As Arsenal prepares for a grueling schedule, Mikel Arteta can relax knowing that he has all the depth he needs in a crucial area of the field.
Being an Arsenal full-back is not easy. Your manager will not accept players who can simply charge up and down the flanks; the tactical demands placed on those who occupy wide areas go far beyond what they did before Arteta took over. You might be expected to join Thomas Partey in central midfield one game and crash toward the by-line the next to provide cutbacks.
As Gabriel Martinelli detailed in an interview with The Times of London this week, Arsenal’s build-up through wide areas is a complex machine. “Arteta always tells us that when a full-back gets into a wider position, Xhaka should attack his opponent’s back, and I’d have to find the right moment to roll inside,” the Brazilian explained. “I did it against Crystal Palace several times. Zina [Oleksandr Zinchenko] gets the ball wide, Xhaka attacks someone’s back, and I bring it in.”
Takehiro Tomiyasu took up a deeper position further from the touchline on Thursday night, a release valve if Fabio Vieira and Marquinhos needed one.
Fortunately for Arteta, he has a quartet capable of handling any situation. Kierney, one of the standout performers in Arsenal’s 3-0 victory over Bodo/Glimt on Thursday, is the closest thing Arsenal has to an orthodox full-back in their ranks, all front-footed runs and energy reserves for days (when he is fit). Tomiyasu, who started across from him tonight, is a model of versatility, equally at home as a third center back as he was combining with Marquinhos down the right. He was even trusted to play left-back for the last 20 minutes.
It says a lot about the depth of talent in this position that these two, who was no one’s idea of weak links last season, have struggled to make the Premier League’s strongest XI this season. Ben White has moved out of his center-back position with ease and could have been Arsenal’s man of the match in Saturday’s north London derby. There’s also Oleksandr Zinchenko. In Ukrainian colors, the 25-year-old appears to be a top-tier midfield playmaker, and with his club, he can frequently function as the pivot of their build-up play.
One could argue that no Premier League manager has had such depth at full-back since Mauricio Pochettino rotated Kieran Trippier, Kyle Walker, Danny Rose, and Ben Davies (even Pep Guardiola tends to keep this group low in number but sky-high in quality). Cedric, the Euro 2016 winner, is also available in an emergency.
He had the right players for the job tonight. Tierney’s running was intense from the start; after only nine minutes, he had driven to the by-line, cutting back for an off-balance Fabio Vieira to clip the ball against the bar. His assistance would arrive soon after.
As Gabriel Martinelli charged upfield on the counter, attracting four players, his left back kept his run wide. Tierney took a touch to steady himself, and his shot went out rather than in off the inside of the post. Eddie Nketiah, as usual, was on hand to convert the rebound. He may have diversified his game into build-up and possession plays in recent years, but this is the purest Nketiah, a player with a sixth sense for where the ball will land that you simply cannot teach.
That put Arsenal on track for a comfortable victory. Five minutes later, as Rob Holding rose to flick home Vieira’s pinpoint cross from the right, the 5,000 Bodo/Glimt fans fell silent. Only on rare occasions did Arsenal fans fill the void, perhaps saving their voices for Sunday’s showdown with Liverpool. The hosts, for their part, seemed content to sit on their two-goal lead until late in the game, when substitute Gabriel Jesus sent defenders crashing to the ground down the left by-line before rolling the ball across for Vieira to score his second goal since joining from Porto this summer.
As the game moved along in second gear, Tomiyasu appeared determined to earn a place in that starting XI. The Japanese international was strong in the air and resolute when the Norwegians increased the pressure in the final stages. The fact that he played 90 minutes bodes well for a player who has been plagued by injuries since arriving from Bologna. It’s yet another encouraging sign for Arteta in a season full of them.Arsenal is top of the Premier League and Europa League table, but it is too early to think about title contention, at least in the former. However, in their quartet of top-tier full-back options, they have all the depth they could need for a season in which there appears to be a lot at stake.