Kieran Tierney was left out of the Arsenal side who were frustratingly held to a 0-0 draw by Roy Hodgson’s Crystal Palace at the Emirates Stadium on Thursday night.
The man tasked with replacing the 23-year-old was Ainsley Maitland-Niles, who despite having displayed previously he is more than capable of operating as a full-back, to be quite frank, had a bit of a stinker.
Tierney’s absence led to a lack of fluency down the left-hand side with his replacement unable to impact the game in the final third the way the former Celtic man has in recent weeks.
Being a right-footed player playing on the left-hand side meant Maitland-Niles was forever having to cut in field and onto his stronger foot. It often disrupted the flow of the attacks and led to a lack of width, playing right into the hands of the visitors.
Seen by many initially as an old fashioned, no-nonsense defender, Tierney has impressed the Arsenal faithful by displaying some previously untapped attacking prowess of late, even scoring a stunning goal at the Hawthorns on January 2.
The fact he has created chances recently with his marauding runs up the left flank has seen him emerge as perhaps Mikel Arteta’s biggest creative influence.
In terms of progressive passes – defined as a pass that moves the ball at least ten yards closer to the opponent’s goal or one completed within the penalty area – Tierney, during the recent run of three successive Premier League victories, managed eleven. This was eight more than Bukayo Saka and seven more than Emile Smith Rowe (via fbref.com).
It’s perhaps proof of how important the Scot has become to this team and an indicator of how much they missed him against Palace. Or perhaps stands for the creative weakness Arsenal do have in more advanced positions.
The Gunners have been linked with a number of attacking midfield players during this transfer window, with Norwich City’s Emiliano Buendia, Borussia Dortmund’s Julian Brandt and Real Madrid’s Isco among the primary names. You could make a case that any of the three would go some way in adding some much-needed guile to a midfield that has, for the most part, this season been clearly lacking in that department.
With the Gunners having scored just 20 goals in their 18 Premier League fixtures so far, a solution to an issue that once again showed itself on Thursday should be Arteta’s biggest concern.
Given the club recently took a loan from the Bank of England in order to help deal with the financial impact of the ongoing health crisis, you could be forgiven for thinking the north London club are unlikely to throw big money at the issue between now and the end of the month.
Saka and Smith Rowe’s impressive displays have earned them plaudits since the victory over Chelsea on Boxing Day and their positive influence should not be overlooked. However, Tierney’s absence versus Palace seemed to significantly handicap the Gunners in a creative sense.
So perhaps, despite many putting the recent upturn in form down to the introduction of a specialist attacking midfielder – Thursday night evidenced that Arsenal’s biggest creative influence at present had, in fact, been on the field the whole time.