Kieran Tierney has endured a pretty strange debut season south of the border. He struggled with injuries and as soon as he threatened to become fit again, the football schedule was mothballed due to a global pandemic. We have, therefore, only seen flashes of what he can bring to the Arsenal setup.
Mikel Arteta is enthusiastic about what he has seen so far. “He’s been one of the positive things since I joined. Just to get to know him a little bit and his character and the way he trains and the way he pushes himself, it’s exactly what we need. He’s the kind of player that I love and I am really, really happy with him.”
Despite his sporadic appearances on the pitch, Tierney has already built a positive brand with Gunners fans. (I don’t mean that pejoratively!) In the depths of winter with the snowstorms raging and polar bears roaming the frozen wastelands of London Colney, Tierney is pictured in shorts and shirt sleeves.
It has been some years since Arsenal have had a Scottish player and Tierney’s McAncestory at the club is filled by the figures of Paul Dickov and Scott Marshall- footballers who you would also imagine sporting short sleeves in arctic conditions while swigging an ice-cold tin of Irn-Bru.
Tierney is a kilt and wispy ginger beard away from fulfilling the full “Scottish full-back” stereotype. His unaffected, short back and sides nature was beautifully captured in an interview he gave in October. When quizzed about moving from Glasgow to London, Tierney’s answer was understated to say the least.
“People say ‘what’s the city like?’ I have no idea, I’ve never been in. I train, I work hard, I go home and recover and train the next day. It is just a simple life and I just put everything into football.” He went on to explain that he spent most of his downtime “eating chocolate and playing the Playstation.”
Tierney is already well on the way to becoming a cult figure at Arsenal both because he is almost stereotypically Scottish and because of his unassuming nature- which provides such a contrast to our stereotype of the modern footballer. Even his slightly pudding bowl haircut lends him an air of charming modesty.
So when Tierney was pictured walking into Bramall Lane clutching a Tesco’s bag on Sunday, it didn’t escape unnoticed. It entirely conformed with our impression of Tierney’s character, in the era of the Luis Vuitton wash bag- the sort of harmless accessory often used to illustrate the appalling meretriciousness of footballer culture- Tierney tickled our more generous sensibilities once more.
I know its a small thing, but Tierney with his Tescos bag is brilliant. Club needs players like that.
— MB (@1burnm) June 28, 2020
Kieran’s cult hero credentials matter during a period of disconnection between the squad and the supporters. Popular players like Theo Walcott, Olivier Giroud, Laurent Koscielny, Per Mertesacker, Aaron Ramsey and Jack Wilshere have left in recent years and most have been replaced with short-term solutions that we haven’t had the chance to get to know.
The aforementioned players weren’t always popular, but they served for long enough for Arsenal fans to become accustomed to their foibles. The current squad has not been together for very long and it won’t be together for much longer. When it comes to stoking the fires of fan sentiment, it hasn’t been an evocative period.
It’s not just that Arsenal have been a bit crap; but they have been a bit crap with a team of relative strangers who are likely just passing through. Building bonds takes time but Tierney is making an emotional impression quickly because there is something pleasingly “old school” and relatable about him.
Even the fact that he signed from Celtic has a retro feel to it. For fans of a certain age it might prompt memories of signing Charlie Nicholas in the 1980s. Of course, nowadays, the jump from the Scottish Premier League to the English Premier League is vast, which is why fewer players make that leap.
Tierney’s instant popularity is not just due to his endearingly modest profile but because his playing style is also “old school”, for want of a less reductive term. Analysis of the game has become more sophisticated in recent years and a coach’s tactical capacity is becoming increasingly stretched.
Now coaches will routinely make tweaks and nips and tucks to their team according to their opponent and might even deploy two or three formations in any one game. Which is not to say this never happened in football but it certainly happens more often in the modern game. Understanding top level football has become more demanding (assuming one wants to try to ‘understand’ it on a technical level, of course. It’s not an obligation!)
As such, Arsenal, like many teams, have employed a number of footballers that divide opinion. Matteo Guendouzi is the most recent example of this. Guendouzi either has decent potential, superstar potential or else he is a useless git with stupid hair depending on whom you talk to. Granit Xhaka is both hugely important to Arsenal and fatally flawed.
Tierney is a gloriously uncomplicated player to understand. He is a full-back with a regulation haircut, he tucks his shirt in, runs up and down the line, swings in a decent cross on the old left peg and never ducks a 50-50. Viscerally he is as easy to respond to on the pitch as he is off it. His playing style and our impression of his character intersect wonderfully.
— Kieran Tierney (@kierantierney1) August 15, 2019
He shows signs of greater sophistication too, of course. He can tuck in as a third centre-half as he often does for his country. His delivery is wonderfully varied. If the ball needs to be floated onto someone’s head, that’s what he does. If it needs to be cut back to the penalty spot, that’s what he does. If it needs to be drilled in low and with the laces, Bob’s your uncle and job’s a good’un.
Glimpsing into the future a little, a left-sided holy trinity of Saka, Tierney and Martinelli is an exciting prospect. Moving Saka into a left sided central midfield role has proved to be a savvy move by Arteta. Martinelli will be eyeing that left wide forward role and, in Tierney, Arsenal have already invested in a left-back at a good age.
We haven’t seen enough of Tierney yet to fete him as the next Nigel Winterburn and whether he, Saka and Martinelli can define the left hand side of the Arsenal team for years to come remains to be seen and depends on a number of factors. For now, turning up at games clutching a Tesco’s bag and wearing short sleeves in sub-Arctic conditions and bombing up and down the left flank will only help him to burrow his way into the hearts of Arsenal fans.