There is no doubting Kieran Tierney’s status as an Arsenal fan favourite. Signed in 2019, Tierney encapsulates everything a fan wants to see in someone who plays for their team; a strong leader, a competitor. A ‘shorts in winter’ kinda guy.
And when footage was released from Arsenal’s North London derby win in March 2021, it showed exactly the passion and commitment our number 3 brings to the club. At a time where fans felt disconnected for a multitude of reasons – Emery’s downfall, the pandemic, poor performances under Arteta, off field antics, executive change and more, Kieran Tierney caught the eye as the antidote to that antipathy. Many see him as the future captain of Arsenal – something he may well become.
The full back position is changing in front of our very eyes. To quote Jamie Carragher from 2013, the old perception of a full back was that they were either a failed winger or a failed centre back. For a long time that was probably true. While it’s untrue to say Pep Guardiola ‘invented’ the inverted full back, he certainly popularised it with the likes of Phillip Lahm and David Alaba at Bayern Munich and set off a wider cultural conversation around full backs. More recently, Trent Alexander-Arnold continues to excel in attack value added from his position on the right, Joao Cancelo’s inversions create devastation and overloads, and even Ronald Araujo, typically a centre back, caused Real Madrid a whole host of problems in the most recent El Clasico. What a full back is and can do is constantly evolving, with every manager now striving to make the most out of what was previously seen as a bit of a dud position – Mikel Arteta included.
When Arteta arrived at Arsenal, Kieran Tierney provided a useful attacking outlet for a team struggling to create a high volume of chances. Arsenal had a significant left sided bias, as seen below.
Arsenal Pass Networks:
1. Left sided bias very clear in certain games
2. Commitment to having attacks with 5 players occupying the 5 vertical zones, (not always visible from here) pic.twitter.com/zK0JeK1SGD
— Manas (@watmanAFC) February 16, 2021
This is partly because of what I see as Kieran Tierney’s 4 main strengths as a player, which Arsenal relied on:
- Tierney is able to time, place and deliver accurate balls of different types.
- He has excellent ball-striking technique – meaning he can score goals and cut back as well as deliver.
- He is an excellent 1v1 defender, in the 99th percentile for “dribbled past” in world football when compared to other full backs in the top 5 leagues.
- He has a solid engine, and is able to get up and down the pitch to do both sides of the job.
It made sense to rely on Kieran Tierney, especially with Bukayo Saka still playing on that side at the time. Kieran Tierney is by no means a bad player. So why sell?
As Arteta’s team has progressed and he’s managed to add more attacking value in the right hand channels, Tierney’s role as a combiner and outlet in the final third has started to become less and less relied upon. I remember staring at the bottom left of my screen in the other North London Derby last season, watching Arsenal and Kieran Tierney attempting a total of 44 crosses – the most by any team in a single Premier League game that season. Gone are the days of swinging a ball in to no one, a source of much consternation among Arsenal fans, as among other things Arsenal are now more comfortable going centrally with the additions of Benjamin White and Aaron Ramsdale, have quick combinations orchestrated by Martin Odegaard on the right, and now make more use of the overload – playing down one side then switching to the other. Like a pair of bellows, they expand then contract, sometimes with devastating affect.
But with that development, the role of the full backs in this team have changed. To compete with the big boys now, Arteta will be requiring more and more flexibility from them to carry out different game plans, and the fact of the matter is, while Tierney is very good at what he does, he is simply not technically versatile enough to be a guaranteed starter at full back going forward, providing Mikel Arteta the tactical flexibility he needs.
Let me explain.
Kieran Tierney is heavily one footed, does not excel or often opt to pass infield and rarely switches the play. He struggles to drive infield, and though his athletic profile is fine, he does not have the size nor pace to compete at the upper ends of those metrics and struggles with aerial duels. He is not majorly comfortable in tight spaces and his attacking output, when you look at the stats, is not particularly impressive. Though his assist data is above average, his pass completion is distinctly average and his non-penalty xG is below average when compared with other full backs in the top 5 leagues. His pressure and tackle metrics are some of the worst in Europe’s top 5 leagues – but that may be because of the role he is tasked with.
The full back signings Arteta has opted for in the market have universally been players who, though they may have a preference, are comfortable with both feet and with a variety of passing and receiving angles on the pitch, in Takehiro Tomiyasu, Nuno Tavares and even Cedric Soares to an extent. This gives us a clue of what Arteta likes from his full backs, and perhaps more of an understanding of what he’s aiming to do moving forward.
I mentioned tactical flexibility. Watching Manchester City, the team most like Arsenal in style if not quality in the league, the central spine generally stays consistent while the external personnel shift dependent on opponent – Walker, Cancelo, Zinchenko, even Stones and Ake play their roles at full back. Guardiola might choose Walker to sit as the 3rd centre back and leave him isolated to commit more men forward owing to his excellent recovery pace. He plays Cancelo often inverted from either side to provide more combinations on the interior and to progress the ball. Stones might be selected there to deal with balls out to a tricky winger. The point is, different game states need different players to fulfil different functions, and Arteta will want to do this as well. Arteta plays a positional play system (a great video here from Tifo if you’re unfamiliar with that), and this inherently requires consistent rotations from players into different areas of the pitch. Kieran Tierney is not comfortable on that many angles or in that many positions. Picture him in your head. Hugging the touchline, high and wide. That’s where he’s best. And that’s fine – but is that enough?
Takehiro Tomiyasu has been a revelation in Arsenal’s defence this season because he fulfils a number of specific, important functions to the success of the team at a very high level – he is able to roll around into a three in build up and is one of the best in the league for aerial duels, something Arsenal were missing. While Kieran Tierney has his significant strengths, he is neither a fully rounded full back who can do a job in every tactical set up, nor so good at a couple of fundamental things like Trent Alexander-Arnold that you can kind of negate his deficiencies in other areas because the payoff is so good. Having good deliveries is no longer enough. Nuno Tavares, once he has some experience under his belt, looks like he could be a devastating option on the left; he’s strong, tall, able to combine, invert, go on the outside, win headers, and add attacking value. If his defensive positioning improves along with his deliveries, what does KT bring over him on the field?
When offers are on the table for a significant player at a significant price, you have to at least consider it. Is Kieran Tierney the person who should start every week for Arsenal? Will he be good enough in enough game states to warrant keeping him here, watching his influence grow in the team while his role might not suit him? If not, that rumoured £50m from Real Madrid is looking more and more interesting. Don’t forget, Arsenal have been burned before by not taking big money for good, but unsuitable players.
Would Tierney’s output be different if Arsenal had an aerial threat in the box? Almost certainly. Would he benefit from someone other than Granit Xhaka in the left channels? For sure. I actually think he’ll go up a level next season with some top level additions. But the best teams in the world don’t want to be swinging balls into the box consistently, his biggest strength, relying on low xG chances. It’s part of a game plan, and may get you 5-10 goals in a season if you’re lucky. It is a weapon. But if Arteta’s recent teams and systems are anything to go by, this is not going to be an area of significant focus – and crucially, ball delivery can be coached to an extent. The right athletic profile cannot be.
This is all before mentioning his injury issues. While I tend to be patient with that kind of stuff, can we rely on a man who has missed nearly 50 competitive games, over a season worth of football for Arsenal since joining in 2019?
To be clear, I love Kieran Tierney, and I was pleased when a new contract was handed to him in the summer – smart asset management from a team who haven’t always done that.
But am I convinced that £50m could be spent wisely on a level raiser, someone who could be more suitable for Arteta? And do I trust this recruitment team to get that right based on their track record? Absolutely.
Sorry Kieran, I love you. But it might just be best for both parties.