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The Tavares and Tierney Dilemma - Who Bench Warms?

By Rob Worthington (Deputy Editor)

When Arsenal signed a relatively unknown left-back from Portugal in July, his arrival was met with intrigue, for sure, but also concern. Benfica fans appeared pleased to see the back of Nuno Tavares, a player who operated as understudy to Álex Grimaldo, and a player who was also reportedly a bad dressing room influence.

Yet, to the pleasant surprise of many in north London, Tavares has been a revelation for Arsenal thus far. For extended periods of last season, Mikel Arteta was searching for an answer to the left-back conundrum which presented itself whenever Kieran Tierney was unavailable. Nonetheless, this season, Tavares has slotted in seamlessly when his Scottish counterpart has been unfit.

Arteta has thus stumbled upon a situation he wouldn’t have foresaw developing in the left-back area. Tavares was only supposed to be an apt deputy to Tierney. But can he really be dropped now? Not only is the more experienced Tierney’s fitness a constant cause for concern, but when the former Celtic man has been available for selection this campaign, his form has been weaker than Tavares’.

Thus a selection dilemma presents itself to the Arsenal manager. In just under 2 weeks, his side face Liverpool at Anfield in what will be a huge test. Does Arteta opt to start the more reliable Tierney, or the raw, exciting and importantly, in-form Tavares?

At face value, the answer appears simple. Arteta should pick the player he thinks is going to play better. And all logical arguments would suggest that player to be Tavares. Tierney hasn’t featured for Arsenal for a couple of weeks, last starting against Crystal Palace in a chaotic 2-2 draw at the Emirates, whereas Tavares has started and completed the full 90 minutes in Arsenal’s last 3 PL games, all victories.

Match fitness is therefore on Tavares’ side. Surely that’s what you prioritise against a cut-throat, relentless side like Liverpool? You want a player who can physically handle the high intensity approach of Liverpool’s attack. Tavares’ superior athleticism also counts in his favour in this regard.

But when it comes to competing against Klopp's Liverpool, hard factors can’t be the only ones to be considered by a manager. Arguably equally important are the soft factors. The experience. The know how. Kieran Tierney is a player who has all of that. On many an occasion Arteta has placed huge trust in the 24-year-old on the big occasion.

Numerous examples spring to mind of Arteta handing notable responsibility to Tierney when it matters. He was given a pivotal role in Arteta 3-4-3’s in the build-up to Arsenal’s 2020 FA Cup win and in what felt like a crucial victory against Spurs in last season’s home north London Derby, huge attacking onus was placed on Tierney down the left. He’s a man to be trusted.

Can the same be said of Tavares as of yet? Granted, despite his youth and inexperience, he’s been thrown in at the deep end and trusted to start important Premier League fixtures. Nonetheless, he hasn’t started against a big six side yet, and starting the Portuguese youngster against such sides in his first season at Arsenal likely wasn’t envisioned when he was brought into the club.

Tierney is, as hinted at the top of this piece, the reliable option here. He’s the one who will carry out the job Mikel Arteta will ask of him to a T. The problem is, out of form and likely lacking sharpness, Tierney won’t be able to go above and beyond what he’s required to do, and that’s what is often needed in the difficult moments of the difficult games.

And that is why Arteta might be inclined to stick with Tavares against Liverpool. When trusted thus far, Tavares hasn’t let his manager down, and to everyone’s delight, he’s exceeding expectations every time he steps on the pitch. On the front foot, Tavares’ unpredictability and aggressiveness has been refreshing. At the back, despite many a fan harbouring initial concern, he is yet to have been made to look out of place in Arteta’s current rock of a back four.

Tavares doesn’t deserve to lose his place against Liverpool. If he does, it’ll be due to those aforementioned soft factors. As of this moment in time, it is Kieran Tierney attempting to dislodge Tavares from his starting birth, and it would appear the Scot has a fight on his hands to do just that.

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