I am eagerly waiting for a time when Arsenal football club can end a season with a natural left-back starting. Kieran Tierney is a fantastic player, my favourite member of our current squad, but there’s a caveat – his lack of availability. We knew this when we signed him. In his 3 seasons with us including this one, Tierney has completed 986, 2299 and 1916 minutes respectively. Bottom line: injury-prone and unreliable to play over 30+ games a season. Arsenal did recognize this too…
Summer 2021 – Arsenal look to address left-back issues:
The early stages of the summer transfer window of 2021 saw Arsenal linked with a number of left-backs. General consensus: Fans didn’t want a stop-gap option, we wanted someone young with room to grow. The club echoed this sentiment and we ended up signing Nuno Tavares from Benfica for a sum of £6.8m.
Speaking to Arsenal media, Arteta hailed the signing of Tavares:
“To be fair to the scouting department, they have done brilliantly to identify a talent with the qualities that we required, at the age we required and financially it was something we can afford. The boy has already been pretty impressive. I think he is the right profile for what we are trying to build here.”
Tavares gets his opportunity:
When the inevitable Kieran Tierney niggle took place, Tavares had the opportunity to start his first Premier League game against Aston Villa. During that match, a number of things were evident. This was a player with bags of potential – phenomenal physical characteristics, great power with his running, capacity to underlap and a strong weaker right foot. His tireless energy and drive to keep bombing forward were also impressive and endeared himself to the Arsenal faithful.
Having said that, he wasn’t the finished article. Who is at 21 years of age? Defensively, there was room for improvement. In the build-up, he wasn’t always composed enough. And in the final third, his decision making was erratic. There are also moments in the game when you need to slow it down. This is a player that always wants to go 200mph. Despite these limitations, he has the attributes to work with and develop. Between October and the first week of December, Tavares went on an impressive run and started games despite Kieran Tierney being available for a number of them.
Tierney reclaims his throne:
A few difficult moments at Anfield seemed to dent his confidence. The player would go on to have an abject display at Old Trafford, partly culpable for Manchester United’s second goal. Against Everton, with about 20 minutes to go, Arsenal had to defend a 1-0 lead. Kieran Tierney came off and was replaced by Tavares.
Everton went on to score 2 goals in the last 20 minutes. Now, this isn’t Tavares’ fault alone. Several poor performances resulted in our defeats at Liverpool, United and Everton. But from Arteta’s point of view, Tierney had to come back in. Arsenal went on an excellent run from the middle of December till the end of March in the Premier League with Tierney starting virtually every single game.
Tavares’ poor form continues:
Tavares was clearly lacking in confidence after his indifferent displays away from home. And that’s understandable considering he’s a young player coming to a new country and a significantly more competitive league. On the 9th of January, his poor form continued, with Arteta infamously substituting him before half-time away to Nottingham Forest in what some deemed to regard as an act of humiliation. Let’s be honest – it was a shocking performance, reminiscent of Eboue against Wigan Athletic all those years ago. I felt Arteta took the decision that was best for the team but also tried to protect the player from further damage. Tavares’ substitution didn’t change much, however – Arsenal’s poor display through the rest of the game continued, culminating in a 0-1 defeat.
Tavares got his first Premier League start in almost 5 months against Crystal Palace last week, a game in which we just didn’t get going. While the player didn’t have a good performance, Arsenal just didn’t turn up. Every single player was shocking, but it was Tavares who got substituted. Let’s also consider one more thing – Tavares was tasked with a deeper role, something he simply is not used to. His best quality is to drive forward with the ball and for that he needs to be given the license to do so. However, Arteta’s system doesn’t allow for this.
If the right-back inverts, as Tomiyasu did, the left-back would have the freedom to stay high and attack more. But with Tomiyasu out and Cedric unable to invert, we weren’t able to deploy a system that enabled Tavares to showcase his strengths and that ended in disaster. One possible solution would have been to play a 4-2-3-1, with Granit Xhaka in a deeper role being tasked to cover that space.
Mikel Arteta needs to adapt and find a solution… FAST!
The performance in the second half against Palace did improve after Tavares got subbed off, but we also need to consider the game state. Palace were leading 2-0, got themselves into a deep block and soaked up pressure. Against Brighton, we deployed tactics similar to the last 45 minutes at Selhurst Park and it failed. We had our best midfielder unavailable and we played our second best midfielder at left-back, leaving our 22-year-old midfielder who hasn’t started a Premier League game since November to play all by himself. The result was hardly surprising. The disjointed nature of the performance did not sit well with the crowd. One of the things I did find heartwarming is when Nuno was warming by the touchline. People in my block chanted “‘Nuno, Nuno, Nuno'”! The player responded by clapping the crowd.
Arteta has to adapt and is currently not playing to some of his player’s strengths. This, especially at a time in the season when results are of paramount importance. We have 8 games remaining and should deploy a system that gives us the best chance of winning these games. That’s only possible if our players play well individually and collectively – for this to be the case, you put them in roles they’re comfortable with. We need to back Tavares – not just the manager and his coaching staff, but also the fans. He needs to feel confident. If Arteta doesn’t back the player, however, it could well be the end of Tavares at Arsenal.
If there ever was a time to use a backup left-back, it is now. Some have suggested that we should sign a left-back on Tierney’s level and while there are merits in doing this, it is a topic for another day. Let’s focus on now.
What are your thoughts on this whole Tavares situation? I’m interested to hear your thoughts in the comments. Look forward to discussing this with all of you.