Tuesday, July 5, 2022

Nuno Limit

At the conclusion of the two most recent seasons, left-back has proved to be a pinch point for Arsenal and has gone some way to the team not achieving its main objective for the campaign. Immediately following the March international break in both 2021 and 2022, a Kieran Tierney knee injury sparked a reshuffle in the starting line-up.

In April 2021, it was the failure to overcome Villarreal in the Europa League semi-final that put paid to Arsenal’s hopes and in 2022, defeats in the last two away matches of the season, at Spurs and Newcastle, cost the Gunners Champions League qualification- as well as a triplet of defeats in April. In 2021, Arteta did not have dedicated back-up for Tierney and experimented with Granit Xhaka at left-back.

The problem with this tactic was not so much Xhaka causing a problem at left-back per se, it just took him away from Arsenal’s midfield. When Tierney was struck down with a knee injury again in 2022, Arteta did have specialised back-up for the Scotsman in the shape of Nuno Tavares- it’s just that he didn’t fully trust the young Portuguese (for reasons that are not impossible to decipher).

Arteta briefly revisited the Xhaka to left-back solution for the 2-1 home defeat against Brighton after Tavares endured a tough evening at Selhurst Park a few days earlier. With Partey also injured, it simply compounded a subtraction by addition error Arteta had made 12 months earlier. It left Arsenal’s midfield light and they were beaten, subsequently missing out on Champions League qualification by two points.

Nuno Tavares partially recovered, starting games against Southampton, Chelsea, Manchester United, West Ham, Newcastle and Everton. However, when right-back Tomiyasu was fit, he was preferred as a makeshift left-back. It’s relatively clear that Arteta does not entirely trust Tavares, in January he hauled the player off during the first half of the FA Cup defeat at Nottingham Forest.

The main element of this equation is, of course, Kieran Tierney’s fitness. Tierney suffered a lot of pelvic and groin issues during his time with Celtic where he was patched up to negotiate the pain barrier on many occasions. During his first season at Arsenal, he missed three months with a dislocated shoulder.

It would be unfair to attribute that to any physical deficiency, it was a freak accident and the area has not caused him any problems since. The knee injuries that have curtailed the last two seasons for him are more of a concern. Personally, I don’t think we are yet at the “it’s time to cut our losses” stage, though it is worth reiterating, a good player is only a good player when he is playing.

I still think the sample size is too small for such a drastic decision. If he spends next spring on the treatment table then I think that would be sufficient for a conversation. His contract runs for another four years so there is no financial need to make a decision on his future- it was already made last year when his terms were extended. It would also be incredibly obvious why Arsenal were seeking to move him on and that would impact his market value.

This is not an opinion I hold incredibly strongly because it is superficially formed without detailed knowledge of the player’s issues but I do get the impression that he could better manage his body. Tierney revealed the genesis of his season-ending knee injury in April came in February, “We played Wolves at home in February and I felt something in my knee in the first half,” he explained.

He played back-to-back friendly matches for Scotland in March, against Poland and Austria. Ultimately, not only did he miss Arsenal’s crucial run-in but he also missed Scotland’s World Cup qualifying playoff match against Ukraine in June, which the Tartan Army lost. Playing through pain cost him a shot at competing in the Champions League and the World Cup this coming winter.

His predilection for wearing shorts and tee-shirt in all weathers has (understandably) won him cult status with Arsenal fans. Maybe it’s time to put the hard man image to one side, put some tracksuit bottoms on in the winter and to not to try to play through the pain barrier so much. Availability, especially in crucial games, is an attribute- a superior attribute to grinning and bearing the pain (though it’s true that most athletes operate with some level of pain almost constantly).

I accept that sounds very harsh and I could be way off-beam here- after all, injuries often do just happen due to luck too. Santi Cazorla was one of the most durable footballers I can remember at Arsenal, he was rarely ever injured, until he was. Sometimes that’s just the way it goes. Tierney might leave all of this behind him and enjoy a better run of fortune from here on.

However, his situation does, at the very least, mean that Arsenal have to think hard about who his deputy is. You have to think enough of your squad players to be able to play them for entire seasons should the headliner fall to serious injury. It’s not enough for squad players to just be considered rotation options here and there, even if it is unrealistic to all except clubs run by nation states to have two genuinely top-class players in every position.

For the time being, Arsenal have to assume that Kieran Tierney’s deputy is going to play a lot of football. The signing of Tavares always felt like the sort of punt beloved of Arsene Wenger. A low-cost gamble in a low priority position given all the other business the club wanted to do last summer. It was just a case of whether he would be an Amaury Bischoff (failed gamble), Oleg Luzhny (serviceable back-up) or Kolo Toure (accidental superstar).

In a summer when Arsenal bought four players for the starting eleven and central midfield cover, I totally understand both the financial necessity and the time resource issues that drove the signing. Tavares is as raw as they come. His on-ball qualities are largely very good, he attacks incredibly well, he is a strong defender when he is engaged, either in a one-on-one scenario or when aggressively intercepting passes.

His ability with both feet marks him out from Tierney, he knifes his way inside as well as outside and creates some excellent angles that keep opponents guessing. It’s just a shame that most of his forays inside end up with a car alarm sounding as he sends a wayward shot into a nearby driveway. Arteta needs to decide whether he can coach the rough edges out of Tavares’ game.

Off the ball, Tavares has far less pluck. He switches off easily, mentally scanning the Chinese menu for his post-match takeaway as a wide-forward runs off his shoulder. Personally, I think I like Tavares more than Arteta seems to, even if his misgivings are not alien to me. It’s not just a case of playing when Tierney is injured, the deputy left-back needs to be able to rotate into games to give the Scot a rest, from the start and from the bench.

For home games against teams in the bottom half of the table, I would be comfortable with Tavares’ brand of wing-back play. Injury to Tomiyasu counted against Nuno last season too, I think. The mix of Cedric and Tavares was always an uncomfortable one since both like to aggressively overlap which unduly impacted the balance of the defence. Tavares is far better at that than Cedric and I don’t think he’s much worse defensively.

At Newcastle, I thought Tavares was Arsenal’s most dangerous player and given Newcastle were focusing all their attacks through Saint Maximin on the opposite flank, he wasn’t exposed defensively. Yet he was the first player sacrificed by Arteta in the final third of the game and I think Arsenal’s attacking game went with him. It felt like a substitution borne of pre-conception rather than based on the events of the game.

However, if Arteta really doesn’t trust him, wants to move him on or even loan him out, Arsenal will need to spend money and time on purchasing another back-up option given Tierney’s unreliability in fitness terms. I think there is very little point in sending Tavares on loan because the squad cannot afford to wait for him to come back in 2023.

They can’t carry this position next season so if Tavares is not going to continue in North London, a serious signing needs to be made, which would block Nuno’s return. Unless of course, Arsenal decided that Tierney’s race was run and they wanted to keep Tavares as a deputy to the new player. It feels resource intensive given Arsenal’s needs in attack this summer. However, one way or another, I think a firm decision needs to be made on Tavares.

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