Why was Arteta experimenting with the Arsenal defenders at Forest?

Is Arteta Over Complicating The Full Back Role ? by Dan Smith

Every season there is a trend others latch onto, usually led by those who are successful.

In the last couple of years, it’s been the use of full backs. Jurgen Klopp introduced a formation where having a hard working midfield meant his left and right back were his most attacking weapons.

This campaign Arsenal and Man City have introduced systems where defenders alter positions when they have the ball.

Zinchenko’s intelligence to time when to step into midfield was crucial to us being top of the table for so long.

John Stones stepping up from centreback to become an additional midfielder is one of the reasons City have retained their title.

I feel sorry for a youngster these days who grows up with dreams of being a defender.

Once upon a time, being decent in the air, timing your tackle and having a reading of the game were the qualities you needed to be a defender at a professional level.

Now you need so much more ….

These tactics took the opposition by surprise, but like most things, rival managers found solutions to deal with the issue, which is their job.

Mikel Arteta claimed Arsenal still had something to play for at the City Ground, but you wouldn’t think that as he seemed to experiment with his back 4.

Surely, he wouldn’t have done that had we not lost against Brighton?

Before kicking off on Saturday, pundits and fans were trying to work out who our manager intended to play where?

At times I’m not sure our players even knew ,as they passed the ball sideways for 90 minutes never looking like scoring.

We had our usual centreback playing left back for us for the first time, our usual right back being asked to play in the middle, and our DM a makeshift right back.

To clarify, those decisions were not based on injuries. A recognised left back and centreback were sat on the bench.

Some suggested that with Tierney and Holding expected to leave in the summer they didn’t start due to them avoiding injury?

Both come across too professional to have their integrity questioned, plus Tierney ended up coming on, as we ended up with the back 4 we should have started with.

This simply was our manager overthinking. You can see what he was trying to implement.

In possession he wanted Partey to step into midfield, at which point Kiwior would form a back three.

Or when White strode forward, your left and right back form a back three.

That works if your confident, but with our self-belief low, this was the wrong place and wrong time to be messing around.

Especially when you then in the second half essentially ask your defenders to resume their initial roles. White back on the right, Kiwior back in the middle and Party back in midfield.


One of the moments when this title race began to turn was when Alexander Arnold nutmegged Zinchenko at Anfield. This allowed Liverpool’s full back to get to the bar line and set up the equaliser.

You could argue we never recovered from that moment?

Zinchenko also failed to follow Theo Walcott’s run for Southampton’s second goal at the Emirates.

So while it’s great if your fullbacks are good on the ball, can time when to step into midfield, etc but first and foremost your fullbacks need to be able to defend .

You have to get that balance right.

Sometimes all you need to do is get the basics right.

A Nigel Winterburn and Lee Dixon wouldn’t be as skilful on the ball or know when to change positions.

They equally don’t concede that Liverpool equaliser or Saints second.

England have the same issue with Arnold.

Are his attacking qualities worth his defensive liabilities?

Southgate feels the juice is not worth the squeeze.

Before Arteta worries about which of his defenders can alter positions off the ball, first let’s make sure they can defend first!


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Tags defence tactics


  1. I think yesterday’s tinkering proved one thing for sure; there was no belief whatsoever that 1st place was attainable and that there was no reason to push City all the way. To me it’s that mentality that creates problems in the focus and performance of the squad. As much as MA wanted to experiment, it was just another backfire in the face. Dan, you are spot on, sir!

    1. I completely agree.as I said earlier,MA had a team’s meeting few days ago, amongst others things he told the players that no matter what,the season has been a success.why would you assess the season when there are still games left to play?what message did it send to the players?our players/MA expected Everton to upset City, when it didn’t happen,they somehow came to terms with the title race being over.

  2. He might as well have played the youngster Walters at right back partley never looked comfortable there and had little impact on the game tierney must have been gutted to be on bench think it shows he does not fit into the system Arteta wants to play and can definitely see him being one of quite a few that are sold in the summer!

  3. Arteta’s inverted-LB tactic made us lead EPL for many weeks. Guardiola also didn’t use any fullback to make Man City win EPL this season

    After losing Zinchenko, maybe Arteta thought Tierney didn’t meet his requirements for the inverted-LB role. Hence Partey in the inverted-RB position

    It was a logical decision, because of Partey’s abilities to dribble and pass in tight spaces. The main problem was Jesus couldn’t hold and win the ball in the final-third, which severely limited his teammates’ options

    1. Jesus hasn’t been the same since his return. I feel for him because he is trying. Unfortunately, he’s not the answer anyway to our lack of goals. We need a top shelf striker who can keep defenses busy and occupied! Preferably tall and strong!!

