Wednesday, November 30, 2022

Tierney out for the season – what now for left back?

Morning all, let’s start with the bad news we all feared but which was confirmed yesterday: Kieran Tierney will miss the rest of the season as he requires surgery on a knee injury picked up during the Interlull.

In a team news update, the club said:

It has been decided that Kieran requires surgery to his knee. This procedure will take place in London in the forthcoming days. Kieran’s rehabilitation programme will start immediately after his surgery, at which stage a clearer understanding will be established on his recovery timescale.

Obviously it’s a blow for him, and a major blow to the team as his presence will be sorely missed. The big question is, what does Mikel Arteta do in his absence? Unfortunately, the obvious answer – ‘Play the back-up guy!’ – is complicated by how poor Nuno Tavares was against Crystal Palace on Monday night. His half-time withdrawal was described as ‘tactical’, which it was, but in no small part because of how much at fault he was for the two Palace goals. Taking off a guy who is playing badly to try and make your team play better is nothing else but tactical, even if that specific explanation provides some public consolation for the player.

That his previous start saw him hauled off after 35 minutes, and there were high profile errors in games against Liverpool and Man Utd, makes for an uneasy situation. It’s not as if his entire season has been bad, he’s certainly made a positive contribution at times – usually in the opposition half – but you could understand a reluctance to count on him at this crucial stage of the campaign.

However, it’s not as if we’re replete with options. Takehiro Tomiyasu remains sidelined, and the injury to Thomas Partey, which could keep him out for some weeks, means that Monday’s half-time change with Xhaka moving to left-back isn’t really an option. The Swiss might not be to everyone’s taste but without Partey we absolutely need him in midfield. And just for the record, Xhaka at left back is not something I want to see on a regular basis anyway. We had that last season and it didn’t work, as hard as he tried.

I suppose one option might be to bring Rob Holding into the side, play Ben White at right-back – where he has played a couple of times this season, including for England – and flip Cedric over to left-back. It’s not ideal, but it’s about the only other option in this formation than trying to give Nuno the minutes, building up his confidence, and hopefully raising the level of his performances which, on balance, is probably the most obvious thing to do, assuming the manager has enough faith in the player at this point.

There are too many moving pieces otherwise, and if you have Xhaka in a deeper midfield role, which would be required in the absence of Partey, he could play closer to Nuno and offer experienced protection/cover. It’s just that the mistakes against Palace were pretty basic, and I don’t know that he should need a teammate’s advice to know what to do in those situations. Oooof, as I said, it’s a lot for Arteta to consider.

A formation change is another thing to consider, three at the back would mean Tavares, if he played, could play more in the opposition half than ours, but personally I’d be surprised if, at this point of the season, we made that kind of a shift. Last season I advocated for Bukayo Saka at left back, not this time – his goals are too important for a team without any threat from its centre-forward. Nevertheless, there’s definitely a need for something different to try and make the team a bit less predictable.

Palace had us well sussed out on Monday night. We played poorly, no two ways about it, but they stifled Partey in midfield, while Alexandre Lacazette gave their centre-halves a night off when it came to defending. It’s not impossible to counter the opposition even if they know what you’re going to do, but you can’t possibly do it when too many key men are so far off their best as was the case at Selhurst Park.

I also think it’s important that the manager reminds his players that form remains an important factor in team selection. A small, tight squad leads to fewer options and less rotation, but if a player isn’t doing the job he’s picked to do then someone else gets a go. That’s the way I feel about Lacazette. Arteta appreciates his seniority and his experience, but under any other circumstances, a striker without a goal from open play for going on four months wouldn’t be starting games. I know we’re short when it comes to an obvious replacement, but it shouldn’t exempt him from what ought to be the normal decision making process when it comes to a key position.

Again though, it’s a decision made somewhat more complicated by the absences of Tierney and Partey, two ‘first name on the teamsheet’ players, and I suspect that will be part of Arteta’s thinking as he picks his side for Brighton. All I’ll say is this: for all the talk of this team’s youth and inexperience, it’s been the younger elements who have, for the most part, made the most consistent contributions. Even a senior player needs to feel some threat to his place if he’s not performing, and that’s why I’d be keen to see someone else up front this weekend. It doesn’t have to permanent, and again it’s a weird situation because Lacazette is out of contract at the end of the season and thus not quite as impactful as it might be otherwise, but if you’re a striker who just doesn’t score, you can’t complain if someone else is given that job.

Right, let’s leave it there for now. News throughout the day on Arseblog News, more here tomorrow. Until then, take it easy.

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