Ten Arsenal players that successfully learned new roles – Will Havertz be the next one?

Some Gooners are struggling to understand what Arteta sees in Kai Havertz, especially at the cost of 65 million! by Dan Smith

Believed to have undertaken a medical this weekend, the deal could be confirmed by the time you read this.

There’s talk that our manager might see something in the German that his peers didn’t identify at Stamford Bridge.

Instead of obviously competing for a place in our front three, the 24-year-old could drop deeper and play the Xhaka role, a box to box midfielder.

I like that the Spaniard has confidence in himself to identify a talent and see something that others don’t.

The Arsenal boss has already done that in his first job, teaching players new roles to play in. Arsene Wenger was famous for it ……

Here are my top 10 examples of players who learnt new positions ….

It’s common that a player might be apprehensive about trying out a new position, it’s rare that after succeeding in that role they remain resistant to change.
Three managers judged Maitland-Niles only good enough to be a makeshift full back, not the CM he believed he could be.
Even on loan (where he was relegated twice) only Sam Allardyce played him regularly in the middle.
There’s nothing wrong with trusting your ability but you also have to listen to those coaching you.
Playing right or left back gave the youngster a route into the first team, something most academy prospects could only dream of.
The more settled he became in the first team, the more in training he could show he had the qualities to be the DM that only existed in his own mind.
The turning point should have been when he was Man of The Match in our last FA Cup Final, which earnt him an England cap.
The 25-year-old seemed to do his best to talk his way out of Mikel Arteta’s plans by publicly claiming he didn’t like his current position and that he wanted to move where he was ‘wanted’.
Considering at this point his short-term move to West Brom had failed, his attitude wouldn’t have gone unnoticed for a manager who has ‘nonnegotiable principles’.
Given the Spaniard’s love of his left backs timing when to step into midfield, Niles could have had a future with us if he had embraced change.

Similar to Maitland-Niles, arguably the two best performances of the Ox’s career came in an FA Cup Semi Final and Final.
Like Niles, it was in a position he didn’t want to play in, with the player having grown up influenced by Steven Gerrard.
With Arsenal struggling defensively in 2017, which would lead to us failing to make the top 4 for the first time under Mr. Wenger, our manager switched to a back 5 for the first time in years.
Part of the system got the best out of Chamberlain’s assets, with his pace terrifying Man City and Chelsea.
Given he worked for a boss who wasn’t resistant to trying talent in new positions, the fact that Mr. Wenger never identified the Ox as the CM the player craved to be speaks volumes.
Injuries have prevented the player from proving anyone wrong at Anfield.
Currently he is am a free agent.

Kieran Tierney
Tierney was one of the first talents Arteta trusted to use his footballing intelligence.
In the FA Semi Final and Final against Man City and Chelsea our manager produced two of his best displays by shocking the opposition with a back 5, knowing Arsenal were likely to have less possession then normal.
By asking our usual left back to become the third centreback, the Spaniard got the best out of Tierney’s strengths.
With the ball the Scot would time when to join in attacks by bombing down the wing.
Without the ball, he would then step into the middle and form a back 3.
This is giving the 26-year-old lots of responsibility as his movement allows his teammates to equally alter positions.

This was as much down to Arsene Wenger’s system more than anyone player.
Well, it’s down to Dennis Bergkamp, but zero managers changed his position, he was just born with a footballing brain.
Our striker was rare as he wasn’t obsessed with his goal scoring numbers, getting just as much pleasure out of assisting his peers.
So, the Dutchman would often drop deep and then spot the runs made by Pires and Ljungberg.
With Henry liking to go onto the left, Arsenal’s attack often involved no one actually staying in their original position.
Our constant movement off the ball and interchanging made it impossible for the opposition to man mark anyone.
To get Wiltord in the team, the striker would play the Ljungberg or Pires role, because while it meant starting out wide, tactically he could often switch and find himself in the middle.

Three full time Arsenal managers trusted Xhaka despite his Ill-discipline at times, tactically seeing something that maybe Gooners didn’t always see.
Amazon’s All or Nothing Documentary showed that the midfielder was one of the few leaders in our young dressing room.
It was Arteta though who decided to free the Swiss of some defensive responsibility.
In the past he would be the sole DM.
The presence of Partey though, and Zinchenko’s ability to step into the middle, turned Xhaka into more of a box-to-box player.
His timing of runs into the penalty area makes you feel a shame this wasn’t done years ago.
Ironically after his best season for the Gunners he might be leaving.

