Arteta and Arsenal’s inverted full-back: How it works, the pros and the cons
PUBLISHED: 11:01 09 March 2020 | UPDATED: 11:01 09 March 2020
Not for the first time during his short reign as Arsenal boss, Mikel Arteta used an inverted full-back in Saturday’s win over West Ham United. But, how does it work, what’s good about it and how can it have a negative impact? Islington Gazette Arsenal reporter Dan Mountney takes a look.
In the early days of the Arteta era, the Spaniard replaced the injured Hector Bellerin with Ainsley Maitland-Niles at right-back. The Englishman did not play as a natural full-back, instead drifting inside to a midfield role to add further bodies in the middle of the park.
A return to that inverted full-back system was evident at the Emirates on Saturday but with a different twist as Sokratis played on the right of defence to make a back three rather than a midfield trio.
It can certainly be argued that the plan worked with Arsenal securing a 1-0 win and keeping a clean sheet, but it isn't without its drawbacks.
Here's a look at some players who have varied roles in the system and others who are being impacted by it.
It was somewhat of a surprise to see the Greek international named at right-back, but it became clear shortly after kick-off that would not actually be the case as he joined David Luiz and Pablo Mari in making a back three.
Sokratis hardly went forward - which did have a huge impact on one player in particular - as sat back to help his colleagues deal with the aerial threat posed by Michail Antonio and Sebastian Haller.
The Gunners will be far from pleased with the amount of chances they allowed the Hammers to have, and although they stayed solid enough and kept a clean sheet it remains to be seen whether Arteta will use the same players in the same system again.
Pablo Mari and Granit Xhaka
Back in January, Arteta made signing a left-footed central defender a priority and it was clear why as Pablo Mari made a good impression on his Premier League debut.
The Spaniard - signed on loan from Brazilian side Flamengo - played on the left of three-man defence stay solid defensively while showing off an eye-catching range of passing.
When Arteta previously used the inverted full-back system, Granit Xhaka dropped into the position now occupied by Mari but this caused Arsenal big problems as they lost control in midfield and were often overran.
Mari's signing allows Xhaka to stay in midfield, establish better control of the game and create a balance which leaves fewer gaps for opponents to exploit. His importance to the system, even in an orthdox role and position he naturally plays in, cannot be understated.
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While the Spaniard being benched came as a shock to some, the signs have been there for weeks.
Bellerin is still understandably getting back up to speed after his ACL injury, but his want to drive forward and the resurgence of midfielder Dani Ceballos have caused Arsenal problems.
The Gunners may have kept a clean sheet against Newcastle United when Ceballos came back into the side, but the four goals conceded in two games against Everton and Olympiacos can but partly put down to the duo committing further forward and leaving the two central defenders exposed.
While Bellerin should still certainly be first choice right-back, his inability to operate as an inverted full-back will see others afforded opportunities.
The inverted full-back system greatly benefits Bukayo Saka more than anyone else in the team.
The 18-year-old has been asked to play in the unfamiliar left-back role, but he has thrived with three goals and nine assists in 30 games across all competitions this season.
With the right-back tucked in and Saka pushing forward, Arsenal's team may look unbalanced, but the system actually allows them to be more dangerous by creating overloads down the left. The same thing also happened when Sead Kolasinac and Maitland-Niles featured early into Arteta's reign.
Whether the English youngster's future lies at left-back remains to be seen, but he keeps making an impact and his benefitting greatly from Arteta's faith.
Nicolas Pepe and Mesut Ozil
The inverted full-back system isn't perfect though, with two of Arsenal's main attacking threats being hit by it in the win over West Ham.
With Sokratis staying back, Pepe had no support from an overlapping right-back and his determination to cut inside when on the ball meant he was very easy to deal with as his play became too one dimensional.
Ozil did look to provide support with runs into the space behind the Irons left-back, but that meant the German vacated his central position and the Gunners lost their main creative hub in the middle of the pitch.
This is why Arsenal found West Ham so hard to break down up until the introduction of Reiss Nelson on the right, whose more direct running down the outside opened up Ozil centrally.
Arteta is clearly a fan of the inverted full-back system and although it can have benefits it still needs work on the training ground and the correct personnel to fill vital positions.
Whether it be the full-back acting as a third midfielder or defender, expect him to return to the tactic time and time again.