    2. @goi
      That “inverted LB tactic” also saw us shift many goals against, due to the fact that Zinchenko cannot defend. More than likely the reason Pep saw him as surplus. Partey might be a decent dribbler and passer, but yesterday he looked out of place and had zero link up with Saka.
      Arteta needs to stop trying to be Pep jr and develop his own tactics, as well a team management skills. Once again, we were playing one match a week for a good chunk of the season and he still failed to capitalise on it.

      1. Yet we clinched the second place because of that tactic and Zinchenko. We never achieved that with our previous tactics and a conventional LB like Tierney

        We started to lose our position after our hold-up play dwindled. Arteta was obviously influenced by Wenger’s and Guardiola’s football styles, so we could expect the same 3-2-4-1 formation next season with some tweaks

        1. @goi
          We clinched 2nd due to the fact that we only had one match a week for a good chunk of the season, while our rivals were fighting on multiple fronts. Had that tactic been the deciding factor as you claim, then we’d be lifting the cup and not City. Jus sayin…

          1. We played more games in the first part of this season last year, because we participated in four competitions. Our victories in that period made us lead EPL

      2. Our defence was the best in the league before the world cup. The inverted fullbacks system was working. It was only after the World Cup that we started shipping goals.
        Did something change internally, or did teams adapt to our way of playing? I think that’s the big question, and it’s not easy to answer because the world cup was a big interference that could easily have affected our players (also gave opposition managers time to think about it!).

        1. @Davi
          Managers copped on and targeted out weak side. It was obvious that Zinny was the weakest link there..,Jus sayin

          1. You’re probably right, but the best answer might have been something other than simply playing KT – that’s predictable and might not have improved things.
            In any case, arteta should have made some kind of change – whether bringing in KT or something else. I don’t know why he didn’t.

      1. Not going to challenge what you have said but that is two games out of how many poor ones and ineffective ones.

  4. I agree with Dan on this one. Sometimes managers do overthink and overload players with specific instructions for specific scenarios but it then inhibits the player to just play naturally. Football is a simple game but becomes complicated with too much rigidity. I feel sorry for Tierney and unless Arteta is willing to play him in his natural position I hope he leaves for a club where he can thrive.

  5. I agree with Dan on his main argument regarding MA’s tinkering.
    I took issue with another poster in another article regarding our defence and the claim that it was full of top players and one w/c player and it was so much better than the Wenger days – goals against proves that claim false.

    Using Zinchenko at left back, instead of the proven defender Tierney was wrong and why he started Xhaka there yesterday is a mystery.
    White being switched to CB and switching Partey, who has been way off form, was yet another weird decision, especially as it interrupted the White /Saka combination.

    We were all over the place and Forest seized their opportunity with both hands.

    Perhaps MA has been trying this system out in training who knows?
    But if one believes we have “top defenders and one w/c defender” why experiment?

    It would have been more logical to give Nelson and Nketiah time to show what they can do, rather than mess around with the defence?

    1. Agree on the myth that Wenger never had good defenders,such a load of tosh .
      Out of all our defenders only Saliba would I put up there with the best we have had in the last 20 seasons ,also the only cup Arteta won was with the defenders(players ) he inherited strange that .

      1. Name ONE undoubted top clas CB, SALIBA LEVEL, that AW brought in after CAMPBELL left, a full decade before AW left too. Please dont insult my intelligence by suggesting the merely good but not great Koscielny.

        BTW, as you probably knew, I was the one KEN referred to about rotten defences in Wengers time.

        He chose not to mention that I spoke of CB ‘s, not ALL other defenders. I am not remotely surprised though, as he always cherry picks, rather than use full posts, in context. Just his way.

        In fact, other than the inherited Graham top level CB’s, AW brought none at all in, except CAMPBELL, who were REAL TOP level. And that in 22 years too.

      2. Dan, I will always be grateful for the great years AW gave us, but without wishing to diminish his achievements it has to be said that he inherited Stroller’s (George Graham’s) defensive unit. Now admittedly Adams, Dixon, Winterburn, Bould lost a bit of form just prior to AW taking over (probably due to the uncertain times we were going through) but as soon as he came THE UNIT perked up and went back into hyper-mode. I’m not sure AW could have put such a unit together as Tony Adams was a one off who Graham and his coaching team nurtured. Incidentally wasn’t it great to see King Tony yesterday. He looked like he was fit enough to still be playing. The greatest ever Gunner imo.