Ben White
White had already showcased his versatility at Leeds and Brighton.
In his debut season at the Emirates though he hadn’t done a lot wrong at centreback and there seemed little reason to change his role.
Then William Saliba returned from his loan spell.
White though wasn’t moved to right back simply as a way to keep in the team.
That wouldn’t give enough credit to how crucial he’s been to us tactically, and how hard it is to implement what’s being asked of him.
You need to be superb at reading the game.
This probably counted against him for the national team, because he has to do far more than other English full backs.
Timing when to overlap Saka, when to form a back three when Zinchenko steps into midfield, when to cover Xhaka when he surges into the box.
A lot of positive play comes from White’s decision-making and he makes it so simple he probably doesn’t get the credit he deserves.
My Gunner of the season.

In the first half of the last campaign, Zinchenko timing when to transition from left back into midfield was crucial to Arsenal being top of the table.
Possibly opponents had worked out the tactic once we got to the title race run in.
Every season a manager starts a trend that becomes popular.
You could argue Pep Guardiola stole his apprentice’s idea by teaching Stones a similar role.
I get a feeling many other clubs will be doing the same next season?

One of the biggest myths in the history of Arsenal quoted by some Gooners is that Mr. Wenger was fortunate to inherit the back 5 he did, and that he had an inability to create his own defence.
Whisper it quietly …. it’s false.
The Invincibles keeper and defence were all either brought or recruited from the academy by Mr. Wenger.
A back 5 that doesn’t lose a League fixture all campaign, yet their manager can’t build a defence?
Doesn’t make sense, does it?
Lauren was resigned in Spain between being a right back and midfielder. He remained a versatile option in his debut season at Highbury.
When it was time to transition away from Lee Dixon though, Mr. Wenger almost reinvented the position.
With Ashly Cole doing the same on the left, the Gunners were the first to truly introduce the attacking full backs.
Lauren could attack but also liked a battle. The Cameroon International couldn’t get bullied.
He won two titles and 3 FA Cups before an injury essentially ended his career. He cost just 7 million.
Yet Mr. Wenger couldn’t identify a defender apparently?

Kolo Toure
Following on from the accusation that Mr. Wenger couldn’t identify a defender …. When Pascal Cygan failed to replace Tony Adams and with an ageing Martin Keown, Mr. Wenger asked Kolo Toure to try the role.
At the time it was seen as indicative of the financial pressure Arsene was under to fund building a new stadium.
The season before, Gooners had been introduced to the Ivorian as an energetic option off the bench who played in various positions but ironically never centre back.
Toure started every game in a season we went unbeaten. He cost 150,000!
Yet apparently Mr. Wenger couldn’t recognise a quality defender?

Thierry Henry
Arsene Wenger worked with a teenager Henry at Monaco.
In one of the best business deals in our history, we sold Anelka and used that money to build a new state-of-the-art training facility, and capture a player who would go on to be one of the greatest to ever live.
In a conversation that would change our future, Henry was asked by his mentor to learn to be our new striker.
The Frenchman rightly questioned if he was good enough to be a World Cup Winner as a winger, why wasn’t that good enough for Highbury?
Henry especially had doubts when he failed to score in his first 8 fixtures.
Yet Mr. Wenger saw something in Henry and believed he could convince the player that he could still drift out to his favored left-wing position and timing when to step into the middle.
Thierry Henry would score 228 goals for Arsenal, stealing many more hearts.
The greatest to ever live?

Any other examples let me know in the comments.


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Tags Kai Havertz


  1. A terrific piece DAN and plaudits for the research you have put into it.
    As for Havertz, what stood out to me IMMEDIATELY was your third sentence “Theres talk that our manager….. etc! That single thought sums up beautifully the difference between our manager and man of we fans who have said HAVERTZ is vastly overrated and esp at such a fee.
    Time along will tell but I will say this; MA had better be proved right and we fans wrong.

    If not, he will come under huge and deserved pressure for what I STILL FEAR WILL PROVE AN EXPENSIVE MISTAKE, ESP AT SUCH A FEE.
    Havertz needs to prove a huge success and not just an OK player either, for THAT money.

  2. In my opinion Arsenal could also have a go at Covacic which City are also trying to bring to the Etihad and regarding Xavi Simmons would fit very well with the gunners

  3. Wenger successfully converted Van Persie into a CF, from a winger position. Cole’s official position was LB, but he played like a conventional LW

    Havertz has played CF and AM, so he’d likely not need to learn a new role. But it would be brilliant if Arteta could make him productive again, as Arteta did to Xhaka

    1. RVP is arguably the most impressive one. He turned into a bit of a fox in the box, but he also had playmaking qualities, not unlike Bergkamp, which i guess he’d developed from his time on the wing. He looked a natural cf by the end, you’d never guess he might have been a winger.
      I’m not sure xhaka really counts as a conversion – to my understanding, it was just moving him into the position he plays for Switzerland, and presumably at his previous clubs? (I’ve never really watched him outside of arsenal tbh)

      1. Van Persie’s hold-up play was impressive. Maybe Wenger had planned to convert him into a CF since he joined us, because of his stature

        As for Xhaka, I watched him play in deep-midfield area for Switzerland in the last two World Cups

    2. Havertz is going to be amazing, GOI. Trust me. I predict that he will end up going the way RvP did and becoming a formidable striker. He gets into some fantastic positions and is a wonderful playmaker as well. And at 6’3″ gives us height we sorely lack. It’s an inspired piece of business from MA. Let’s judge him on how he plays for us, not for how he struggled over in the blue half on the city. No one could prosper amongst that shower.

