The Martinelli-Tierney bromance must be protected at all costs
By Mac Johnson (Senior Writer)
The date is the third of October, of the year 2019. Arsenal have just compounded the misery of a hapless Standard Liège team, with a delicately weighted Gabriel Martinelli pass to loanee Dani Ceballos sealing a comprehensive 4-0 win for the Arsenal. The defining goal of the day, though, will go to the Brazilian, for his pristine flicked header off a tantalizing Tierney cross.
I could have written this article then, when it all seemed so hopeful. Tierney and Martinelli had just begun to display the foundations of a potentially sensational connection, having both signed for the club that summer, in August and July respectively. Unfortunately, the list of Christmas fixtures, a series of managerial changes, and some ugly injuries took their toll. It's taken nearly two years, but we finally have the opportunity to see them combine again.
Martinelli has been a force of nature in his own right of late, earning goal contributions with impunity. With four goals and 2 assists to his name this season, all tallied in the last month, his whirlwind of form has rendered him nearly undroppable for Mikel Arteta of late; long may it continue. But it's his linkup with Tierney that has caught my eye in relation to the long-term benefits of our squad.
It's a different sort of combination, though. Rather than Martinelli operating centrally as the beneficiary of Tierney's whipped balls into the 18-yard box, he has pivoted to the left flank in Arsenal's modified 4-2-4, in a chalk-on-your-boots wide role that allows Tierney the run of the left touchline, and grants him the ability to come inside or overlap, depending on the situation at hand.
When paired with Smith Rowe on the left flank, Tierney's attacking options are rather etched into stone. Because our No. 10 tends to occupy the half-space, Tierney in turn tends to play nearly off the left-wing, focusing less on defending and more on stretching the wide spaces. With Martinelli ahead of him, though, his role is more flexible, and more free. Lying slightly deeper, his passing range is brought into full effect, and his increased defensive contributions—two interceptions, one tackle, and eight additional possession regains against Norwich alone last time out—free our midfielders, Granit Xhaka in particular, to go about their creative duties without spreading themselves too thin.
In turn, Tierney's skill in distribution and positional IQ give Martinelli a dual opportunity to attack defences. The Scot is a constant out-ball when Martinelli is double-teamed, which occurs with increasing frequency these days, and his penchant for a dangerous cross helps to isolate the 20-year-old against defenders, allowing his direct, hard-running style to influence matches as a higher degree.
Martinelli has proven his ability to thrive in a number of roles. Whether dropping deep to receive the ball, stretching defenses wide or over the top, or cutting inside onto his favoured right foot, he has proven that he can influence the tide of a game for the better. That freedom, the ability to drift and flow through a game, encompasses much of what makes him special as a player, but also relies on structure created around that position to support and sustain it. Unlike Nuno Tavares, Tierney has the discipline and tactical nous to provide that stability. They get the best out of one another. And that is why they must be protected.
It's not a stretch of the imagination to say they are our two most injury-prone players. Their bromance, so key to Arsenal's form at the moment, could easily be interrupted if either went down with a problem. Given the still-congested fixture list, and the eventual complications to team selection posed by the African Cup of Nations, rest is important throughout the squad, but especially for those players who bring something that cannot otherwise be replaced.
It will not manifest as a shock to many, if any of you, but no matter how good our form may be, I do not believe we have a squad capable of taking down Manchester City on New Years' Day, even if they do travel to the Emirates. If there was ever a match to potentially rotate Martinelli especially, given we have Smith Rowe and Tavares waiting in the wings, it might just be this one. Tavares has proven himself skittish against big opposition, and I don't trust him against Riyad Mahrez particularly, but I think he could make an effective defensively-minded left winger should the need arise.
If this squad is to maintain its current level of success, rotation is a must, especially with COVID absences on the rise across the country. Our star players must be kept healthy and safe, so that they have the opportunity to play the maximum possible, in order to capitalize on the opportunities that present themselves to maintain our top-four bearing. Protect the bromance, at all costs.