        1. EvGunner, Your not sure if Arsene could have put together such a unit?!!

          Lauren, Toure, Campbell and Cole who, funnily enough, were the Invincible back four, with Lehman, another of his signings, completing the unit.

          Jon Fox, you stated that we had a defence of top players, with one being world class, who were better than any defence in Wenger’s years after Sol – I showed you the goals against from the Invincibles up and until AW left and then MA’s “top players”, defence for his full three seasons in charge, which proved your claim incorrect.

          YOU CLEARLY stated defence and, as a person who state that you only believes in the truth, I find your denial quite interesting.
          Just to remind you, Wenger’s defence kept goals against under the 40 mark in 9 of the 14 seasons you claim we had no defence – to date, this season, we have let in 43 – let’s see you try and wriggle out of that one!!

          1. Ken, let me explain. The four you mention were indeed a very good partnership, but they were only able to win ONE league title together.
            “THE UNIT” I refer to played together for longer and were more successful. Are you telling me you feel Lauren and Toure were better than their counterparts in “THE UNIT” ? If so then fair enough.
            Ashley Cole was the best full back in the PL for years, but AW couldn’t keep him at Arsenal. You will likely know the reason for that, better than I.
            There is no argument regarding Sol as he could walk into any team. By the way he was already a massive talent before AW brought him to us.
            Finally, as a historian of the club, you will have an opinion about how Wenger compares with Herbert Chapman. I’d be interested to have your thoughts on that.

          2. KEN I replied at the time and said you once againuse only”stage one thinking”> Goals against are not thr be al ands end all When teas play a more atacking creative style ,it is normal to concede more , acroos a aseason Until SALIBAS UNTIMELY INJURY, our defence was level with City and only behind Newcastles in goals conceded

            But you again ignore the fact we have a long way to go in depth till we can compete, on a level playing field, with City. They had many years to buld thir squad AND the greatest manager in modern history too.

            1. But Jon, you are always going on about defenders having to defend. dedebd what?… their goal of course!!!

              You keep making statements that, if you checked before making them, are completely wrong.

              We do NOT have a better defence this season than any of Wenger’s years sincerely 2003 / 4 because they have let in more goals and, using your own interpretation of a defender, they have not defended as well.

              I don’t understand why you can’t understand that simple, logical fact.
              It has nothing to do with playing attacking football – something you criticised Wenger’s teams for doing anyway!!
              Suggest you check goals FOR during the same periods Jon, that might also surprise you.

              Finally, even if we do have one w/c defender, if you let in more goals than your opponents, it really doesn’t matter.

              EvGunner, I take your point regarding a “unit” but it wasn’t Wenger who broke up that Invincible defence, it was the board who refused to pay Cole the money.
              Chapman? No idea how he would have performed in the game today, but he certainly ranks as one of the greatest managers.

              1. Ken, Unsurprisingly we will NOT find any agreement on this , so I am moving on, rather than keep debating a subject pointlessly.

                You have your opinion, I have mine.
                It is allowed you know as we live in a “relatively” free speech country, thank God!

        2. He didn’t inherit Ashly Cole , Lauren , Sol Campbell or Toure who went a whole season unbeaten
          I think if you go a season unbeaten , your defence is quite good ?

          1. I think the root of the argument here which the disagreeing party feels is that kolo toure and lauren as individual defenders, are not world class players. They would never be mentioned in the same breath as puyol, maldini, vidic.

            However, as a defensive unit, the invincible defenders are just impeccable.

  6. I originally said would need to spend up to 250 on 4 or 5 top quality players having watched the way the team have crumbled I have to say my opinion has changed and say the figure is 300 mill on 6 top signings it’s highly unlikely this is gona happen but that’s what’s required to challenge for prem league and make us very competitive in the champions league it’s prob more of a dream then reality but it’s good to dream sometimes!

  7. As far as i am concerned, defenders defend and attackers attack. This inverted, false BS is just another thing for opposition coaches to exploit. Our defending at times is woeful and we look wide open. NOT A FAN.

  8. I think it’s a question of horses for courses. Xhaka can’t play that role – we’ve seen it tried before – and partey hadn’t done it. Tierney perhaps should have come in, but if he can’t play the inverted role well, then the system needed to adapt.
    I think arteta found/developed a way of playing that was highly effective for most of the season, however, he hasn’t been flexible and has seemingly clinged onto it in the face of bad results (something I think wenger used to do). You can contrast this with guardiola – he changed things when they weren’t working and got the results he wanted in the end.
    It’s difficult to come up with effective tactics partway through the season, undoubtedly, but it’s also difficult to know when the change is necessary. It’s hard to know if a few bad games is a blip, or if some players are off form, or if your system has simply been found out and you need to adapt.

