Arteta and Ten Hag are inspired by Cruyff for their lateral fluidity | Football
IIt was in midsummer that mikel arteta he finally decided to push the button on a strategy he had been brewing for almost a year. For much of the previous season, he had convinced himself that Ben White was a right-back in the making: quick, easy on the ball and blessed with solid positional sense and a high level of tactical intelligence. The problem was everyone else. None of the squad, he decided, was capable of substituting for White in the center of defense.
For some time, Arteta had been looking for full-backs who could play his way: moving up to a more limited role when Arsenal had the ball, effectively mutating into central midfielders. In his three seasons at the club he had tried and ruled out Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Héctor Bellerín on the right, Nuno Tavares and even Bukayo Saka on the left.
Finally, in White and incoming Oleksandr Zinchenko, he was able to turn his vision into reality. In pre-season training, seeing how center-back William Saliba had progressed during a year on loan at Marseille, he realized that his problem had a solution.
It is in the full-back positions that Arteta’s football DNA is most visible. The deployment of the overlapping lateral (the commonly used term “inverted lateral” is not entirely accurate, as players still play on the side of their stronger foot) has been the cornerstone of many teams led by Pep Guardiola, the player of Arteta. former teammate at Barcelona and mentor at Manchester City. But his true origin story goes back even further, to the man who first made Arteta fall in love with soccer. Most intriguing of all, he is also a formative influence on the coach Arteta will face at the Emirates Stadium on Sunday.
Erik ten Hag met Johan Cruyff once. She was 13 years old. It was 1984 and Ten Hag was appearing on a Dutch TV show called Cruyff and company, in which Cruyff trained a group of young footballers and then discussed the game with them. Even at this tender age, Ten Hag was curious and assertive, and she asked more questions than anyone. When she joined Ajax three decades later, Cruyff was gone. It remains one of Ten Hag’s enduring regrets that her first meeting would also be her last.
Because Cruyff would have a profound effect on Ten Hag. His first job as a coach abroad was with the Bayern Munich second team, under the tutelage of another Cruyff disciple in Guardiola. As Ajax manager, he hung two photos of Cruyff in his office: one as a player and one as a coach. “I apply Cruyff’s ideals in my current job,” he said in an interview with Dutch television last year. “Cruyff walks here every day, you can feel his DNA here.”
Once again, it is perhaps on defense where the influence is most evident. As a coach, Cruyff pioneered the use of full-backs in central roles, center-backs with the technical ability to move into midfield or versatility to defend wide areas. At Ajax, Ten Hag nurtured a core of players equally comfortable rotating between winger, center midfield and defensive midfield, whose role was essentially a hybrid of all three: Daley Blind, Nicolás Tagliafico, Tyrell Malacia, Lisandro Martínez. For a while he even tried out Frenkie de Jong at center half. Flexibility is the key principle here: fixed positions matter less than the ability to tilt or shift based on where you think spaces could open up.
Initial evidence suggests that Ten Hag is already experimenting in a similar direction at United. Early in his tenure, he used Malacia and Diogo Dalot in supporting roles. More recently, he has been drawn to the idea of using Luke Shaw as a central midfielder, as in the 2-1 victory over Manchester City last Saturday. At first glance, Shaw vs. Erling Haaland was a grotesque mismatch; in practice, Shaw’s tactical intelligence, combined with his ability to play forward passes under pressure, was one of the reasons for United’s success that afternoon.
“I was pretty surprised to be 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 who worked to reach the baseline and send in crosses, Shaw’s role has shifted towards a more defensive emphasis, but also with greater responsibility for launching attacks through midfield. In the last two seasons he has made 298 crosses and completed 43 dribbles. This season he has made 35 crosses and completed a single dribble.
Similarly, Arteta’s White redistribution bears all the hallmarks of Cruyff’s influence. As Arsenal progress up the pitch, White, who occasionally played defensive midfielder under Marcelo Bielsa at Leeds, is moving more and more inside, wary of counter-attacks but also offering a short passing option to Saka. And so, while White is a central midfielder masquerading as a winger, and Shaw the opposite, they end up operating in very similar areas of the pitch.
The real lesson here, however, has nothing to do with tactics or influence. It takes courage for a new manager to start experimenting with new players in new positions, particularly against established alternatives (Harry Maguire for United; Bellerín for Arsenal). Often the biggest battle is with the player himself. White and Shaw are fairly introspective players who have struggled with confidence at times. “We all believe that he had the qualities to play that role,” Arteta said of White. “The most important step for him was to believe that he could do it.”
So, in many ways, the trick that Ten Hag and Arteta managed to pull off is not simply coming up with a strategy, but convincing their players to participate. The stories of White and Shaw, and Guardiola and Cruyff before them, remind us that creating a successful business team is more than ideology or moving the chips on a blackboard. Ultimately, it is a matter of trust.