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Arsenal midway grades: fullback

Alex Zinchenko and Ben White’s attacking capabilities have helped transform the Arsenal attack.

Wolverhampton Wanderers v Arsenal FC - Premier League Photo by Harriet Lander/Getty Images

Our mid-season review rolls along with the Arsenal fullbacks. It bears repeating that the Gunners have conceded the joint-fewest goals in the Premier League this season (11), so the defenders must be doing something right.

The fullback role at Arsenal has shifted this season. Mikel Arteta wants them to push up and tuck in, best seen with Alex Zinchenko becoming a central midfielder in possession. Ben White, Kieran Tierney, and Takehiro Tomiyasu get forward as well, but they tend to overlap rather than underlap / come more central.

Each player’s name is a link to their FBREF profile page, so you can take a look at their advanced stats, too. The data are for the last 365 days. In case you missed it, yesterday I took a look at how the centerbacks have fared so far this season.

Ben White
Grade: A+

Ben White has been among the best players for Arsenal this season, seamlessly transitioning from playing centerback last year to an attacking right back role without letting his defensive performances slip. His one-on-one defending and tackling have stood out in particular, and he has shut down several talented attackers on his side of the pitch. I’m not sure that his defensive abilities have improved from last season per se, it’s just that he’s been asked to do more of it playing wide and oftentimes isolated in Mikel Arteta’s evolved setup.

On the offensive side of things, he’s shown the ability to hit the long, cross-field diagonal ball in the attacking third that is an important part of the attack. He has had more room and opportunity to showcase his progressive dribbling, which was one of his hallmarks / standout traits when Arsenal bought him last summer. He has added overlapping runs to his game, bursting forward to create those all-important overloads. The Gunners have scored multiple goals this season from runs he’s made on which he hasn’t gotten the ball, too. By sprinting forward, he’s dragged defenders with him, opening up space in which Arsenal’s skill players can operate.

Oleksandr Zinchenko
Grade: A-

Alex Zinchenko has transformed the Arsenal setup, almost single-handedly. His ability to step into the midfield alongside Thomas Partey coupled with his ball progression and retention gives the Gunners someone to build the play on the left side. The new threat from the left alongside the established threat on the right through Bukayo Saka and Martin Ødegaard makes the Arsenal attack difficult to defend.

He’s an effective presser and helps Arsenal regain possession high up the pitch in dangerous areas. The flip side of that is the Gunners are vulnerable to counters down the left side. While that isn’t Zinchenko’s fault — he’s doing what the manager wants him to do — his average defensive abilities don’t help. I’d say he’s “good enough” as a defender that he isn’t a liability at the back, but you’re also not writing home about his defense, either.

The grade is mostly being held down by the calf problem that kept him out for most of October. Availability is important!

Kieran Tierney
Grade: B+

I’ve been pleasantly surprised with Kieran Tierney’s play this season, especially after a bit of a down year last year. He’s clearly working on stepping into the midfield a la Zinchenko, and he’s back to bombing forward down the left flank on the overlap. He’s not the same player. He’s not a guy who can function as a de facto midfielder, but he brings plenty to the table. He definitely hasn’t lost that fire and tenacity that made Arsenal fans fall in love with him. He’s a passionate player who gives everything he’s got when he’s on the pitch.

He’s hands-down a better defender than Zinchenko, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him deployed more frequently when opponents have a particularly dangerous attacking threat on his side. I think Takehiro Tomiyasu was deployed on the left ahead of him with Zinchenko out because I’m not sure Tierney was fully match fit, but that’s just my personal speculation.

I also think that his playing time is hurt by Emile Smith Rowe’s injury. Tierney and Gabriel Martinelli don’t mesh very well because they both prefer to play from the touchline in. It’s tough for an overlapping fullback to overlap when the winger has his heels on the chalk. ESR, on the other hand, prefers to cut inside and play more centrally, which opens up the wider areas for Tierney. When ESR is available, I bet they start as a pair.

Tierney scored a thunderbastard of a goal in the Europa League against FC Zurich. Just the sweetest of sweet strikes on a first touch, out of the air volley. A really high degree of difficulty goal.

Takehiro Tomiyasu
Grade: B

Takehiro Tomiyasu has been the biggest “loser” of Ben White’s shift to right back. Tomi, who was an every match starter (when fit) last season has become a backup this year. His own injury struggles haven’t helped, either. He deputized well enough on the left while Alex Zinchenko was out, but the corresponding drop in attacking output down that side was an unwanted spotlight on Tomi’s limitations.

I’m not sure that Tomiyasu has the attacking chops that Mikel Arteta requires of his fullbacks, but he passes well enough that it’s not a hindrance. It’s not as if he can’t develop that aspect of his game.

He’s still an excellent defensive fullback, perhaps the best pure one-on-one tackler at the club. There will always be a place for someone who can lockdown a dangerous enemy attacking threat, especially defending a lead late in games when having Ben White’s attacking prowess on the pitch isn’t as important.

Cedric Soares
Grade: C

Cedric Soares is what he is. He’s played a grand total of 122 minutes for the club this season, in part because he missed time with a muscle injury. By all reports, he’s a positive presence in the locker room and around the training ground. We won’t see much of him this season if the other defenders are healthy because unlike last season, Arsenal are two-deep at both fullback spots.

Tomorrow we take a look at how the Arsenal midfielders have performed to start the campaign.