Tuesday, December 6, 2022

Left-back not left behind

A lot has been written (by me more than most) about a new connection forming between Arsenal fans and this revamped team. The late and early post-Wenger period saw a lot of players filter through the revolving door at London Colney who will prove to be but a footnote in Arsenal’s history.

I view Arsenal’s current transition as similar to the one they underwent when George Graham arrived at the club. In the early 1980s Arsenal acquired big names in the prime of their careers like Viv Anderson, Paul Mariner, Tony Woodcock and Charlie Nicholas. I was a small child during this era so did not know these players intimately but, from what I have gleaned, none were bad.

In fact, plenty of them were good but their respective Arsenal spells are not considered the pinnacle of any of their careers. They were furniture when the team needed a total structural reset. George Graham ushered many of them out of the door (even the very popular Kenny Sansom was not spared the broom and he met and exceeded expectations when he was signed) in favour of younger, hungrier players from the academy and the Football League.

Kieran Tierney was signed prior to Mikel Arteta’s appointment, one of the few transfers of the Raul Sanllehi era that doesn’t cause you to cock an eyebrow northwards. Injuries meant that Tierney’s impact was delayed until after Arteta’s appointment in any case, so he very much feels like an Arteta man- indeed he was awarded a new contract under the current coach.

Once he started to play regularly, cult acclaim quickly followed due to his unfussy on and off pitch persona. (I wrote about his cult hero attributes back in July 2020). There was a retro appeal to his signing too; signing a player from Celtic harked back to a time when the Scottish league was far stronger and this sort of transfer represented a big coup. It was a throwback to Charlie Nicholas in some respects.

His short sleeves, short back and sides persona is complemented by his oft professed love for music by the likes of Gerry Cinnamon and Oasis. This week, Adidas released a promo shoot with Tierney sporting the sort of casual attire that one would see in the away end or grasping a clutch of tinnies on an Avanti West Coast service heading northwest. He is incredibly relatable to many supporters, in short.

All of this forms part of the charm that has seen so many Arsenal fans insist he be made captain. His game is easy to appreciate, he bombs up and down the touchline and he puts crosses into the area. You don’t have to look very hard to see what he is doing and what he has been asked to do.

However, this season, the impression of his on-pitch impact has waned, even if his cult status hasn’t. It is always difficult to measure the offensive impact of a full-back, even one as gun-ho as Tierney. Last season he was averaging 0.16 expected assists per 90 and that is down to 0.08 per 90 this season.

That’s half the impact creatively but we are dealing in small numbers, two especially productive games out wide and that average could quickly shoot up. He is attempting slightly fewer passes compared to last season even though his completion rate is stable (he has been in the 76% range in all three of his seasons at Arsenal so far).

His number of crosses per 90 is ever so slightly down on last season (3.43 this season compared to 3.96 in 2020-21). Where we see the biggest drop off is “shot creating actions.” Last season he was averaging 2.27 shot creating actions per 90 and that’s down to 1.82 per 90 this time around. He is ever so slightly less involved and ever so slightly less creative.

So why is this? Well, I think it is worth considering the context of Arsenal’s left side. He hasn’t been able to form a consistent partnership with a colleague. Saka played there for a while last season before moving to the right. Aubameyang played there last season but has been fielded exclusively upfront this season.

Arsenal shifted formations during the autumn and played in more of a 4411 shape with Smith Rowe on the left. Of course, this was the time when Tierney lost his place briefly to Nuno Tavares for a run of four Premier League games. The Portuguese was on a good run of form that the coach did not want to interrupt. It never felt like Tierney’s place was seriously under threat in the medium term.

Tavares was probably more suited to the 4411 system than he is the 4231 at this stage. Arsenal moved back to a 4231 with Martinelli taking on the left-sided berth over the festive period and Tierney’s place has not been under serious threat from Tavares since. I think it’s likely Tierney was producing more crosses and more shot creating actions last season when Auba was on the left.

While Martinelli is more wide-forward than winger, he is still far happier and far more comfortable operating in wide areas than Aubameyang was, who was happy to let Tierney have the left touchline all to himself. In principle, I think the Tierney and Martinelli relationship has potential because Martinelli wants to move inside and get into the area.

Martinelli’s first Premier League goal came from a cut back from Sead Kolasinac. Kolasinac had the wing on lockdown as the attack developed and the Brazilian instinctively moved inside and waited for the delivery. His second Premier League goal against Sheffield United comes from a cross from Bukayo Saka, who was playing at left-back at the time.

There is precedent for Tierney Martinelli link-up. The Brazilian’s first goal for the club was a header from a Tierney cross against Standard Liege. The difference here is that Martinelli played as a centre-forward that night. I don’t think the two have quite nailed the choreography of attacking movements yet but I don’t see that as a terminal issue or one that I expect to continue for too long.

There is a sense that Tierney needs to add some layers to his game now (which he is perfectly capable of doing, in my view). He is a well-known quantity to the opposition, of course but I think this run of relatively fallow form is more to do with striking up a new relationship on the left hand side.

Arsenal have also been without Granit Xhaka for extended spells this season and that is Tierney’s main supply line. I think he can take inspiration from Tavares and his ability to drive the ball inside; it’s fairly predictable that Tierney wants to run in straight lines and put crosses in. Greater finesse, the ability to combine with colleagues with wall passes will add some layers.

Last season, his delivery was slightly more varied too, with some precise cutbacks to add to his booming crosses. I think the loss of Aubameyang has made that avenue less available this season, Lacazette just doesn’t fill the area in quite the same way and it has limited Tierney’s options when he gets the ball in crossing areas.

Personally, I don’t find any of this especially alarming. He is in his third season at the club and on his umpteenth left-wing partner. However, I think there is a good chance that Martinelli is in the team to stay now and that relationship can be built quickly. Xhaka’s return ought to see a more steady supply of passes. There are some wrinkles for him and the coaching staff to work on too, none of them insurmountable.

Follow me on Twitter @Stillberto– or like my page on Facebook

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