Monday, November 28, 2022

Kieran Tierney left-back?

When Takehiro Tomiyasu was selected to play at left-back against Liverpool last month, some eyebrows were raised but conclusions were quickly arrived at. Tomiyasu is an outstanding one-on-one defender. Though he is pleasingly ambipedal he is predominantly right-footed and Liverpool’s right-winger Mo Salah is very left-footed and inclined to cut in and shoot.

Back in December 2017, Arsene Wenger selected a young and relatively inexperienced Ainsley Maitland-Niles at left-back at home to Liverpool for a similar reason. An inverted full-back can be well matched to take on an inverted winger, especially if they are as good a stand-up defender as Tomiyasu.

Another of Liverpool’s favoured moves is the big switch of play from left to right. Virgil van Dijk and Andy Robertson often like to rake swooshing, diagonal passes to Salah from the other side of the field to isolate the opposing left-back against the Egyptian. Tomiyasu is excellent in the air and his radar was finely tuned that day.

Tomiyasu led Arsenal for tackles (3) and aerial duels won (4) and was second for ball recoveries (6). His selection on the day was justified as Mo Salah was subbed on 68 minutes. However, his selection at left-back against Leeds a week later was met with greater surprise. Was Arteta rewarding the Japanese for his performance against Liverpool when, let’s face it, he was incredibly unlucky to find himself out of the team in the first place.

The tactic didn’t seem to work as well against Leeds as Arsenal were penned back in the second half and probably would have been a bit fortunate to draw the game, let alone win it. Most of us expected Tierney to return to the team for the trip to Southampton but he was duly selected again. It was another performance where Arsenal struggled to produce any attacking impetus in the second half and the Gunners surrendered a lead to draw the game.

A visit from bottom of the table Nottingham Forest would surely see the more enterprising Tierney restored to the starting line-up but, no, there was Tomiyasu again, much to everyone’s surprise. So why is Arteta so intent on picking Tomi at left-back ahead of the more natural seeming choice of Tierney? And what does it say about Tierney’s place in the squad?

Well, the first tick in the Tomiyasu box is his defensive acumen. Tierney is a good defender, good enough to have played as an outside centre-half in a back three for club and country. But Tomiyasu can trump that, regularly playing as a centre-half for Japan in a back four- and on the left of the central pairing no less.

Defensive data is notoriously unsatisfactory because it is biased towards actions and, often, good defending is not quantifiable by tangible action or engaging with an opponent. However, Tierney and Tomiyasu’s comparative data still tells some of the story. Little of Tierney’s data here is concerning or even objectively bad (maybe not winning a tackle in the attacking third is a wrinkle) it’s just that Tomiyasu’s data wrecks the curve in most respects.

 TomiyasuTierney
Tackles2.831.58
Tackles won2.170.53
Tackles won defensive third1.300.79
Tackles won attacking third0.650.00
Times dribbled past0.220.26
Dribbles tackled1.740.79
Interceptions2.391.32
Tackles and interceptions5.222.89

All data is per 90 and from FBref

Of course, it’s not all about the purely defensive side of the position though. The modern day full-back, we are told, is as much a part of the attack as the defence. Tierney certainly has more influence in the final third than Tomiyasu. He averages 21.6 touches in the attacking third per 90 compared to Tomi’s 12.8, while he also produces 2.11 crosses per 90 to Tomiyasu’s 0.87.

We know, of course, that Arteta preferred Zinchenko to Tierney at left-back earlier in the season because of his ability to invert into midfield, a tactical sleight of hand that suits the Ukrainian far more naturally than it does Tierney. This manouevre is about helping to control games through possession, even if Zinchenko’s defensive positioning- and instincts- sometimes make him a defensive liability.

The issue for Tierney, in my view, is that Arteta is not desperate for his qualities in an attacking sense. He is a two-way, overlapping full-back that likes to take the outside lane and attack from the touchline. A few weeks ago, I wrote a piece about Gabriel Martinelli and looked at his performance data from this season.

What struck me in constructing that piece is how much wider Martinelli has been this season compared to last. Both he and Saka have been asked to stay nice and wide to give Arsenal width and depth when they build play. In fact, they are reminiscent of Sterling and Sane at Manchester City when Arteta was coaching there. In this structure, there is less desire for an overlapping full-back.

Arteta has his five attacking lanes filled out by Martinelli (often Gabriel Jesus will rotate with his compatriot, moving from the central lane to the far left), Jesus, Odegaard, Saka and the fifth lane is usually plundered by the late runs of Granit Xhaka (as Lewis Ambrose wrote this week). This season, the full-backs are asked to be defenders and secondary midfielders but not really secondary attackers, so Tierney’s qualities are not as sought after for the coach.

Effectively, when opponents clear the ball from Arsenal attacks and search for space, Arteta wants his defenders primed to either pounce on clearances and immediately restart another attack, or else they might need to turn the after burners on to recover into space and defend. Maybe the pairing with Martinelli on the left is not ideal for Tierney within this framework as well.

Tierney would probably mesh more fluidly with Emile Smith Rowe, whose game is less about driving at full-backs a la Martinelli and more about moving inside a little and combining with an overlapping full-back. Alas, Smith Rowe has been injured for the majority of the season. While Tierney trumps Tomiyasu when it comes to crosses into the area, this too is not an especially desired tactic for Arteta- which is one of the reasons that Cedric Soares has been totally frozen out this season.

Arsenal are 15th in the Premier League for crosses attempted and for crosses completed. It is a minor, not a major, part of their repertoire. Both of the wingers and one of the full-backs are inverted after all, Odegaard is a lefty who plays over to the right. Arsenal’s current setup is about being able to go out to in rather than in to out.

Things can change, of course. Tomiyasu was struggling for starts until the Liverpool game. Teams evolve and partnerships change, which means your qualities can come into fashion again quickly. For now, though, it’s just the case that Tomiyasu’s qualities suit what Arteta wants from his team. When Arteta told Tierney that his omission from the Liverpool game was tactical, he wasn’t talking about Liverpool, he was talking about Arsenal.

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