      1. I think so, based on his performance under Tuchel’s guidance

        He’s good aerially, but I’m not sure about his hold-up play. If he replaces Xhaka, I wouldn’t worry about his physical strength

  4. Regarding Havertz he is a good player maybe he was not used in the right position with Chelsea and as already quoted by others he is overpriced but on the other hand which player is not overpriced nowadays . No one plays for the team any more as there are a lot of foreign players all they see is what they bag in their pockets forget the days when each and every player played for the shirt and was proud to play for the team.
    Another player Arsenal could look at is Phylips of man City a young English player and a good one too which City bought and left him on the bench for most of the season but could be a very ecfficient difensive midfield player with Arsenal

  5. Dan
    I think what MA did with xhaka has to be credited
    DM we all agree he has a mistake in him. Pushing him further up where he might make his mKe was further up the field and we had time to recover, rather then last man and it would cost us and we would all lambast the the player. Was one of his biggest critics at times but thought he was immense for at times during last season
    As for KA I could see him being deployed in the same role. Will definitely have chances and is a better finisher so should score more goals. Defensively I am not sure if he will be just as aware as xhaka so that could be a place he will ha e to improve
    As for players swapping roles
    I would go back manay a year and say we had Ray Kennedy who was sold on to pool. They had the foresight of turning him from a striker to a mf player and he reaped the reward of scoring many a goal for them from that position

  6. “There’s talk that our manager might see something in the German that his peers didn’t identify at Stamford Bridge.

    Dan, that’s exactly my point , I note you have specifically said his peers at the bridge and not his peers in general.

    I have been saying it all along, despite respective armchair managers, pundits and fans alike, the gaffer has seen something different they haven’t seen.

    What surprisingly has gone unnoticed is Pep Guardiola initial intrest in the German.

  7. To me the most intriguing aspect of this excellent article is the role played by Wiltord in creating constant movement off the ball and the difficulties this caused to opposition by the subsequent interchanging.Arteta could do well to replicate this tactic as he seems very rigid in the use of Martinelli and Saka who very rarely are given licence to interchange or so it seems to me.They are both free spirits with immense talent and they are capable of causing more havoc if they are given scope to move around in the final third rather than being stuck on the wings where it is relatively easy to double up on them.Like TH, they are both good finishers and given the freedom to interchange they can climb up the scoring charts.As to Havertz, he was exceptional for BL in an attacking midfield role and the fluidity in his play can only help create chances for the likes of Saka and Martinelli.

    1. That’s a great point on wiltord – martinelli has done it on occasion, I really think he’s a natural striker who’s capable of being devastating with those runs inside, but we need to engineer more opportunities for him on the break.

  8. Maybe its just me but wouldn’t it be quicker and easier to buy players who played in the positions you wanted them to play in ?

  9. While it was indeed Wenger that played Kolo at CB, it was the idea of Keown, as per the clubs official DVD that was released at the end of the Invincible Season.

    As for Henry, it was only after Wenger was sacked at Monaco that Henry moved out to the wing. He had been a central striker while growing up in Paris, often playing 2 years above his age group, and was one of the few players that went to Clairefontaine while not being attached to a professional club. While he was there he was recommended to Wenger by Gerard Houllier.

  10. Re White: “My Gunner of the season.”
    I think that slipped under the radar (ironically) – I certainly don’t disagree. He’s probably been our most consistent player, and it’s great to see his intelligence highlighted here. I couldn’t understand why we signed him when we did – his first season was decent, at CB, but he was extremely impressive last season at RB. As much as many, including myself, have commented how important zinchenko has been, white was even better – tactically, they’re both superb, crucial, but defensively white is obviously far more reliable when under pressure, and surprisingly, he’s probably been more impactful in attack. He plays a lot of disguised little passes to get players like Saka and jesus into dangerous areas.

  11. Spot on. The manager’s ability and coaching will prevail if the player is humble and intelligent enough to do so. It’s generational thing. You can’t find many footballers nowadays who has the humility, intelligence and self-esteem to adapt and perform to suit the team. I’m glad the top 3 pursuit by Arteta are truly old school footballers. Mbappe who?

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