With recent talk of Kolasinac being sold we could find ourselves a Kieran Tierney injury away from an issue at left back. Yes, Cedric can cover left back and Saka, can cover left wingback but neither situation is necessarily a long-term solution for a club of our stature and aspirations.
It therefore seemed timely to ask our resident expert, John Williamson (@willow1886) about the 2 left-side defensive options coming through the ranks, 21-year-old Tolaji ‘Tola’ Bola and 18-year-old Joel Lopez, to see if we can find any comfort there.
John some fans will be aware of Bola as he has made the bench for the first team and certainly trained with the seniors under Arteta, but at 20 I guess my first question is to why he has yet to go out on loan?
Response: I believe the main reason as to why Tola hasn’t been out on loan, is that he has been plagued with injuries including one which kept him out for around a year. I feel that the Club is managing his progress in the best way possible by keeping him at London Colney rather than sending him out on loan.
I understand at U18s and his attacking attributes, particularly his crossing ability far out weighted his defensive positioning and awareness. Two questions therefore spring to mind. Firstly, has he improved his defensive work in the last 12 months with the U23s and would you see him fitting better in the 343 we currently use as a wingback or as a conventional left back?
Response: On the back of his injury, a lot of his time was getting back to match fitness. With limited playing time due to the Virus, I feel ‘Tola’ was just getting back to his pre-injury levels.
Tola can adapt anywhere on the left either as a conventional left back or a wingback, if called upon, I’d expect him to slot in. He has lots of energy, the type of player who is happy going up and down the pitch and has a decent passing range of both short and long balls.
Was he originally a central defender that has converted to a left back?
Response: During his time at Hale End, I have seen Tola transform from a central role to a more orthodox left sided player. I feel he is best suited on the left of the pitch.
I can’t seem to find his contract details. I know he signed a pro deal in 2016 but I am not sure what the current situation is. In short, do the club have faith in him?
Response: Tola’s last contract was signed in August 2018; I believe it is for 3 years, therefore ending at the end of the current 2020/21 season, which is possibly another reason why he hasn’t been sent out on loan.
The younger option of course is Joel Lopez, another like Fabregas and Bellerin and others pinched from the Barca Academy. Joel has only recently signed a professional contact that takes him until 2022 so the club must like what they have seen so far?
Response: Joel, as you rightly stated, was signed as a 16-year-old from Barcelona; he signed a 3-year professional contract last September which indicates how the club is viewing him.
You must have watched him a lot last season for the U18s as he was virtually ever present. He has already played a Premier League 2 game for the U23s this campaign as well. What can you tell us about Joel’s style and strengths?
Response: Unlike Tola, Joel is more of an out and out left back, a strong player who can tackle and is confident with the ball at his feet.
Obviously Bellerin was thrown in the deep end when Debuchy and Chambers were injured but he had played at least a few games for Watford. Could Joel Lopez step up this early if called upon, as there does seem to be an early maturity in our previous Spanish recruits?
Response: I feel it is a bit too early for a first team call up; though I feel an appearance in one of the cups isn’t beyond him. In saying that, Mikel has played strong teams in both of our Carabao Cup ties albeit against top opposition, therefore depending on how serious Mikel takes the Europa League, he may get a chance later in the Group Stages on the bench.
Also growing up in the Barca academy I assume he is am attacking fullback, so the wingback role is not an issue I assume but how is Joel as a defender?
Response: Joel likes to get forward, he is happy to drive on the wing and he can also cut into the left of midfield when the opportunity arises.
Ahead of the long-term Willowmeter view I want to ask you John, whether each or both could step into the first team set up now as cover for Tierney and Saka and which would you be more confident in doing so?
Response: With 3 years age difference on Joel, I feel at this present time, Tola would be better equipped to step in if required to do so.
The fact that Barca were devasted to lose Lopez combined with the lack of progress for Bola, compared to his peers I may be able to guess the where the long-term balance on the Willowmeter may tip, but I might be wrong. So JW time to rate the chances for a long-term future at Arsenal for Bola and Lopez with 0 being no chance and 20 being a certainty.
Response: Tola 8/20; Joel 14/20.
Just after we concluded this interview John and I picked up on the fact that a subject of one of our previous chats, Ben Cottrell, was deployed as a left wingback again for the U23s. So, one final question for John must be, can Cottrell be converted or is that a waste of his central creativity?
Response: Currently, I suggest that Ben’s future would remain in the middle; I can only assume that the recent left back position is to trial his ability should there be any injuries to Tierney bearing in mind his past record.
As always thanks to John. @willow1886
Passionate fifty-something Arsenal supporter who has been making the journey to N5 regularly since the early 1980s – although his first game was in 1976. Always passionate when talking about The Arsenal, Dave decided to send a guest blog to Gunnersphere in the summer of 2011 and has not stopped writing about the Gunners since.
He set up his own site – 1 Nil Down 2 One Up – in February 2012, which he moved on in 2016 to concentrate on freelance writing and building Gunners Town, which he launched with Paul in 2014.
The objective of GT was to be new and fresh and to give a platform for likeminded passionate Arsenal fans wishing to write about their team. Dave still of course, writes for the site himself and advises the ever-changing writing crew.