IIt was in the heat of summer Michael Arteta He finally decided to push the button on a strategy that had been going on for almost a year. For much of the previous season he had been convinced that Ben White was a right-back in the making: quick, calm on the ball and blessed with good positional sense and a high level of tactical intelligence. The problem was everyone else. No team, he decided, is capable of replacing White at the center of the defense.
For a while Arteta was looking for full-backs who could play his way: stepping into a narrower role Arsenal Had the ball, effectively switching to the central midfielders. In his three seasons at the club he also tried and dismissed Ainsley Maitland-Niles on the right and Hector Bellerin, Nuno Tavares and Bukayo Saka on the left.
Finally, in White and incoming Oleksandr Zinchenko, he could turn his vision into reality. In pre-season training, seeing how much centre-half William Saliba had progressed during his one-year loan spell at Marseille, he felt his problem was solved.
It is in the full-back position that Arteta’s footballing DNA is at its most visible. The deployment of an overlapping full-back (the commonly used term “inverted full-back” is not quite accurate, as the players are still playing on the side of their stronger foot) has been a cornerstone of many teams coached by Pep Guardiola, Arteta. Former Barcelona teammate and Manchester City coach. But its true origin story goes back even further, to the man who first made Arteta fall in love with football. Most interestingly, it is also a creative influence on coach Arteta who will face off at the Emirates Stadium on Sunday.
Eric met Ten Haag Johan Cruyff one time He was 13 years old. It was 1984 and he was appearing on a Dutch TV show called Ten Hag Kruijff & Co, in which Cruyff trained a group of young footballers and then discussed the game with them. Even at this tender age, Ten Haag was curious and determined, asking more questions than anyone else. By the time he joined Ajax three decades later, Cruyff was gone. It remains one of Ten Haag’s lasting regrets that their first meeting will also be their last.
For Cruyff would have a profound effect on Ten Hag. His first overseas coaching job was with Bayern Munich’s second team, led by another Cruyff disciple of Guardiola. As Ajax coach he hung two pictures of Cruyff in his office: one as a player and one as a coach. “I apply Cruyff’s ideals in my current work,” he said in an interview with Dutch television last year. “Cruyff walks here every day, you can feel his DNA here.”
Again, it’s probably on defense that the effect is most obvious. As a coach, Cruyff pioneered the use of full-backs in central roles, centre-halves with the technical ability to advance in midfield or the versatility to defend wide areas. At Ajax, Ten Hag nurtured a core of players who could move equally effortlessly between full-back, centre-half and defensive midfield, whose role was essentially a hybrid of all three: Daley Blind, Nicolas Tagliafico, Tyrell Malacia, Lisandro Martinez. For a while he also tried Frankie de Jong at centre-half. Flexibility is the key principle here: fixed positions are less important than the ability to bend or relocate where you think gaps may open up.
Early evidence suggests Ten Haag is already experimenting in a similar direction at United. At the start of his tenure he used Malaysia and Diogo Dalot in full-back roles. More recently, he has been attracted to the idea of using Luke Shaw as a centre-half, eg 2-1 win over Manchester City last saturday On the face of it, Erling Haaland vs. Shaw was an odd mismatch; Shaw’s tactical intelligence in practice, coupled with his ability to play forward passes under pressure, was one of the reasons for United’s success that afternoon.
Shaw said, “I was surprised when he was playing there, but it’s just an extension of a wider development in his game this season. From a traditionally touchline-based full-back drilled to get to the byline and deliver crosses, Shaw’s role has shifted to a more defensive emphasis, but Has also been heavily responsible for starting attacks through the midfield. Over the past two seasons he has made 298 crosses and completed 43 dribbles. This season he has made 35 crosses and completed one dribble.
Similarly, Arteta’s reuse of white bears all the hallmarks of the Cruyff effect. As Arsenal moved up the pitch, White – who sometimes played as a defensive midfielder under Marcelo Bielsa at Leeds – moved increasingly inside, wary of counter-attacks but also offering a short passing option to Saka. And so a centre-half is a centre-half masquerading as a full-back, and Shaw vice versa, they operate in very similar areas of the pitch.
The real lesson here, however, has nothing to do with strategy or influence. It takes courage for a new coach to experiment with new players in new positions, especially in the face of established options (Harry Maguire for United; Bellerin for Arsenal). Often the biggest battle is with the player themselves. White and Shaw are very introspective players who have struggled with confidence at times. “We all believed he had the qualities to play that role,” Arteta said of White. “Believing he could do it was the most important step.”
So in many ways the trick that Ten Haag and Arteta have managed to pull off is not just strategizing but convincing their players to buy in. The stories of White and Shaw – and Guardiola and Cruyff before them – remind us of what creates a breakthrough. A team is more than an idea or rolling checkers on a whiteboard. At its heart, it is a question of faith.