Why Kieran Tierney's comeback from injury is brilliant news for Arteta and Arsenal
By Alex Trad
A £25m signing from Celtic, will Kieran Tierney’s move to the Gunners prove a good piece of recruitment in the future? Before delving into the subject, first let’s recap the early months of Kieran’s injury-stricken time at Arsenal. It's August 2019. After months of speculation, Tierney finally completes his long-anticipated move to North London. Glasgow born and raised, Tierney arrived at the Emirates with high expectations; but with much to prove given his inexperience in the Premier League.
Having sustained a lengthy injury prior to his summer switch, the Scotsman only picked up his first minutes in late September, in a League Cup encounter with Nottingham Forest. No sooner had the 23-year old started featuring for the Gunners than his efforts came to avail, his superb crossing ability producing plenty of high quality chances for Arsenal’s forwards. A collection of inch-perfect whipped deliveries in October saw Tierney upgrade from Europa League and Carabao Cup action to an initial call-up to league game-time, a home outing against Crystal Palace.
One month later, however, an elbow dislocation sustained in Arsenal’s trip to the London Stadium West Ham proved graver than what was at first presumed, ruling the Scotland international out for 3 months at the minimum.
Fast forward six months- the squad is under new management, matches have been suspended for ten weeks, and training sessions have only just resumed under strict government provisos. The delay of all action for such lengthy spells has only aided Tierney in his recovery process. Today he appears well-rested and in top physical shape, a stark contrast to his pre-lockdown self.
So, how may his return positively impact the squad?
As our Chief Editor Alfie Culshaw alluded to in March, Kieran produces high-quality chances on a consistent level. In fact, the Scotsman managed a respectable 0.22 xA/90 in the Europa League, a competition in which he also collected two brilliant assists prior to his injury. What is more, he creates, on average, 2.4 chances/90 across all competitions for the Gunners, well above any of his respective teammates.
The figures above certainly bode well for Arteta should he elect to deploy Tierney upon the league’s approaching return. Whilst games under Unai Emery bore a great resemblance to end-to-end tennis matches, Arteta has installed a stricter tactical structure that, unfortunately has limited our attacking potency. Under the old regime, games were contested at a high tempo with scores of chances created and wasted going forward, while our backline largely struggled to withstand opposition pressure, shipping countless avoidable goals in the process. Now, though, this balance has nearly been struck.
Which makes the case for Tierney to start all the more convincing: appending varied creative outlets beyond those provided by Mesut Ozil and Nicolas Pepe throughout the pitch will no doubt herald improved attacking performances. If Tierney manages to strike this exact balance between defensive stability and creativity on the by-line, forwards such as Alex Lacazette and, to a certain extent, Pepe, could alas receive the service they have been sorely lacking for the past several months.
And although little of his defensive side showed throughout his displays- given the few matchday inclusions he enjoyed in the Premier League- all signs point to a full-back possessing a disciplined and effective tackling style, as exhibited in the 23-year old’s displays against Crystal Palace and Wolves during the dying embers of Unai Emery’s disastrous reign.
Tierney’s comeback equally paves the way for Bukayo Saka’s return to his preferred left wing role, having acted as an understudy to the former Celtic man in his absence. The two could potentially forge a partnership on the left flank in the weeks to come, though Martinelli appears the more likely of the two to do so. Whilst Saka, evident in his lengthy and successful stint at left back, offers defensively on top of his contributions up front, Martinelli acts more as an inside forward. The latter would perform better in a system accommodating one defensive and one attacking-minded player on each flank, which, in theory, makes Gabi better suited for a partnership alongside the Scotsman. In addition, Gabi and Kieran combined for three goals in as many matches at the end of 2019. Rekindling their connection could prove an effective tool for Mikel Arteta in his tactical endeavours.
While we remain on the topic of what tools Arteta will use to bring out the best in Tierney, let’s return to his time under Pep Guardiola’s guidance as assistant gaffer at Manchester City. It’s widely known that Pep revolutionised the role of full-backs in the little time he has enjoyed at the Etihad Stadium so far. The 2-time Champions League medalist has vastly increased the creative responsibility of full-backs in converting them into what many refer to as “inverted full-backs.” These drift into central midfield whilst the other remains deep in his own half. From what we’ve seen to date, City have rarely observed an unbalanced system as a result of this; and Arteta played an instrumental role in ensuring this equilibrium.
Yet, will he attempt to implement this in the way he wants this Arsenal side to perform? My instinct says yes. If you by chance forgot- as I did, given all that’s occurred since- Ainsley Maitland-Niles was deployed in this manner in the earliest stages of Arteta’s tenure, before being relegated to the reserves due to his lack of professionalism off the pitch. And although Kieran Tierney and Maitland-Niles are hardly of the same fullback mould, Bellerin’s return to the first-team should pave the way for Arteta to give the green light on this complex, yet mightily effective (with the right quality on display) player-personalised instruction.
In acknowledgement of their astute chance-creating play, Mikel can set up Kieran Tierney and Hector Bellerin in this most unorthodox of tactical systems. Coincidentally, the Gunners’ first outing after the league’s lengthy hiatus will be against- you guessed it- Manchester City! In my eyes, the Cityzens are the perfect opponents to trial this relatively-new style of play against; my hopes could tell completely false, however, so don't take my word for it.
What is more, the Spanish tactician has expressed his admiration of the Scottish left-back in the past. During an interview with Ian Wright last month, Arteta insisted: “I’m really looking forward to working with him and giving him the opportunity to play. His attitude, his commitment, his willingness, it’s incredible,” Mikel added. “I think he’s going to bring something special to us. [The injury] has been a shame, but it’s part of his development. During your career, you go through these moments.”
It’s commonly accepted that Kieran Tierney will one day become a key cog in Mikel Arteta’s system. His young age and high ceiling make for a brilliant prospect with various parts of his game to work on. Basing my knowledge off of his time in the North West, the Spaniard and his team of coaches will no doubt elevate the 23-year old to the height of his potential in the years to come. What matters most now, though, is assuring his comfortable return to the squad and, eventually ensuring that his phenomenal work in training translates into excellent displays where and when it matters most.
On a final note, today is Kieran Tierney's birthday (upon writing). Although let's be honest; that was certainly not my initial intention...