IIn the heat of the summer, Mikel Arteta finally decided to hit the button on a strategy he had been brewing for almost a year. For most of the previous season, he had been convinced that Ben White was a right-back: quick and calm on the ball and blessed with sound positional sense and a high level of tactical intelligence. The problem was everyone else. He determined that neither team was capable of replacing White at the center of defence.
For some time, Arteta had been on the lookout for defenders who could play his way: stepping up into a narrower role when Arsenal had possession, effectively switching to midfielders. Over the course of his three seasons at the club, he has tried and eliminated Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Hector Bellerin on the right, Nuno Tavares and even Bukayo Saka on the left.
Finally, in the upcoming White and Oleksandr Zinchenko movie, he can turn his vision into reality. In pre-season training, realizing how far midfielder William Saliba had come during a one-year loan to Marseille, he realized his problem had a solution.
It is at full-back that Arteta’s footballing DNA is most visible. The positioning of the bottom-back (the common term ‘inverted-back’ is not entirely accurate, as players still play with their strong foot) has been the cornerstone of several teams coached by Pep Guardiola, Arteta. Former teammate at Barcelona and mentor at Manchester City. But its true origin story goes back even further, to the man who first made Arteta fall in love with football. More interestingly, however, is his formative influence on the manager who will face Arteta at the Emirates Stadium on Sunday.
Erik ten Hag met Johan Cruyff once. He was 13 years old. It was 1984 and Ten Haag was appearing on a Dutch TV show called Cruyff and Co, where Cruyff trained a group of young footballers and then discussed the match with them. Even at this young age, Tin Hag was curious and determined, asking more questions than anyone else. By the time he joined Ajax three decades later, Cruyff was gone. And still Ten Hag always regretted that their first meeting would also be their last.
As for Cruyff, he will have a profound effect on Ten Hag. His first coaching job abroad was with Bayern Munich’s second team, under the auspices of another Cruyff pupil in Guardiola. As coach of Ajax, he hung two pictures of Cruyff in his office: one as a player, the other as a coach. “I apply Cruyff’s ideals to my current work,” he said in an interview with Dutch television last year. “Cruyff walks around here every day, you can feel his DNA here.”
Again, the effect is probably more pronounced for defense. As a coach, Cruyff pioneered the use of full-backs in central roles, centre-half with the technical ability to advance into midfield or the versatility to defend wide areas. At Ajax, Ten Hag consolidated a core of players who alternate equally between full-back, centre-half and defensive midfield, whose role was essentially a combination of all three: Daley Blind, Nicolas Tagliafico, Tyrell Malacia, Lisandro Martínez. For a while he even tried Frenkie de Jong at centre-half. Flexibility is the key principle here: fixed positions matter less than the ability to tilt or shift based on where you think spaces might open up.
Early evidence suggests that Ten Hag is already experimenting with a similar trend at United. Early in his tenure he used Malacia and Diogo Dalot in fullback roles. Recently, he has been drawn to the idea of using Luke Shaw in central midfield, as happened in the 2-1 win over Manchester City last Saturday. On the face of it, Shaw vs. Erling Haaland was an ugly contrast; In practice, Shaw’s tactical intelligence, combined with his ability to play forward passing under pressure, was one of the reasons for United’s success that afternoon.
“I was quite surprised I was playing there,” Shaw said, but it’s just an extension of a broader evolution in his game this season. Traditionally a touchline-based full-back trained to reach the sideline and deliver crosses, Shaw’s role has shifted to a more defensive focus, but also one with more responsibility for launching attacks through midfield. In 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 redeployment to the Whites bears all the hallmarks of Cruyff’s influence. As Arsenal move up the pitch, White – who occasionally played as a defensive midfielder under Marcelo Bielsa at Leeds – moved increasingly inward, wary of counter-attacks but also offering Saka a short passing option. Thus, while White is a center half masquerading as a full-back, and Shaw the opposite, they end up operating in very similar areas of the pitch.
However, the real lesson here has nothing to do with tactics or effects. It takes courage for a new manager to start trying new players in new positions, particularly in the face of established replacements (Harry Maguire for United; Bellerin for Arsenal). Often the biggest battle is with the player themselves. White and Shaw are somewhat introspective, two players who struggle at times with confidence. “We all think he has the qualities for this role,” Arteta said of White. “The most important step for him was to believe he could do it.”
So, in many ways, the trick that Tin Hag and Arteta pulled off was not just to strategize but to convince their players to buy. The tales of White and Shaw – and Guardiola and Cruyff before them – remind us that creating a successful team is about more than just ideology or moving checkers on the whiteboard. It is a matter of trust at its core.