Is Kieran Tierney Arsenal's most important player?
On the 22nd of April 2015, Kieran Tierney made his debut for Scottish champions Celtic against Dundee, coming on as an 81st minute substitute. Flash forward four years, for a fee in the region of £25 million, he joined Arsenal in the summer of 2019 to take over from the departing Nacho Monreal, taking the no. 3 shirt.
These days, as Arsenal continue to struggle for any consistency, there is a fairly solid case that Tierney may be becoming the Gunners' most important player.
Tierney had to be patient in the opening months of his Arsenal career, recovering from a hernia operation that kept him out until 24th September, eventually debuting in red and white in a 5-0 victory over Nottingham Forest in the League Cup. However, he was dealt a further fitness blow against West Ham, dislocating his shoulder just 10 weeks after returning from his hernia problem.
The Scottish international returned from injury to play in all 13 of Arsenal's matches post lockdown in Project Restart. This included a couple of stellar performances at Wembley en route to an FA Cup trophy. He has continued this level throughout his second season in England, delivering to a consistently high level in an Arsenal side that have severely struggled for form all year.
Role in the team
Tierney has sometimes been utilised as a left-sided centre-back in a back three, a position that many of the Arsenal faithful felt was a waste, considering his attacking skillset. Mikel Arteta eventually shifted his system, and has since deployed him as a traditional left-back in a back four.
Since the switch in system, Arsenal's form has had an upturn, with Tierney at the heart of plenty of the Gunners' free-flowing football down the left-hand side.
Here's what Tierney does:
The 23-year-old offers plenty of pace from fullback, marauding up and down the left-side with ease now that he has been given more freedom to attack opposition defences. His ability in the final third gives Arteta's men an additional creative force that they desperately need.
When Arsenal are in possession Tierney will frequently occupy areas high up the left flank. His positioning makes it difficult for opposition players to know whether to stick or twist, often allowing Aubameyang to drift into central areas and find space.
Arsenal are a side that are often accused of lacking any cutting edge or real directness. However, neither of these claims can be aimed at Tierney - his direct style is a breath of fresh air for the North London club.
In fact, Bukayo Saka is the only Arsenal player who has managed to dribble the ball into the final third more than Tierney in the current league campaign, and the Scot also sits third for dribbles into the penalty area; an impressive feat considering his position.
The former Celtic man doesn't shy away from his defensive duties either, in fact, he relishes them, completing 1.83 tackles & interceptions per game in the league so far this term.
He was consistently tackling so hard in training to the point where he was told to take it down a notch, according to former Gunner Martin Keown.
Importance to the side
Tierney's influence on Arsenal's upturn in form can not be overstated; as illustrated by their record with and without him. Since Arteta's change to a back four against Chelsea on Boxing Day Arsenal have played 11 games, five with Tierney and six without him due to injury.
They won all five games with their star left-back, scoring 13 and conceding just once in the process. In the six without Tierney, Arsenal have won just once, drawn twice and lost three times. This spell saw them net four times and ship five at the other end.
Not convinced yet? Well, there's more.
The sample size may be small, but there is yet more data to highlight just how crucial Tierney is for Arsenal at both ends of the pitch. He takes a large chunk of the team's creative burden, ranking first for open play in xA (expected assists), open play key passes, and second for passes into the penalty area. Moreover, he ranks second when it comes to shot creating actions, which is defined as a pass, a dribble or a foul won that leads to a shot from a team-mate.
This isn't a striker or winger we are talking about - this is Arsenal's left-back.
Tierney's deputy, Cédric Soares has performed to a decent level considering that he is right-footed and more comfortable at right-back, but the Portuguese international doesn't have the attacking prowess that his team-mate possesses.
Cédric does himself no favours on the defensive front either, giving the ball away carelessly for Aston Villa's opener in the second minute on Saturday, something Tierney may not have done had he been fit. In fact, in his 47 appearances for the London club he is yet to make a single error, according to fbref.
With Tierney in their back four, Arsenal are a different animal, appearing balanced and fluid in attack, as well as being extremely competitive and aggressive defensively. It may be prudent to do so anyway, but given his ongoing injury problems there appears to be only one solution: sign another left-back for cover.
With the news from reliable Athletic reporter David Ornstein that Mikel Arteta wants to sign an additional young left-back to offer support for Tierney, I will run down my top three picks for the spot, taking into consideration age, cost and ability.
1. Fredrik André Bjørkan - Team: Bodø/Glimt - Likely cost: £6-10 million
Bjørkan is perhaps not a household name, but he is a full-back with heaps of potential and would likely not cost an arm and a leg to prize away from Bodø/Glimt.
The Norweigan has been a regular for his club for three seasons now and is still just 22-years-old, giving him the perfect blend of youth and experience - exactly what Arsenal need. The youngster also appeared three times in the Europa League this season, gaining him further experience on the continental stage.
Bjørkan is similar to Tierney in his play-style, possessing a very impressive ability to overlap down the left flank, often delivering effective crosses to his team-mates in the box. His ability in the final third has been one of his consistent strong points, collecting an impressive 12 goals and assists throughout the last two league campaigns.
However, Bjørkan is still raw in many aspects of his game, particularly defensively, sometimes getting caught too high up the pitch in transition. He makes up for this with blistering pace as well as a strong athletic frame.
2. Lee Buchanan - Team: Derby - Likely cost: £12-15 million
Buchanan is 19-years-old, making his professional debut last year in the Championship. He went on to make just five appearances for the Rams last term, but he has become a mainstay this season, starting 19 games in the league so far.
Buchanan is perhaps the most talented and well-rounded left-back on this list. He possesses a fantastic engine, running up and down the pitch nonstop while also boasting a superb touch and pin-point cross. The only reason he isn't the number one choice on this list is because he may prove to be too expensive to be a backup.
His ability isn't a secret either, as a host of Premier League clubs are now reportedly interested in his services after impressing under Wayne Rooney's tutelage. His consistent performances have since earned him two under-21 caps for England
3. Jordan Amavi - Team: Marseille - Cost: Free
Jordan Amavi was once a Premier League player, albeit briefly for a struggling Aston Villa side. He made 10 top-flight appearances for Villa in a 2015/16 season that was marred with injuries. After a further season in the Championship Amavi went to Marseille where has performed to a decent standard.
The Frenchman is now 26-years-old and has plenty of experience under his belt. He is pretty solid defensively and has always had a mean cross from the left flank. However, he isn't the fastest and perhaps lacks the physical attributes that the aforementioned two boast.
Nevertheless, Amavi's contract with Marseille expires this summer - so he would offer the cheap option... an option that Arsenal seemingly love to opt for.
- Aaron Catterson-Reid (@ReidTheGame)