Tierney and Bellerin could be the catalysts to kick-start Arteta’s vision
With the Premier League seemingly close to returning Mikel Arteta looks to be blessed with multiple players coming back from injury.
Calum Chambers is out running again and Lucas Torreira has not been shy about showing off his improved physique.
However, it will be the full return of wing-back duo Hector Bellerin and Kieran Tierney that I believe will give Arteta the most joy and could prove to be transformative in taking us to the next level.
Fit and raring to go
Kieran Tierney has been out since he dislocated his shoulder in the 3-1 victory against West Ham last December, a game that marked Freddie Ljungberg’s first win as interim manager.
Whilst Bellerin had been playing with a groin tear just after recovering from a ruptured cruciate ligament that he picked up against Chelsea in January 2019.
There have been reports linking Tierney to a move to his former boss Brendan Rodgers’ high-flying Leicester.
I wouldn’t give these reports much significance. Tierney is a player I’d back to thrive in the new regime and he’s been unlucky with injuries that aren’t likely to reoccur.
Speaking to Gunners legend Ian Wright for Adidas, Arteta revealed he’s excited to give ‘special’ Tierney the opportunity to play for the Gunners:
“His attitude, his commitment, his willingness, it’s incredible.”
“I think he’s going to bring something special to us. It [the injury] has been a shame, but it’s part of his development. During your career, you go through these moments.”
“I challenged him to say, Kieran, how are you going to react to that? You can’t feel sorry for yourself, this happened.”
“Okay, the level of pressure now is a little bit higher, you have to deal with it, you’re playing with a top club, top expectations, deal with it.”
“You have everything to be successful here.”
“You have the best possible attitude that I’ve known from a player, go and live your profession and enjoy it.”
Both players started Arsenal’s two behind-closed-doors friendlies against Charlton and Brentford this week and could prove to be the wing-back engine room that Arteta has been looking for.
The Curious Case of Bukayo Saka
Bukayo Saka has been nothing short of a revelation this season and his stats as a left-back are up there with the best in the league.
However, both the player and the club seem to feel the young Englishman’s true position is higher up the pitch.
One of my criticisms of our current system under Arteta is that on the left side of the pitch especially players are tied to specific zones and that makes us too predictable.
Aubameyang is mostly occupying the left half-space as a second striker which means Saka provides the majority of the width on that flank and that requires Xhaka to cover the space he vacates defensively.
This is effective because it caters for Aubameyang being closer to goal, Saka’s awesome crossing delivery and Xhaka is in a space that isn’t as frequently pressed while giving him targets to hit with his impressive passing range.
The problem is it’s a blueprint that we’re struggling to deviate from.
Teams we face know that if they shut down Saka on the left it takes away pretty much all of our creativity in the final third from 50% of the pitch – something that I believe Arteta will try to change when different profiles of player come in.
Where-as on the right-hand-side we see a lot more potential problems for opponents.
Bellerin and previously Ainsley Maitland-Niles are both asked to invert and overlap, Özil pulls closer to Pepe on the right-wing in an attempt to engineer 2 vs 1’s and Ceballos is given much more licence to follow the ball and be involved in the play as it develops.
There are multiple avenues for chance creation that are hard to deal with – If you put multiple players to stop Pepe’s dribbling you leave the right-half-space for Ozil to exploit.
If you try to congest the middle of the pitch to protect that half-space Bellerin will have acres of space to overlap and if you do choose to defend the width of the pitch Ceballos will be able to hit multiple players with line breaking passes in the gaps.
We need to transpose this variety of threat over to the left side of the pitch.
Pep’s shapeshifter wing-backs
It was one of Pep’s biggest requirements in the 2017 summer transfer window to replace the ageing wing-backs he had inherited from the previous regime in Aleksandar Kolarov and Pablo Zabaleta.
They were replaced to the tune of just over £99m that secured the signings of Kyle Walker (£47.43m) from Spurs and Benjamin Mendy (£51.75m) from French Champions Monaco.
It was part of that summer rebuild that saw Man City go from 3rd (78 points) to 1st (100 points), breaking multiple records on the way.
One of the hallmarks of Pep’s Manchester City team is the versatility of the wing-back’s.
They can invert and position themselves into midfield for build-up or counter-pressing purposes or they can overlap the wingers which allow them to drop into narrow positions to create overloads in the final third.
To do this requires impressive technical, mental and athletic attributes that both Tierney and Bellerin have in abundance and it won’t be until we have this kind of fluidity on both sides of the pitch that we really see Arteta’s philosophy in full flow.
Although it may seem unjust to replace Saka from his left wing-back berth with him playing so well there’s no doubt that a fully fit Kieran Tierney working in tandem with the fully fit Hector Bellerin can bring a new dynamism to this team.
The hope could be that this allows us to take the pressure off Saka and focus on his development rather than forcing him to play an emergency position week in and week out while also working towards the future of Arteta’s tactical plan.