It would be unreasonable to suggest that Kieran Tierney was a player in Arsenal’s match against Crystal Palace, as he wasn’t even involved in the 0-0 draw, but the left-back’s importance to Mikel Arteta was underlined by his absence here.
Tierney helped the Gunners end a seven-game winning streak in the Premier League after Christmas with three straight wins and another FA Cup victory over Newcastle. The decision to play Tierney for the 120 minutes of this third round, when several other regular players were off for at least part of the evening, was not only an understandable desire to keep a fit player in the team, but also an unnecessary risk in the context of what followed.
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Tierney was unavailable against Palace because the club initially cited unclear muscle tension, which, given that this was only his second Premier League game where he was not in the starting eleven this season, could be a sign of cumulative fatigue. However, it was later revealed that Tierney had been taken out of the game just hours before the game and would undergo an MRI on Friday to determine the extent of the problem.
We’ll probably know more tomorrow after we test him, learn how the injury is progressing and how long he’ll be unconscious, Aretha said.
Of course it was a big disappointment to lose him. It’s a challenge when you make a game plan for the day, and a few hours before the game it has to come down. Kiran has made incredible progress over the past few months, and now other players are getting in on the action.
No Arsenal player has created more chances in open play this season than the 20-year-old Tierney, and they desperately missed out here. Ainsley Maitland-Niles has played as a left-back from time to time – perhaps most notably in Unai Emery’s first game against Manchester City in August 2018 – and as a left-back when Arteta was involved in a 3-4-3 formation during the restart, but it’s not a position that naturally suits him. The 23-year-old struggled defensively from the start and was unable to replace Tierney’s offensive shot. He made just one pass in 65 minutes before being replaced.
The same can be said of Hector Bellerin, at the other end, who was able to operate in more dangerous positions, but often made poor decisions. Most memorably, he took the ball out of Alexandre Lacazette’s fingers as he prepared to shoot from a cross at Bukayo Saca. Bellerin’s form has been unrecognisable for some time now and Cédric Suarez must be wondering what he has to do to be part of this team. Tierney’s confidence as a left-back has been bolstered by the decision to allow Sead Kolasinac to return to Schalke 04 on loan until the end of the season.
Error! The file name is not specified. Arsenal continue to lack attacking ideas, as evidenced by their reliance on the 20-year-old No10 and left back to direct their attack. Getty
Along with Maitland-Niles, who still hopes to establish himself as the midfielder he always wanted to be, Saka is Tierney’s best understudy. But by sending him onto the field, he deprived the Gunners of one of their greatest attacking talents in more advanced areas.
Saka and Emile Smith Rowe showed their most famous teammates Willian and Nicolas Pepe against Newcastle, but on this occasion they struggled to crack a typically well-trained Palace team. Smith Rowe has put in some good performances recently, but to ask the 20-year-old to do the same with a handful of top-flight games under his belt – this was just his fifth outing in the Premier League – is perhaps a sign that Arsenal’s transition period is in full swing.
Room for manoeuvre is often decisive in these situations, but with Maitland-Niles and Bellerin not playing on the front line, Arsenal are on the verge of blockages and a lack of creativity reminiscent of the most troubling periods of Arteta’s tenure.
It was the end of a run of three consecutive wins – four if you count the extra FA Cup victory – so it looks like the momentum is being tested. Arsenal have not beaten Palace since the departure of Arsene Wenger in the summer of 2018, a run that now extends to four draws and one defeat, and the lack of consistency that has contributed to the Frenchman’s departure remains a major problem.
The number of games catches up with many teams and Arteta believes Arsenal are no different.
We created many situations against a low boulder, but we lacked the quality of finishing, said the Spaniard. We probably didn’t do enough to win the game. We play a lot of games and you can see that fatigue is showing up, a lot of players are not fresh.
We had a period of fatigue where we kept giving the ball away. We lacked quality in the final third to win the game.
Arsenal’s most attacking players need to take control, but in the past they have been saved by Tierney attacking from distance. Arteta will pray that his plunder does not last long.