Should Arsenal fans be worried about Kieran Tierney?
Updated: Mar 12
By Rob Worthington (Deputy Editor)
Kieran Tierney - model professional, one of the best crossers of a football in Europe, and a cult hero among Arsenal fans. But will he be occupying the club’s first choice left-back role beyond the foreseeable future?
This is a question regular watchers of the Scot have finally begun to ask themselves after a run of below par form from the full-back. While he hasn’t exactly been calamitous, some of the deficiencies in his profile have been more visible this campaign, and he’s failed to hit the heights of his best 20/21 season form.
This isn’t a harsh assessment; it is backed up by statistics. Offensively, he has been significantly worse this season than last. Again, not catastrophically bad, but beneath the high standards fans have grown to expect from Arsenal’s no. 3.
This is elicited in the Scotland international’s creativity. When available in 19/20, he was a productive creative threat for Arsenal, averaging 0.16 expected assists/90. Impressive return, just shy of compatriot Andrew Robertson’s 0.18 xA/90 for Liverpool last season. This season, contrastingly, his xA/90 stands at 0.09. Tierney has been almost half as creative as he was last season.
Elsewhere, his key passes (passes which lead to shots) are down to 1.09/90 from 1.29, and his passes are less progressive, down from 3.84 progressive passes/90 to 3.28. However, other areas have improved. He now plays more passes into the final third than he has done to date in an Arsenal shirt, and his crosses are more accurate. And there is an explanation for why he’s profiling differently statistically this season.
Tierney’s position has changed. As my fellow Deputy Editor, Mac Johnson, regularly alludes to, Tierney operated ‘left’ for Arsenal before manager Mikel Arteta’s recent tactical switch. Not left-back, left-midfield, or left-wing - just ‘left.’ He was solely responsible for Arsenal’s width on that flank, with the offensive left-player usually found in the half-space.
This has changed since the removal of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang from the Arsenal team. Since then, Mikel Arteta has tweaked his side tactically, deploying a more conventional 4-3-3. Tierney no longer plays ‘left’ for Arsenal, he’s a proper left-back again, also tasked with some more intricate Guardiola-esque left-back instruction.
Sometimes, this involves tucking in and allowing players stationed further up the field to run the show on the left flank. Granit Xhaka is now deployed in a more offensive role taking up a higher position on the pitch, and he is the player who often combines with Arteta’s left-winger. The primary task is to supply this forward, whether it be Smith Rowe or Martinelli - not Kieran Tierney.
This transition was always going to challenge Tierney. He does not boast the natural technical quality of many of his teammates. When compared to Manchester City left-back Joao Cancelo, the stylistic contrast is vivid. Tierney isn’t the most comfortable in tight situations, with a tendency to hoof the ball long, and his own preference is to overlap rather than invert.
Does this pose a long-term problem to him and his Arsenal future? I think it’d be naive to say no. Mikel Arteta is looking to construct a truly elite footballing system, and for that you need footballers of elite technical quality across the pitch. As has been seen in recent weeks with the likes of Gabriel, Xhaka, Lacazette, perhaps Martinelli, and Tierney himself, those who lag behind from time to time do stick out.
That said, other than Xhaka and Lacazette, these are players who are viewed as long-term occupants of the roles in which they fill. Martinelli will likely end up centrally rather than wide, but all signs point towards the Brazilian becoming a mainstay for Arsenal for years to come. Gabriel is a young centre-back who will only grow more accustomed to Arteta’s system. And Kieran Tierney has been handed the captain’s armband on numerous occasions this season, suggesting Mikel Arteta sees the Scot staying at Arsenal for a lengthy period.
It is easy to understand why Arteta feels this way despite some of Tierney’s limitations. Tierney’s profile boasts some of the best wide delivery in world football, evidenced by his brilliant low cross from deep to Bukayo Saka on New Years’ Day which unlocked a sturdy Manchester City defence. The former Celtic man is also dependable defensively, not to the extent of opposing full-back Takehiro Tomiyasu, but of a notably high standard when compared to other Premier League left-backs. Tierney is a high-quality left-back.
Furthermore, the left-back market is a complicated one. The best left-back in the world right now, the aforementioned Joao Cancelo, is a right-back. Truly elite left-backs are hard to come by. Nuno Tavares offers an intriguing alternative to Tierney with his superior technical quality, but question marks over his defensive solidity and temperament mean he’ll carry on playing second fiddle to Tierney for a little while yet.
For the time being, Arsenal are right to carry on trusting Tierney. He could yet master the role Mikel Arteta is currently tasking him with. Additionally, the pros within his current game certainly outweigh the cons. For now, and likely for some time yet, he’ll remain Arsenal’s first choice left-back.
Nevertheless, if the deficiencies within Tierney’s game continue to hinder his ability to perform to his highest potential in the current left-back role at Arsenal, Arteta shouldn’t be afraid of change. Just as it should across the field of play, if the opportunity arises to upgrade, such an opportunity shouldn’t be turned down.
I for one believe Tierney will eventually thrive as a more conventional left-back for Arsenal. He is known to be a top-class trainer at Arsenal, and he’ll certainly be doing all he can to overcome the current difficulties he’s facing in Arteta’s system.
However, Arsenal fans shouldn’t fear the idea that Tierney might not be the club’s future at left-back. For now he is fine, he will likely become more than fine once again, but Tierney’s level of performance does need to improve if he is to reclaim his spot as an untouchable in Arsenal’s starting XI.