Tierney, Bellerin, Holding
Will their arrival alone lead to better defending?
Hector Bellerin, Rob Holding, and Kieran Tierney are all young and promising defenders, who Arsenal haven’t had the time to bed in this season.
Bellerin dipped a little in the past couple of seasons, though he stepped up before his injury at home to Chelsea in the Premier League last year. A good season could see him in contention for the Spain Euro 2020 squad, and reignite the potential he showed in the 14/15 and 15/16 seasons.
Rob Holding notably was praised by Arsene Wenger for “not costing £55m” but then has the potential to be top for Arsenal and England. His injury sustained at Old Trafford was an apparent blow – but he has the time and ability to come back stronger.
Kieran Tierney was highly successful at Celtic, and is seen by many Scottish national side followers as akin to Liverpool’s Andy Robertson. Robertson no less has been stellar in Liverpool’s title-challenging sides currently, and in their European Cup success. So this is no small comparison, certainly, and could well be a boon in our defensive improvements.
But whilst these players are rightly valued, their inclusion alone won’t enhance our defence.
The issue with Arsenal’s defence is not personnel based. It’s rooted as much, and perhaps more, in organisation and structure.
It’s a mistake to assume that their inclusion alone would solve things.
What we need, really, is players of a specific quality and learning capacity.
There are often comparisons made with George Graham’s sides, and naturally the famous back four (or five including Seaman). All were young players, who had either come from our youth ranks (Adams), or from the lower divisions. This is true if one includes Andy Linighan (our 1993 FA Cup winning goal scorer) and Martin Keown. John Lukic too came initially from Leeds, who at that specific time was a lower division side.
Due to their youth, natural ability, and energy, Graham was able to mould them into an effective defensive unit which stands amongst the best in English footballing history. Compared to others of their positions, they stood amongst the best in England, Britain, Europe and perhaps the world in some cases. It was a mix of excellent scouting and identification that led to them excelling, as well as a defined team plan and new culture under Graham. We had top defenders under Howe and Neill, but Graham instilled a new culture that enabled our title and cup successes. Yes, they all made mistakes – they were human. But these were not the norm by any stretch, and the physical and mental qualities of the Graham-era defence is a template for where we should go now.
The “Redmen” comparison…
Eras and practices change in football. But the honing and development of skills is universal, and Graham’s example from the mid to late 1980s is something we need to draw on now. Liverpool’s defensive improvements over the past 18 months are no surprise as it stands. Virgil van Dijk’s inclusion has aided things, and he rightfully attained the UEFA Player of the Year Award. He is Liverpool’s defensive lynchpin and his heading, game-reading, and capacity to play from the back has been critical to their defensive enhancement. Liverpool’s structure has changed, and Klopp rightly identified a defensive cornerstone and a top-level keeper as key components.
We shouldn’t ape Liverpool in everything they do – though there are some evident parallels in their reformation and ours.
The key then is to integrate defenders of a higher quality, which can be coached and moulded in a cohesive unit. This is the primary lesson I feel about Liverpool’s success.
If accounting for Bellerin and Holding, there also is a misreading here, in my view. During the opening part of last season, and before Holding’s injury certainly, the defence wasn’t necessarily on point.
The wins vs. Watford, West Ham and Everton looked good on paper, but a mix of poor finishing and bad tracking/marking saw us lucky to win in some cases. These sides all employed a similar game plan, involving exposing our channels, high pressing, and pace. Old boy Theo and Richarlison tore us open often. Success missed a golden chance to score we hit Watford late in that game. And West Ham via Felipe Anderson and Arnautovic too missed some sitters in their loss at our place.
We just had superior firepower to carry us over the line, namely from Auba and Laca.
But it paints a nearly false picture to say that our defence would be good once they come back in. Especially if they’ve been weak in games they’ve featured in.
A further example is the 3-1 win vs. Leicester. They started off pretty well and took the lead early on. Our superior attacking talent won the day again, but both Holding and Bellerin played in that game.
This for me is the major caveat in the “trinity” returning.
It must be accompanied by a stronger overall defensive shape.
And it must also be linked with better midfield balance and personnel.
Xhaka has come under some stick lately, and rightly so.
But his traits and positioning is an example as to why we concede goals, and why personnel returning alone won’t solve much.
A team is said to defend and attack as a unit, and this is true. Which further leads to the coaching argument presented prior.
Don’t get me wrong – Tierney, Holding and Bellerin can all be £100m-plus defenders at their peaks.
It’s just there are deeper issues here which their inclusion alone won’t rectify.
In reality, our defending hasn’t improved much since the early part of last season, and this adds weight (in my view) to the caveat.
Tierney definitely is amongst the higher quality of defender that we need.
But without being repetitive, the coaching side of things is paramount.
He will bring a better balance then we’ve had before. Monreal, who recently left us of course, was a sound defender overall, and less rash than Koscielny or even Sokratis now. But we have to utilise Tierney’s ability well, if we’re to improve to the levels we desire.
Tierney can be our van Dijk, if we harness his evident quality to our collective advantage.
I feel as things stand now – imagine if we wish to cook a roast dinner with all of the trimmings. We have a joint of beef and vegetables, but we still have to ensure that all items are cooked well. We have the ingredients to use at our disposal – but we now have to meld them together to form something palatable. It’s up to us now to ensure our defensive veg isn’t soggy, or our defensive Yorkshire puddings aren’t runny.
This puts pressure on Emery and rightly so, and if done well it could be the key to our top four hopes.
In subsequent parts, I’ll explain why I feel shape and positioning are additional problems, and how I think our defensive woes reached to the state they’re in now.