Both Kieran Tierney and Hector Bellerin have been putting in the work during self-isolation. They offer Arsenal and Mikel Arteta the full-back pair that Unai Emery never had.
Unai Emery always wanted to play with a high-energy approach. He amped the Arsenal players up, demanded that they press throughout the pitch, and managed on the sidelines, gesticulating wildly, with the same intensity that he expected them to play with.
There were plenty of issues with his approach, especially regarding the execution of it. He may have aimed for the right general style, but the tactical implementation was haphazard, poorly communicated, and lacking in the required detail and instruction. The improvements made under the meticulous Mikel Arteta illustrated as much within a matter of weeks.
However, while Emery certainly made mistakes, he also had his hands tied behind his back in several areas. One of the crucial difficulties he failed to overcome was injuries, and at no other position was this more detrimental than full-back.
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In Emery’s first season, Hector Bellerin manned the right-back role superbly until Christmas. After two seasons scuppered by an ankle problem in which he was never fully fit, he finally looked match-sharp. He supplied five assists in this period.
However, on the opposite flank, Emery’s options were limited. Nacho Monreal had slowed and was more suited to a centre-back role, especially in a back three, while Sead Kolasinac suffered from serious defensive shortcomings.
After a second half of the season in which Emery pieced together both full-back positions as best as he could, there was tangible excitement for his second season in charge with two proper options at both positions: a recovered Bellerin on the right side and newly signed Kieran Tierney on the left. If only.
Both entered the season injured, Bellerin still recovering from the ACL rupture he suffered in January and Tierney rehabbing from a sports hernia operation he underwent at Celtic. They were never able to fully recover. Bellerin suffered a hamstring tear upon his return to the team, while Tierney dislocated his shoulder. Emery was fired and Arsenal needed to move on.
After dislocating his shoulder in December, Tierney has not featured for the club. However, with the extended delay to the season due to COVID-19, he has had extra time to get fit before he makes return. And it seems as though both he and Bellerin in are in tip-top condition.
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Per STATSports, who have supplied GPS trackers of many of the players in the Premier League, including Manchester United, Manchester City, Liverpool and Spurs. Of all the players they track, Tierney ranks first for High Metabolic Load Distance, this is defined as the distance travelled at high speed coupled with the distance covered in accelerations and decelerations. Bellerin is second.
This comes in the aftermath of Tierney being described as extremely fit by Arsenal trainer, Shad Forsythe. Speaking to Arsenal Player, Forsythe said:
“The great thing, if there ever is a great thing about having a shoulder injury verse a lower limb injury in football is that we run. Kieran’s probably going to come back in very, very fit and in shape from a running perspective because he’s been doing tonnes of running or different patterns, ball work, things for his position specifically and also talking to Mikel and the coaches and building things that’ll have him ready to step in and perform in his position.”
After waiting almost two years, Arsenal might finally have both of their starting full-backs fit, available, and match sharpness to start a run of matches together. It is something Emery never got the chance to enjoy. Can Arteta now take advantage?