Gunner Thoughts

The Left Back Spectrums of Arsenal

Tierney? Tomiyasu? Zinchenko? Theres three left back options with overlapping skills and distinct differences. Whats Arteta’s approach?

When you’re a fan of a sports team, you often find yourself trying to look in from the outside. It’s too much to ask a dedicated fan to just sit back and let things play out, and don’t you ever try and embark on some journey to remind them they have no control over things, it will NOT end well. It’s futile and, frankly, it should be.

The best part about being a fan is speculating what your team is going to do, what it should be doing, and participating and investing yourself, but let’s not kid, these mental games we play with ourselves often lead to strong attachments and feelings. Again, the best and worst part of being a fan. Although, I contend there is little as thrilling as having one of your speculations or opinions play out on the field to the success of your team.

However, in recent weeks the complexity of Arsenal’s left back selections and options have ramped up which has lead to a lot of fans trying to understand or find answers to what Arteta may be looking for when he makes his selection at this position. It’s not the first time we have had a period in which fans have looked at the side and tried to identify the preferred profile that Arteta saw for the future of his side. Cough, cough — the months people spent trying to figure out who or what Arteta considered optimal for this striker position.

Many thought it was a big, hulking bloke that could get on the end of crosses while assisting in hold up and link up play. Others had a long list of other options. In the end, we wound up with Gabriel Jesus who has a little bit from column A, a little bit from column B and seems to fit Arteta’s vision of an all-action, creator and scorer.

So how should we feel about the left back options and how is Mikel viewing his selection?

At the end of last season, Kieran Tierney stood as Arsenal’s clear starting left back, although fears over his injury record demanded something be done. Nuno Tavares was deemed too raw and doesn’t seem to be a fit for the inverted technical left back/midfielder that Arteta seems to want in his lineup. The solution: Oleksandr Zinchenko.

With the recent selection of Tomiyasu at left back given Zinchenko’s injury, Arsenal are moving forward with the understanding that there are three viable left backs: Oleksandr Zinchenko, Takehiro Tomiyasu, Kieran Tierney.

Each of these players seems to land somewhere on three different spectrums:

  1. Technical Abilities
  2. Defensive Abilities
  3. Attacking Abilities

Granted it’s not quite as clean as a rank order, but for the sake of simplicity I will simply give them a rank for this article.

Technical Abilities

  1. Oleksandr Zinchenko
  2. Takehiro Tomiyasu
  3. Kieran Tierney

Defensive Abilities

  1. Takehiro Tomiyasu
  2. Kieran Tierney
  3. Oleksandr Zinchenko

Attacking Abilities

  1. Kieran Tierney
  2. Oleksandr Zinchenko
  3. Takehiro Tomiyasu

As I stated before, it’s certainly not this clean nor is it evenly spaced between the candidates in each spectrum, but you get the general idea. I also gave the edge to Kieran Tierney in attacking simply because he is more fit for an attacking left back role that tends to get down the line versus Oleksandr Zinchenko’s aid in the attack coming from his distribution and technical abilities from the midfield. I find these two close in their own respective attacking manners, so if you disagree with that rank, I would understand — try not to get bogged down.

What has been made pretty clear this year is that Arteta intends to deploy an inverted fullback whenever possible. This allows Arsenal to progress into their 2-3-5 attacking shape, it helps create overloads in early phases to assist Partey in pushing Arsenal up the field, and by finding the correct inverted profile, it adds an additional dose of technical quality to the midfield. In the case of Zinchenko, it nearly adds an additional midfielder. Finally, this person provides a layer of cover and support for the front-five for retaining possession, recovering any loose balls to help sustain pressure, or routing out easy transition opportunities from opposition attackers that leak out.

What seems clear is that Arteta ranks the priority of these abilities as listed above: 1. Technical ……. 2/3. Attacking. Defending.

Which brings us to our candidates. If I had to guess, when Oleksandr Zinchenko is healthy once again, he will return to his position. He may need some time to bed back into the demand of minutes, but it’s quite clear this is why Arteta bought him. It’s also clear that Zinchenko’s injury streak is very real meaning they need secondary options.

Which brings us to the competition between Tomiyasu and Tierney, a little bit more open for competition. Tomiyasu clearly lies closer to Zinchenko in technical ability, and outranks both Tierney and Zinchenko in defensive abilities. His attacking profile is more limited than Kieran Tierney’s but he more than makes up for it with his abilities in central areas, mobility, and defensive skills. Not to mention, he offers size. Arsenal’s backline with Tomiyasu at left back is physically imposing.

Conversely, Kieran Tierney offers a lot of energy, personality, attacking potential and has certainly been working at his abilities to invert — a role he was never asked to play to fulfill in his career prior to the second half of last year. Where his future potential lies feels greatly dependent on his ability to increase his comforts in those central areas to round out himself as a versatile attacking fullback. If he can figure it out, he will be a very impressive player, possibly one of the best, but you don’t transform into a technical footballer at elite levels over night.

For now, it seems like Arteta has given the position to Tomiyasu who has performed at a level to retain the role in Zinchenko’s absence. His technical abilities even make up for the fact that he isn’t naturally left footed. His ability to invert and play alongside Partey was clean against Nottingham Forest, he’s already shown that defensive ability to shut down attackers like Mohamed Salah, and these two abilities mean that Granit Xhaka and Gabriel Martinelli have greatly reduced defensive responsibilities. They are supported by an absolute wall behind them and therefore continue to push onward.

If I had to forecast ahead to the coming weeks, the lead position will stay with Tomiyasu until Zinchenko returns. What will become more interesting, is what Arteta does with his lineup when Zinchenko returns. There’s no question about the fact that Zinchenko and Tomiyasu lie on opposite sides of the defensive spectrum, but also have some gap between them when it comes to attacking. Mikel has voiced the desire for more ‘firepower’ so which fullback stands to supply that better? The one that actively distributes and facilitates the attack or the defensive barrier that allows the attackers in front of him to take up extremely attacking positions. In the meantime, Tierney may be stuck on the outside looking inward.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s