Kieran Tierney’s first season in English Football was undoubtedly a tough one, arriving in North London with a stubborn groin injury which kept him out of action for several weeks, highlighting the nature of his character to work hard and finally gain full fitness which certainly showed in his performances. However, another bad stroke of luck fell the Scotsman’s way when he suffered a gruesome shoulder injury against West Ham in December, meaning he was only able to return to the first team fold after the coronavirus lockdown.
Despite the setbacks, the 23-year old’s abundance of quality was clear to see, proving this in the latter stages of last season when he was eventually able to get a decent run of games under his belt. His ability to seamlessly slot in at the left-centre back, left-wing back or left back role in either a back three or four has definitely increased his importance to Arteta’s system, with his level of consistency having a major impact on how well the team seems to perform.
Unfortunately, Tierney had to be withdrawn from the starting eleven against West Ham, due to suffering from a slight discomfort in his hip over the last week in training. His absence really showed in this fixture, as Arsenal struggled to put together their usual slick patterns of play without the Scotsman’s progressive passing from deep, while also looking far from as comfortable defending compared to recent weeks. However, much to the delight of all Arsenal fans, Arteta downplayed the decision as precautionary – ending any speculation that he could be on the sidelines for another extended period of time.
Was Tierney’s absence why Arsenal struggled against West Ham?
After last weeks rout of Fulham, it came as no surprise to see Arteta lineup with his adaptable 3-4-3 formation with Sead Kolasinac manned with the task of replicating the role Kieran Tierney plays. Not every defender has the vast skill-set in which our first choice left-back has, therefore when another player has to fill-in it can have a detrimental effect on the rest of the team.
As you can from the picture below, in possession we tweak our formation to temporarily become a back four with Kolasinac becoming the left-back, allowing Saka to come inside and play narrowly in between the lines. As a result, we were still able to provide width to our attacks through Kolasinac while creating an overload down the left-hand side with Saka and Aubameyang also occupying positions down that flank. Usually, this tactic is very effective against teams that want to press us high, leaving us with spaces to exploit when we win possession back and counter quickly, however in this game West Ham executed an impressively disciplined game-plan which restricted the areas our left side had to work in. The away sides 5-4-1 formation was able to provide efficient cover down both sides of the pitch, in order to stop Arsenal’s usual threat down the wings while also providing a solution to our forward players picking the ball up and driving at their defence due to them being so compact. Consequently, the Hammers proved to be awkward opponents on the night, seemingly having an answer for anything the Gunners threw at them.
When Tierney is playing at LCB his wide range of passes help the team to build attacks from deep, as he likes to play passes either into one of the midfielders for them to switch it out to the other side or over the top of the opposition defence for one of the attackers to run onto – much like the one which won us the penalty in the FA Cup Final. Without this vital progression from deep, it makes our attacks very slow and predictable as when teams sit back they can move across in formation depending on what side the ball is, shutting down spaces while also eradicating the threat we pose in behind with the pace of Aubameyang and Pepe when he was on. Arteta’s side are screaming out for a midfielder who can drive the team up the pitch, whether it’s from tireless running or slick technical ability to breeze past opposition players, to open up spaces and draw team who play with these type of tactics onto them. Another attribute which is desperately needed is creativity, as we are unable to rely on a player on a consistent basis to provide us with passes that can unlock an organised defence, with this game adding to the ever growing list of examples of when we have needed someone with this particular skill-set.
Not only this, but during certain attacking scenarios, which see the LCB become the LB it requires a player with precise crossing to pick out a teammate in the middle, an attribute that Tierney has copious amounts of. This could be a major factor as to why Arsenal struggled to break them down, as on multiple occasions Kolasinac found himself in a position out wide with the opportunity to either put it into a dangerous area or try to find a player in red in the box, however the Bosnian’s level of consistency when executing this isn’t up to the required standard.
Furthermore, when going forward with Tierney it gives Arsenal another dimension as his pace, power and capacity to beat a man helps take opposition players out of the game while creating space not only for himself, but his teammates as well. In turn I feel Aubameyang becomes the main beneficiary of the Scotsman’s attacking runs, due to his willingness to get beyond our star man, pulling the defence out place to create space for him to drive into. As we saw the week before at Fulham, our third goal was an exact replicate of this scenario, as the 23-year old’s intelligent run on the overlap provided Aubameyang with the opportunity to cut inside and unleash a deadly finish into the top corner. This is a crucial aspect of the system and is one of the main reasons as to why the 3-4-3 formation has been so successful for Arteta, as even quite a small detail such as this one allows multiple different players to flourish. Without this against West Ham’s deep block, it meant Aubameyang struggled to make the space for himself to get shots on goal, and therefore couldn’t impact the game in a way in which he normally does.
On the other hand, our number 3 also brings a whole host of qualities in a defensive sense, with his leadership and positional awareness proving to be a huge miss in this game. This was highlighted for West Ham’s equaliser as Kolasinac got sucked in towards the ball, allowing Bowen to slide Fredricks in down the wing, giving the Englishman an easy chance to roll his cross into Antonio’s path for a tap-in. Personally, I believe Tierney would have dealt with the situation more effectively, being more aware of the overlap rather than Bowen who would have had to pull out an excellent strike to beat Leno from that range. In addition to this, he also brings organisation to the defence as even for someone so young he has such a vast range of experience, which means he is able to advise the players around him. Gabriel is a prime example, as a young and raw talent he put in another eye-catching display, however there were some shaky moments in the first half. One moment comes to mind, when he got caught under the ball allowing Bowen to latch onto it, but if Tierney was next to him he would have been more likely to act as a sweeper to nullify the threat in order to help ease the Brazilian into the game. Despite this, Gabriel did an extremely competent job considering the fact that he has only played twice in the last six months, with the prospect of him and Tierney lining up together on a regular basis in defence giving us hope for the future.
Throughout the course of the season, Arsenal have an enormous fixture list, fighting on all fronts in four different competitions therefore we need to manage Tierney appropriately as when he is missing the void is becoming more difficult to fill along with being more noticeable. Ever since he became a mainstay in the side since the restart, we have been playing our best football, having beat some of the best sides in the country along the way – with the 23-year being an imperative part of the system in order to achieve this. The game last Saturday was one of the first times we have been without Tierney recently, coming as a timely reminder as to how vital he is to fulfil Arteta’s philosophy and help the team to pick up results. Many Arsenal fans see Tierney as the captain in the future, as he possess certain qualities which suit this immense responsibility perfectly, only adding to the idea that he is one of the most important players we have. I expect to see his reputation increase not only within the club, but within the footballing world if he is able to keep his impressively consistent performances up.
Any feedback you have would be much appreciated and let me know in the comments how important you feel Kieran Tierney is for Arsenal!
I’m a 20 year-old Arsenal fanatic and aspiring Sports Journalist, who will be studying how to write about the Beautiful Game at Solent University from September in an attempt to make my dream into a reality.
Since the age of 8 I have played academy football, but unfortunately it didn’t quite work out – therefore I decided to pursue the next best career for me.
I am aiming to write honest and interesting articles about the club I love, and to share my opinion (one from the younger generation of Arsenal supporters) with as many other fans as possible!