    1. No way on earth should Xhaka EVER start at LB over Tierney. Stupid decision and a worrying decision.

      1. Kiwior played left back yesterday. And hardly got a pass in the first half. In the second half, he got some passes and made some forward passes and even a cross or two. All stuff KT does well. And then at 60 min (traditional Wenger sub time!) Arteta brought KT on and the left side had a bit more go about it.

        1. It looked at times like 5 at the back with xhaka starting as an inverted LB. Whatever, it was a mess.

          1. For Reggie
            I have to give Arteta some credit for trying to experiment on tactics whilst being a one trick pony for majority of the season. At least he is trying to develop a plan B.
            Only problem I have is why does he do it with his favourites only?
            This means he has no faith with the rest of his squad. I cannot see ESR, Nelson or Tierney staying. The same goes for Balogan. This means the home grown quota further reduces and we have to pay extra to fill the home-grown quota.

  9. Yesterday was a complete fiasco, arteta is over complicating things. Defenders must firstly defend, it was our defence that lost the title

  10. Arteta tried a system that didn’t work yesterday. The system is similar to the one we play with Zinchenko. However, it depends on the nominal right back being able to play a similar role effectively.
    The problem with the “defenders defend” approach that so many on this site seem to prefer is that they are relatively easy to counter. There is also no guarantee that such a set up would have served us any better. KT

  11. Football tactics evolve and move on through the ages.
    But ONE thing that does not change is that those who play as defenders primarily, NEED to be able to DEFEND and PROPERLY TOO.

    Zinny, just like Bellerin too, has not a clue how to and therefore he should play,IF he plays anywhere, in midfield.

    It wil be a tragedy to lose Tierney, one of our best defensive and attacking full backs for ages.

    But it seems to be inevitable . I would want out too, were I HIM AND BEING MISTREATED THE WAY HE HAS BEEN.

    1. Jon
      I thought Arteta was wrong in not starting Tierney and I take it like he has one foot out the door. If I were Tierney I would move on. Doesn’t seem to be valued as a manager, minimizes Tierney’s defense.

      Worst and most damning of all is Arteta isn’t allowing him to compete for the LB spot.

      Zinchenko has been horrid defensively since Anfield and directly to blame for several goals. Is his contribution in possession worth his liability as a defender?

      I would say not. Pep felt the same and let him go. Lastly, neither him nor Jesus showed an ounce of leadership in our tough patch to end the season. Disappointing I must say, and felt Jesus was shocking last match looking like Richarlison spending time whining and flopping.

      1. I cannot possibly argue Durand. Odd goings on for sure !
        I think we can take it as read now that Tierneys going, almost certainly to NEWCASTLE . Groan!

        1. I love Tierney, but removing him from first choice LB was the correct move. His ability and attitude cannot be questioned, but it’s his injury record as to where we need to sell.

          I also Tomiyasu, but we need to sell as well for the same reason.

  12. M.A. need to be himself instead of trying to be like Pep. He also needs to be flexible times in his decision-making. He is responsible for losing the league for his error and his persistence in doing the same things even when it’s not working. But I believe he’s still growing and will grow together with the young team

  13. With catching Man City seemed impossible and Newcastle never catching Arsenal, I think Arteta had the right to experiment something different. Arsenal’s staple this season was total control with possession of positions. Since Zinchenko and Saliba injured, the whole team went haywire. Testing out Partey at inverted right back was timely, as it was a nothing-to-play-for game and against a fierce EPL fighting team. It worked because we had 80% possession and Forest rarely posed danger. It’s apparent that we need more dynamic creative players and a giant forward to neutralise these kind of 11 man defence. I urge distraught fans to think long term instead of polishing their own ego all the time.

  14. If you can’t experiment when there’s nothing to play for, with your league position guaranteed, when can you?

    Arteta did, he got it badly wrong, and hopefully we don’t see that set-up again.

    1. @ Jen
      I agree with you with experimenting. But why does he use his favourites whilst experimenting?
      He should shuffle the pack.

  15. It’s a bit worrying that except for Keiran Gibbs huh huh hummm, we haven’t produced one good home grown defender since the immaculate Ashley Cole. Is it a deliberate scouting policy to only focus mainly on developing attackers or is it just poor scouting?

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