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Kieran Tierney

Arsenal, 2019–

Kieran Tierney became, alongside David Luiz, one of two significant signings Arsenal made on the last day of 2019’s summer transfer window when they paid Celtic £25m to recruit the then 22-year-old in an attempt to strengthen what had long been an unsettled defence. The promising full-back, who for even longer had been considered one of Scotland’s finest prospects, made an encouraging start under Unai Emery, and has since continued to progress under Mikel Arteta, Emery’s successor.

Arsenal are demonstrating wider signs of improvement under Arteta, who has so far shown faith in their younger players, and under his management Tierney is expected to continue to improve. “In the first week working with him, I could see after two or three days why there was a lot of clamour for him,” said Brendan Rodgers, who managed Tierney at Celtic, when the Scotland international joined Arsenal. “I’ve got no doubt he will do very, very well in his time.”

Tactical analysis
Tierney offers a strong defensive presence. He is capable of duelling for possession both in the air and on the ground, even against powerful opponents, and is particularly successful against left-footed right wingers attempting to cut inside with the ball. He also has the tactical awareness to cover effectively to support and protect the central defender and goalkeeper playing alongside him against crosses and switches of play.

He is similarly capable when in possession. He is composed when advancing with the ball, and possesses the technical quality to cross towards a variety of targets and their runs, whether doing so first time and low, following an overlap, or when playing the ball more delicately from a deeper position. Those deliveries remain similarly accurate when he is running at speed, often owing to his balance, vision and sense of timing, or when he needs to explosively advance beyond an opponent and play the ball around them.

For him to truly fulfil his potential, however, Tierney’s switches of play need to improve. For all of his accuracy when playing possession along the left (below), when he attempts to send it inside, the speed of delivery is often misjudged – even if it reaches its desired target – and is therefore less effective. The habit of him playing less accurate passes when under pressure has also persisted; the value of possession in the Premier League is greater than he would have experienced in Scotland, and the quality of opposition also means that it represents a greater risk to sacrifice it.

While his ability to be explosive during a short press is also a strength – particularly against switches of play towards his favoured left foot – he is more vulnerable after lengthier presses. Against opponents as fast as Raheem Sterling, Mo Salah and Marcus Rashford that vulnerability can also be used against him, regardless of the efficiency of his tackling.

Role at Arsenal
If Nacho Monreal’s return to Spain had left Tierney competing with Sead Kolasinac to be Arsenal’s senior left-back, the impressive emergence of Bukayo Saka then gave him further competition for selection. Similarly to Emery, Arteta first largely favoured a 4-2-3-1 formation in which Arsenal’s full-backs were encouraged to support the wide attacker in front of them; since then he has overseen a notable improvement with a 3-4-3 in which Tierney has been used in both central defence and as a wing-back.

From the wide positions he has become accustomed to adopting – Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s presence in front of him means he often remains deeper – Tierney convincingly sends crosses into the penalty area, often towards the striker moving across goal or the right-sided wide forward. He is also getting caught out less regularly during moments of transition because of the reduced spaces behind him, and can benefit from Arteta’s preference for Granit Xhaka to drift towards left-back from the base of midfield to cover his potential attempts to advance (below).

It is when the left-sided attacker drifts into a more central position, and has drawn the defending right-back, that Tierney has been invited to advance into more advanced territory, and often to cross to towards the near post or to play a cut-back towards a further teammate. He has also been seen isolating his opposing full-back, and driving at them with pace.

When Arsenal have built possession along the right, Tierney’s delayed advances can compensate for overhit passes or crosses towards the left, and capitalise on defences drawn to negate the first phase of the relevant attack. If he can improve his weaknesses – including how effective he proves when opponents double up on him while defending against him – his natural talent can be expected to suit the approach Arteta has so far preferred. If he is instead selected in central defence, he provides a flexible option for the occasions his manager may want to reorganise them to play with a back four.

Kieran Tierney

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