With 13 minutes remaining in Arsenal’s clash with West Ham United on Sunday, Kieran Tierney produced a piece of defending that highlighted his impressive qualities as a left-back. Matching Jarrod Bowen’s progress on West Ham’s counter-attack, Tierney showed his pace, attack and timing by making a crucial block to level the score at 2-2.
It was classic Tierney, and a reminder of why he was considered by many to be one of the most effective defenders in the Premier League over the last few seasons. Few defenders in the league can keep up with Bowen, and few players would be able to stop such an attack.
The problem with Tierney, however, is that those qualities are no longer what Arsenal need from their left-back. Mikel Arteta’s side have moved in a different direction this season, with Oleksandr Zinchenko becoming vital to their playing in that position, and Tierney has hardly been seen as such.
Prior to this trip to the London Stadium, Tierney had not started a league game since December. Zinchenko, who was unavailable through injury on Sunday but is expected back for Friday’s game against Southampton, is one of the first names on Arteta’s team sheet.
Against West Ham, the absence of Zinchenko was ultimately one of Arsenal’s biggest problems. The same is also true for the absence of William Saliba, who is suffering from an ongoing back issue. Without two of their four first-choice goalkeepers, Arsenal lacked the attacking discipline and defensive security that have been crucial to their success this season.
This is not to criticize Tierney and Rob Holding, Saliba’s representative. Both are excellent Premier League players who would have been successful at many other clubs in the division. It’s simply that they are different players from Zinchenko and Saliba, with very different skill sets.
It could be argued that Tierney would be a far more suitable full-back than Zinchenko for most of the 20 teams in the Premier League. The same could also be true of Holding – an excellent defender in his own box, with excellent aerial ability – compared to Saliba. But for Arsenal 2023, there is a reason why Zinchenko and Saliba always play if they are fit.
Without them on Sunday, Arsenal had two significant problems. Firstly, the lack of accuracy in their early play in the second half. Zinchenko’s incisive passing between the lines is so fundamental to Arsenal’s progress on the ball and, in his absence, their movement seemed far more rapid and forceful than usual.
Arsenal were dominant in the first 30 minutes but, as West Ham began to press harder, Arteta’s side never seemed able to play the lethal passes between the lines. An indication of the difference between Tierney and Zinchenko is that the Scot played 39 accurate passes on Sunday – compared to Zinchenko’s season average of 64 accurate passes per game.
Zinchenko couldn’t beat Bowen that Tierney did in the second half, but Tierney can’t provide the same creativity on the ball as Zinchenko. For Arteta, the latter is clearly more important than the former.
The second major problem for Arsenal was Saliba’s loss of pace in the back line. The Frenchman is a physical phenomenon, a 6ft 4in powerhouse who accelerates like a racecar, and his recovery speed has been fundamental to Arsenal’s defensive fortitude this season.
With Saliba in the team, Arsenal are able to push higher up the pitch. This allowed them to pressure their opponents, pinning them back in their own half and giving them no way out. If the opposition team tried to play out through their defenders, Arsenal’s forwards and midfielders would put high pressure on them. If they tried to go far, over the top, Saliba would gobble up the ball.
This season, Arsenal’s average opening distance (defined by Opta as the average distance from their own goal that started the team’s opening sequence of play) was 44.5 metres, comfortably the highest in any season under Arteta. Against West Ham, however, that defensive line fell back towards their own goal, to 41.2m.
In the previous three games without Saliba, the loss of his pace has not been a major problem. But against West Ham on Sunday, Arsenal’s defensive problem was perhaps the most glaring. Michail Antonio and Bowen constantly ran into the goal, prolonging the game and creating chaos. “We probably got the ball behind the opposition more than we have done all season,” said David Moyes, the West Ham manager.
A consequence of the back and forth nature of the game was that Arsenal could not build momentum or rhythm in the second half. From composed in the first half, to revealed in the second. As Moyes said afterwards, West Ham would have won the game if they had taken their chances.
Arsenal’s squad depth has been questioned for much of this season and, to their credit, they have often found solutions when key players are missing. When Gabriel Jesus was absent for months, for example, Eddie Nketiah and Leandro Trossard emerged. When Martin Odegaard missed the trip to Brentford, Fabio Vieira was excellent.
But this time, the loss of two of their most important players was very damaging. With City chasing them, it is hard to see how Arsenal can maintain their position at the top of the table without Saliba and Zinchenko in their team.