Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. Arsenal are playing well. Kieran Tierney gets hurt. The club doesn’t have a true, capable backup left back. Arsenal don’t play nearly as well. If that seems familiar, it’s because it happened again this year. It happened last season, too. He’s a really talented left back, important to the setup, and he cannot seem to stay healthy. He has played just 56% of Arsenal’s Premier League matches since joining the club. Tierney has recovered from the knee injury and surgery that kept him out down the stretch. Hopefully he can stay healthy through preseason and next year.
Season Summary: Something felt off with Kieran Tierney early in the season. He was getting forward like we were used to seeing at Arsenal, but his crosses seemed more hopefully hit than aimed to pick out teammates. Looking back, that might have been because he didn’t have much to aim at in the box as much as it was down to him hitting and hoping. The Arsenal attack was heavily right-side biased this year, often flowing through Bukayo Saka and Martin Ødegaard leaving Tierney to combine with Granit Xhaka and whoever was playing in front of him on the day. By the time Gabriel Martinelli was a regular starter on the left, Tierney was hurt.
Tierney had a great defensive season. Remarkably, he was only dribbled past once in the Premier League all year. Per Orbinho, the backline of Ben White, Gabriel Magalhaes, Kieran Tierney, and Takehiro Tomiyasu conceded 0.8 goals per game when playing together. With one or more of that quartet missing, Arsenal conceded 1.4 goals per game. That goals conceded pace for the preferred backline projects out to 30.4 goals over 38 matches, which would have been third-best in the Premier League. 1.4 goals against per game maths out to 53.2, which would have been tied 10th, two spots lower than Arsenal actually finished in terms of goals against. The problem is the preferred backline only played together 10 times last season. They’ve got to stay healthy.
To put a neat little bow on things, I think that Tierney was simultaneously not quite the same player he had been in previous seasons for Arsenal while also being quite good and important in a more subtle way.
Season Grade: C
That grade is mostly because of the 10 matches missed down the stretch. Aside from that, he had a pretty good season. It felt as if his production in the attacking third was down / a bit off, but his work on the defensive side of the ball was better than it has been in past seasons. The bottom line is that he was good then got hurt, missed time, and the team suffered. That’s become a distressingly common pattern, hence the “C” for what, sadly, is an average Kieran Tierney season.
There is a part of me that thinks it unfair to mark someone down for getting hurt. Injuries happen. Tierney’s injury was a strange one — it happened in the weight room. That falls closer to the “freak accident” than “preventable injury” on the sliding scale, for me.
At the same time, staying healthy is important. Some in the sports injury world have called the ability to stay healthy a skill. And Tierney cannot seem to stay on the pitch for an entire season. Some of that may not be entirely his fault. We know that players who are fatigued are more susceptible to injury. Tierney got hurt after playing two full, meaningless friendlies for Scotland on the back of a bunch of minutes for Arsenal. He’s being overused. And that overuse is leading to injury.
‘22-’23 Outlook: Tierney will be the first choice left back next season at Arsenal. He’s likely to be the first choice left back for several seasons beyond that, too. He signed a 5-year extension in the summer of 2021. He’s been discussed as a potential future club captain.
But Arsenal need him to stay healthy. To help Tierney stay out of the trainer’s room, Mikel Arteta needs to rotate and give him time off. He plays entirely too much football, and we’ve seen that his body just does not hold up. The problem is that Arsenal don’t have a backup left back they can trust. Nuno Tavares was too erratic in his first season with the Gunners and may head out on loan this coming year. The transfer rumor mill has been quiet as far as backup left backs heading to Arsenal are concerned. Surely Arsenal aren’t planning to take on a congested, condensed schedule with an additional competition banking on Tierney staying healthy and / or Nuno Tavares taking a significant step forward, right?
There is a silver-lining to next year’s calendar: the players who aren’t at the World Cup get a month long break from November to December. Unfortunately for Tierney (but also fortunately for him and Arsenal), Scotland missed out on the World Cup. Maybe that time off will help him stay healthy this season.