Keiran Tierney

On April 22nd, 2015 17-year-old Kieran Tierney made his Celtic debut. Starting as a ball boy and coming through the academy. He’s now 22, captained the club and established himself as one of the best full-back prospects in Europe.  Tierney has a bright personality with a hardworking attitude. His great mentality has helped him fit in at a huge club like Celtic, achieving five league titles along the way. Celtic first-team coach John Kennedy said, “He leaves everything on the pitch”.

Arsenal Football Club throughout the years have had many reliable and top level left backs. Including the likes of Ashley Cole and Nacho Monreal. With Monreal now on the wrong side of his 30’s, a bid has been made for Celtic’s Kieran Tierney and there is great optimism about an agreement being reached between the two clubs.

A modern full-back

The overlapping full-back has been widely described as the modern full-back. Making forward runs into high and wide positions looking to assist in buildup or cause problems in the final third. Tierney fits this mold. He is athletically brilliant and, possesses the ideal build. His fitness is best suited to the high octane nature of the Premier League. Tierney in the 2018/19 season played 21 games and started 20 averaging 83 minutes per game. 

 

Tierney heat map vs. Red Bull Salzburg.

Tierney breaks forward at every opportunity, given the freedom to bomb down the wing or carry the ball into the opposition half himself. He reeks confidence when he strides forward, using his speed to blast past opponents resulting in him completing 1.1 dribbles per 90. Sometimes even attacking the opposition half spaces rather than going completely wide.

Tierney’s influence in the opposition half cannot be understated, as he attempts 5.5 crosses per 90. In comparison, Sead Kolasinac attempted 2.1 per game in the Premier League. The key to Arsenal’s play has been the out of possession movements of the full-backs in quick passing sequences has been integral to Arsenal’s play.

Most full-backs make overlapping runs. They are rarely seen cutting inside and shooting. Tierney unlike most full-backs cuts onto his weaker right foot and attempts to take shots on target. A relatively unique trait that most full-backs do not have. This difference could bring some unpredictability to Arsenal’s play.

Defensively competent

A criticism of many modern full-backs are their lack of defensive quality despite their play going forward. Managers shapes and systems have been adapted throughout the years to cover space and cover defensive frailties of full-backs. Unai Emery, for example, deployed a back three to make up for the space behind wing-backs during Arsenal’s 2018/19 season.

Tierney, however, has proven to be just as good in his own half as the oppositions. Interestingly Tierney only commits 0.6 fouls per 90 minutes. Making him an astute tackler despite having to defend in counter-attacking scenarios on occasion due to Celtic’s large volume of possession. Sead Kolasinac in comparison averages 1 foul per 90 minutes. Kolasinac’s aggression can be seen as a positive but also could be seen as a liability in some instances and overall bad defending. What makes Tierney’s low foul rates even more impressive is his successful tackles. Tierney completes 3.3 tackles per 90 minutes.

Tierney snuffing out the danger of a Leipzig counter attack.
Tierney recognizes the Leipzig passing sequence and wins the ball back when the attacker looks to move into the highlighted danger area.

How Tierney directly improves Arsenal

In the Premier League Arsenal can come up against many teams deploying a low defensive block in which Arsenal have historically struggled against in recent seasons. Arsenal average the 5th most possession in the Premier League and Celtic average the most in Scotland.

Tierney’s play in buildup is particularly extremely impressive and can assist Arsenal against these deep blocks. Below is a graphic comparing his buildup play to his fellow Scotsman, Andy Robertson who many have called the best left back in the world this season. Tierney’s passing accuracy of 82%, is a particular standout and would fit him in nicely with Arsenal’s signature possession play.

Tierney progression and buildup statistics vs. Andrew Robertsons. (Stats via Statsbomb) (Graphic via Craig Moniz)
Tierney recognizes the space in between the lines opening and provides a perfect pass for his team mate making a run that leads to a. goal.

This does not mean Tierney is a better full-back than Robertson but it can put his outstanding play in being a progressive and effective player when moving the ball forward.

Also worth noting, Arsenal on average mostly attacks down their left side (42% of the time). Celtic are the same way as they look to play through the Scotsmen. Tierney has scored 5 goals and has assisted 22 for his teammates. Celtic’s focus through him is a testament to how highly they rate him and the impact he has on the pitch.

Celtic average attacking sides (Via: WhoScored).

Potential issues

Of course, his statistics need to be put in context, he is playing outside of Europe’s top five leagues in Scotland. Although, highly regarded Andrew Robertson and Virgil Van Dijk both have also come from the Scottish Premiership recently. They are now touted as the best players in their respected positions. Some players no matter the league or level they come from, have an adjustment period.

Kieran Tierney has stepped up against big opposition and has over 30 appearances in European competitions. With highlight performances such as a goal vs. Manchester City in the Champions League and in the Europa League against RB Leipzig.

Tierney makes an impressive sprint from his own half into a goal-scoring opportunity in Manchester City’s box. Finishes the chance.

It would be fair to say that Tierney’s build and skill set could see a seamless transition to life in the Premier League on the pitch. Off the pitch could be where serious issues arise with his concerning medical record. In the 2018/19 season he was out for 132 days, 22 in 2017/18, and 85 in 2016/17. With Arsenal having a serious history of injured squad member issues, this could be a relatively large problem.

Conclusion

Kieran Tierney looks to be the perfect Premier League fullback, and more importantly the perfect player for Arsenal. A player whose commitment is never challenged and quality never doubted. Being at a club like Celtic his whole career, he understands the expectations and pressure that comes with wearing the shirt.

If he can stay healthy for a majority of the season, consistent game time at Premier League level will lead to consistent improvement. Kieran Tierney could go from being one of Celtics finest youth products to one of English football’s top full-backs competing with the likes of Ben Chilwell and Andrew Robertson.