Tierney’s absence highlights Gunners’ weaknesses / Tactical insight into Arsenal’s frailties without Scotsman

Lucky escape

Arsenal battled to win a tough fixture at home to West Ham on Saturday.

Following contrasting season openers, the Gunners were viewed as heavy favourites, and expected to impose themselves on a derisory Hammers side.

Quite the opposite, however, unfolded. Although they managed to score first, it was against the run of play, and West Ham soon equalised with a swift attack down Arsenal’s left.

The relief of Eddie Nketiah’s 85th minute winner was plastered all over Mikel Arteta’s face, as he visibly celebrated the full-time whistle.

LONDON, ENGLAND – SEPTEMBER 19: Sead Kolasinac of Arsenal runs with the ball during the Premier League match between Arsenal and West Ham United at Emirates Stadium on September 19, 2020 in London, England. (Photo by Ian Walton – Pool/Getty Images)

Saturday’s matchup was preceded by the news that Scotland international Kieran Tierney would be replaced in the north Londoners’ starting XI, having felt a tight hip. Bosnian international Sead Kolasinac filled the spot, and endured a difficult evening.

Future worries

Although Mikel Arteta described Tierney as “fine” after the match, with a huge game against Liverpool looming, understanding the issues raised by the Scot’s absence should be brought into focus.

Against Fulham, Arsenal’s left-hand side was comprised of Tierney at left centre-back (LCB), Granit Xhaka at left centre-mid (LCM) and Ainsley Maintland-Niles at left midfield/left wing-back (LM/LWB).

All three interchanged positions on the pitch, in a bid to play to their strengths. Xhaka, for example, became the third LCB when Tierney pushed into an attacking position.

Maitland-Niles would also interchange with Tierney, and even play more centrally depending on Xhaka’s position.

Whilst all three were assigned clear jobs, Tierney’s role was pivotal, and had the biggest impact on how his teammates needed to play.

Crucially, pressure on Xhaka was relieved, with the Swiss international therefore able to focus on his own game and orchestrating play.

Tierney (left) Xhaka (middle) Maitland-Niles (right) heat maps vs Fulham displaying the discipline and positioning of all three. (Source: Wyscout)

Tierney (left) Xhaka (middle) Maitland-Niles (right) heat maps vs Fulham displaying the discipline and positioning of all three. (Source: Wyscout)

This is in stark contrast to how Arsenal’s left-flank operated against West Ham. Arteta decided to swap out Maitland-Niles for the more offensive Saka. In combination with Tierney’s absence, this had a significant effect on the left-hand side’s solidity.

Comparing the heat map below to the one above, Xhaka had a much more intense game. Without Tierney’s creation from deep, Xhaka was relied upon as a focal point to create, connecting the wide areas with through passes.

Kolasinac (left) Xhaka (middle) Saka (right) heat maps vs West Ham showing the added pressure on Xhaka and the lack of defensive discipline from the Bosnian left-back and English wide man. (Source: Wyscout)

Kolasinac (left) Xhaka (middle) Saka (right) heat maps vs West Ham showing the added pressure on Xhaka and the lack of defensive discipline from the Bosnian left-back and English wide man. (Source: Wyscout)

The stats support this further. Despite Arsenal having had 8% less possession against Fulham, Tierney managed to attempt 100 passes, compared to Kolasinac’s 71 versus West Ham.

Meanwhile, Xhaka attempted more than double the number of passes against West Ham than he did at Craven Cottage.

Furthermore, Kolasinac and Saka didn’t deliver the same levels of discipline as their colleagues did in the Fulham clash. With the pair naturally more attack-minded than Tierney and Maitland-Niles, this left major gaps, and exposed Xhaka to more frequent pressure.

LONDON - ENGLAND: West Ham given much space to attack Arsenal after the over-commitment of Bukayo Saka. (Source: Wyscout)

LONDON – ENGLAND: West Ham given much space to attack Arsenal after the over-commitment of Bukayo Saka. (Source: Wyscout)

In the example above, Saka’s eagerness to join the attack left huge spaces for West Ham to attack into. Arsenal’s midfielders were then forced to retreat due to an overload.

Against Fulham, because of the positioning of Tierney, Xhaka and Maitland-Niles, when the Cottagers pressed forward, Arsenal didn’t need to back off, having had a player whom they could commit to press.

As shown below, neither wing-back is visible as West Ham create their scoring chance.

The back-3 has been maintained, but because Bellerin and Saka were caught up-field, the Hammers were able to match their hosts’ defence, and strike.

LONDON - ENGLAND: West Ham goal. Arsenal exposed and punished for poor defensive structure and wide cover. (Source: Wyscout)

LONDON – ENGLAND: West Ham goal. Arsenal exposed and punished for poor defensive structure and wide cover. (Source: Wyscout)

Anfield awaits

Mikel Arteta must act should Tierney not return to fitness in time for the Liverpool clash.

Mohamed Salah and Trent Alexander-Arnold are no doubt set to assault Arsenal’s left-flank. The Spaniard will therefore need to work hard in coaching possible replacements to replicate the solidity showcased at Fulham.

Further defensive instruction will prove key in helping the Gunners to avoid disappointment at Anfield once again.

See also: Concern for Arsenal as explanation emerges for Tierney’s last-minute absence vs West Ham

‘A dream come true’ – Greenwood & Tierney among PL stars hopeful of Lionel Messi arrival


This article was edited by Tom Canton.

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