Nuno Tavares: Chaos in the midst of serenity
Updated: Apr 28
By Alfie Cairns Culshaw (Chief Editor)
On 6th December 2008, Emmanuel Eboue endured one of the most disastrous cameo performances seen in modern football. The Ivorian was introduced in the 32nd minute after Samir Nasri sustained an injury, and was taken off in the 90th minute after producing an out of sorts display compiled of misplaced passes, directionless dribbling and defensive errors. The substitution was met with a huge cheer and subsequent booing for the player ensued.
The timing of the change only added insult to injury, being removed so late on in the game essentially rendering it a futile substitution, and instead a symbolic one. Arsene Wenger felt Eboue had performed so poorly that he couldn't rely on him in the final few minutes to help the team see out a narrow lead. It rubbed salt in the wounds of a broken player.
The then 25-year-old Eboue never really recovered from this. His raw physical attributes and offensive flair were never truly ignited as his shaky defensive tendencies plagued what was a volatile spell in North London. Better coaching and man-management may have seen him become at least an adept back-up right-back. Instead, he wasn't deemed good enough to even fulfil this squad role and was shipped to Turkey in 2011.
On Saturday afternoon at the Emirates, memories of this traumatic night for Eboue resurfaced. Nuno Tavares produced a display not too dissimilar to his right-sided counterpart. Despite opening the scoring in the 2nd minute after astutely following up David De Gea's palm out from a Bukayo Saka shot, this was a performance mirroring Eboue's 14 years prior. A few flashes of his raw attacking talent, but ultimately a lack of conviction in some of his driving runs up the pitch and inside, as well as several moments of defensive lapses.
However, the one crucial difference between the pair of defenders is their age. At 25, Eboue was entering what was supposed to be the prime years of his career. He had developed into what he was going to be as a player and coaching deficiencies in his game out of him was going to be a difficult task. At just 22, and having managed just over 3,000 total minutes in senior football, Tavares is far from what he will ultimately end up as. He has an abundance of time to be moulded and toned, crafted and constructed, into whatever Mikel Arteta requires from him. Nuno doesn't have to suffer the same fate as Eboue.
The positive thing is, there is so much to his game that is exciting and really quite good. On a very simple note, he represents "an element of chaos in the midst of serenity"- a quote taken from notorious twitter user @nonewthing. Despite the serial waffler's relentless attempts at replicating William Shakespeare, as well as his persistent worshipping of Arteta as the second coming of Jesus Christ, I felt this was quite a fitting depiction of Tavares. The Spanish manager typically demands highly structural football that is controlled and based on coherent and stringent planning. Nuno represents an escape from this control, with his chaotic nature adding an element of manic unpredictability to a usually serene side.
On a more technical note, there are several attributes to his game that make him someone worth investing time into. Most vividly, his raw physical profile has the potential to see him develop into something quite special. His pace allows him to be a threat in progressing the team up the pitch with his aggressive forward bursts, while it also enables him to make impressive recovery runs defensively. Tavares ranks in the 90th percentile for progressive carries per 90, while also ranking in the 92nd percentile for dribbles completed per 90.
Despite possessing this lightning sprint speed, he's also got immense upper body strength, which could see him dominate 50/50 duels if he learns to tone this attribute. Of players with more than ten 90's this season for Arsenal, only Saka, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Gabriel Martinelli take more shots than the Portuguese full-back per game. Only the same three players plus Alex Lacazette manage more touches in the opposition box per 90 than Tavares. As an attacking outlet, he is a real threat and a whole lot of fun.
It's the defensive side of his game that needs intense work. On quite a few occasions this season, lapses in concentration and poor positional play have resulted in the concession of goals. The loose square ball straight to Jota at Anfield springs to mind, but more recently at Palace and Chelsea he has failed to track runners in behind or across him. Making sure he knows how to mark wingers, how to follow their dynamic movement and then prevent them from exploiting potential space behind him is a crucial step in progressing as a defender. When a winger runs at him one one he's rarely beaten, but it's the off the ball movement he really struggles to deal with. Once he's improved this individual area of his game, it's about fitting into the structure of the team defensively.
Unlike Wenger in 2008, Arteta chose to stick by his on the ropes full-back, keeping Tavares on the pitch for the duration of the game. The former Benfica man had had a very rough 20 or so minutes at the start of the second half, so making that change would've been a reasonable and conservative move in a match of such magnitude. However, Arteta persisted with him and this could well pay dividends. The coach sacrificed potential solidity in the moment for the greater good of the player in the long-term.
As aforementioned, Eboue was never properly rehabilitated after this scarring moment. Although he enjoyed the occasional positive outing, he didn't develop into the player Wenger had believed he could become when signing him. His confidence was already fragile, and this substitution dismantled it. Conversely, Tavares leaves this United game in a good state, having scored in a big win and seen through a very difficult period. He'll no doubt be forced to reflect on elements of the performance, but it can be done without the harrowing lingering feeling of dejection after an embarrassing substitution.
It can surely only be onwards and upwards for our lovably chaotic and heart-attack inducing full-back.