Kyle Walker has been one of the elite offensive fullbacks in the Premier League since he arrived in Manchester. That isn’t to say he’s a good crosser, because none would argue that’s ever been a strength of his, but that is not a prerequisite. There might be no better proof of that than Walker. He’s operated as a vital cog in some of the best offenses English football has ever seen and finished in the top five among Premier League defenders in expected goal chains per 90 in each of the past three seasons without that skill in his repertoire.
Walker’s pace alone would make him a quality attacking force from the right back position. His ability to accelerate past a defender on the overlap and trademark heavy dribble allow him to find space for himself and create it for others. His cutback pass once he gets past the final defender has been a big reason why Walker has compiled 12 assists in a City shirt and created a reputation as one of the most threatening fullbacks in the game.
But something about this season is different.
If it seems like Walker is getting forward less than we are accustomed to, it’s because he is. His touch rate in the attacking third is down 20% compared to his average from 2017/18 to 2019/20 while the reduction in penalty area usage is even larger, at 37%. At the same time, Walker is as involved in City possession as ever, with a total usage right on par with his previous 3-year average (92.2 touches vs. 90.9 per 90, respectively).
The unfortunate, but expected, byproduct of his newfound reservation to get forward is a decrease in his offensive production. Walker is experiencing significant declines in every major metric after three years of consistent output, transforming him from an elite attacking fullback to a rather ordinary one.
The question becomes – why has this change in Kyle Walker’s game happened so suddenly?
It’s certainly not due to a drop off in his world renowned pace. He clocked the fastest speed in the Premier League last season at 23.49 miles per hour as recently as June and it’s clear he still has his top gear whenever he embarks on a recovery run in defensive transition.
Pep Guardiola could be utilizing Walker in an increasingly defensive role, sacrificing a bit of the attack for more resolute defense in the name of pragmatism. Fulfilling that role would provide a tactical alternative to the attack–at–all–costs Joao Cancelo, but you’d imagine the excellence of Ruben Dias and John Stones regardless of the fullbacks they’re paired with would afford Walker more license to get forward. Yet there hasn’t been a noticeable uptick in his willingness to attack since that central defense has established itself as world class.
The decrease in Walker’s attacking usage is not being disproportionately suppressed by defensive instructions levied out by Guardiola against the strongest opposition attacks either. In fact, the loose trend between Walker’s final third usage and the caliber of City’s opponents is relatively similar and this decline in touch rate is consistent across the board.
If not solely for defensive reasons, Guardiola must be making an effort to ward off Father Time and extend Walker’s City career by reducing the burden on his legs. Guardiola has openly discussed his desire and the need for his players to “run less” in an uncharacteristically chaotic season. That sentiment is more important for the almost-31-year-old Walker than most, given the physical demands of playing a position where individuals tend to peak younger. Maybe when the world resumes a sense of normalcy, Walker will be unleashed down the wing again in all his glory. Realistically, it’s more likely Guardiola is phasing him into a new stage of his career, a post prime era where his defensive qualities are preserved for the price of more selective movement instead of bombing from endline to endline without abandon.
None of this is to say that Walker isn’t still a valuable player or effective in possession. There are few right backs as capable of switching play with a diagonal to the left wing and even fewer as comfortable tucking into the midfield within Guardiola’s preferred buildup sets. Factor in his ability to play as a right-sided central defender in a back three or shift into one as part of an asymmetric backline opposite an advanced left back and there are still plenty of reasons why Walker is on pace to play 2,100+ minutes for the fourth consecutive season. He simply may be a fundamentally different player now.
Only time will tell if we’ll see the elite attacking Kyle Walker again. So when you see him overlap from now on, hope that it is a sign he’s returning to his old ways but appreciate it all the more in case it’s not. Remember that version of him well, there have been few as threatening and exciting getting forward at full speed.