back defending crosses straight away. He has given City more freedom to go forward and to send people forward, knowing that if they are counter-attacked he can get back.”

Dunne’s glowing assessment isn’t too dissimilar to how Walker views his role and despite his modern approach, he remains committed to the fundamentals of the position.

“It is always about defending,” he says.

“I pride myself on keeping clean sheets and keeping as many goals out of my net and helping the keeper out as much as possible.

“My game has changed. Now, I am normally building up from the back, so my assists have probably fallen off.  I would love to get a few more assists but first and foremost my job is to stop the ball going in the back of the net.

“If I have to sacrifice putting the ball in the box for someone to score but we’ve kept a clean sheet, that’s fine.

“If I’ve given someone else the extra 10% to go and get the assist, then great. It’s a team game and that’s what I am all about.

“I try and use my pace in the best way for the team, so we can utilise other people’s strengths. If I can let my winger or my attacking midfielder do less defending, then that is my job and if my pace allows me to do that, then brilliant.

“If that means Kevin [De Bruyne] doesn’t have to run back and has 10-15% more energy running forward to create goals because his mind is fresh, I don’t mind doing that.”

It’s clear Walker has a deep understanding of his role within the team. Team being the key word.

Press him on his own game and the conversation will inevitably turn back to how he can help his colleagues and his appreciation for the finer points of the game is something he feels has been enhanced under Guardiola.

“His knowledge of the game is scary,” says the right-back.

“Every day you learn something new - just the basics of football or how to use my maturity on the pitch to help people around me.

“The knowledge of the game is something I have taken from Pep’s tactics and working with him day in day out has really matured me as a player and as a man off the field as well.

“I think I have matured. I am 31 this year. I still feel fresh, I still feel quick, I still feel young and want to learn.

“That also comes with the leadership role I have in this team, with coaching people from behind and making sure they are in the right position.

“It’s probably gone unnoticed, but it is something I pride myself on.”

Pace is a word that crops up repeatedly where Walker is concerned.

One glance at him motoring up and down City’s right flank and it’s easy to understand why, but it would be remiss to assume his entire game is underpinned by his speed.

“When you have pace it always helps, but it isn’t fair to say that’s the only thing he’s got,” Richards adds.

“When you are quick, people will gravitate to it. If you study his game, he is a lot stronger than people give him credit for.

“Kyle Walker never has a torrid time defensively. I’ve never really seen him get done in a one v one battle, and I’ve watched near enough every City game since I left.

“He is tactically aware. He can play in a three at the back, a four at the back and as a wing back as well.

“Why do you think Gareth Southgate keeps picking Kyle Walker? It’s because he knows he can trust him tactically.

“He is a totally underrated player and tactically he is way better than people give him credit for.”

Nedum Onuoha agrees.

Though he eventually established himself as a centre-half, the City Academy graduate spent time at right-back during his early career and feels Walker’s physical capabilities are enhanced by his football IQ.

“When you see him out on the field, you know things are going to be good defensively,” explains the We’re Not Really Here show panellist.

“I couldn’t tell you anybody in the league where I worry for Kyle Walker in a match up. I think he has been exceptional.

“As much as he gives City strength, I think he takes something away from the opponents as well because some people will not try and run at him and for some teams that’s a massive step in the wrong direction.

“He has really understood exactly what his role is in the side, but also the players around him.

“And even though we can talk about how strong and fast he is, I think it is his level of intelligence on the field which also makes those assets appear even greater.

“His ability to be in the right place both in attack and defence is massive. Whether he is playing in a three at the back or as a traditional right back, he knows when to engage with the attack.

“He knows when to drop off, he knows the right spot to be in, he knows when someone is in trouble. He knows when not to overcommit and the times when he can go more gung-ho.

“I think that’s something he had when he arrived at City, but each year he has got better and better. That for me shows how good he is.”

“The wingers are getting more difficult and the full-backs are getting a lot more technical on the ball. It’s great for the game, but I’ve got to keep up, so it’s about working hard and making sure I don’t fall behind.”
Kyle Walker

Walker has shown everyone how good he is since grasping that chance opportunity to move to right-back.

It’s given him the football career he always dreamed off, though perhaps not in the manner the seven-year-old would-be striker would have envisioned when he first walked through the doors of Sheffield United’s academy.

Instead of scoring goals he has played a key role in modernising his position, doing so against a backdrop of trophy-laden success at Manchester City.

And, for a player who for whom attitude and application have merged with ability to wonderful effect, he’s got no intention of letting his exceptionally high standards drop any time soon.

“Football is evolving each and every year,” he concludes.  

“The wingers are getting more difficult and the full-backs are getting a lot more technical on the ball.

“It’s great for the game, but I’ve got to keep up, so it’s about working hard and making sure I don’t fall behind.”