“You always think you help someone by going towards him but you help him most by walking away from him. For example, I have the ball, I like playing 1v1. So helping me means walking away. But everyone says, ‘Hey, helping equals getting closer to someone.’”
Obviously it’s not a simplistic as Cruyff says. In order to really help a team-mate have the space for a 1v1, you’ll often need to be close to them in the first place before moving away. There’s no point leaving someone completely detached from the rest of the team, asking them to do everything themselves, and there’s no point being close to a team-mate without moving away from them. In Friday’s Premier League opener against Brentford, Arsenal both left Kieran Tierney awfully isolated, and then got closer to him but only in a way that suffocated him and limited his impact.
With Gabriel Martinelli — circled in the examples below — starting on the left but wanting to attack centrally, Tierney was repeatedly left without anybody to combine with or anybody to drag attention away from him and create space to move into. The Scot found himself out wide in a position where he had to either beat more than one Brentford defender or beat his man and continue driving over a huge distance before he could get into a good crossing position.
Put it this way: does it look like any Brentford player was ever wondering who should track Tierney or worried about doing so in any of those images? And why does the left-back never seem to have the ball beyond the man marking him, but is always receiving it with so much left to do? He was still Arsenal’s main outlet but his team-mates made his life harder, providing him with one option: run down the line and try to cross it in.
Compare the movement (or lack of it) on that flank to how Emile Smith Rowe tended to move on the other wing to help Nicolas Pepe. Smith Rowe is a fantastically unselfish player and constantly gets close to team-mates before moving in the direction opposite to where they are moving, either opening spaces for them by dragging opponents away or himself driving into spaces that open up.
On the rare occasions Brentford left-back Rico Henry was stretched and had to be covered by a centre-back, it was Smith Rowe either distracting him or using Pepe’s positioning as a distraction to burst in behind. The new Arsenal number 10 always looked to move whichever way Pepe wasn’t moving.
Tierney didn’t have this sort of accomplice on his side of the pitch until Bukayo Saka was introduced. Saka was on the pitch for around 20 seconds and had his second touch by the time Tierney was released for the first time with his new left-sided partner involved, dropping deep and playing the ball into Granit Xhaka to slide Tierney in behind Canos, dragging Ajer out of position in turn.
Saka dropped deeper than Martinelli, combining play rather than hoping to get on the end of a move, playing closer to Tierney, moving wider or narrower to drag Brentford players out of position. Tierney then repeatedly received the ball beyond Brentford right-back Sergi Canos, which in turn dragged the right-sided centre-back (Kristoffer Ajer at first and later Mads Sorensen) across the pitch to deal with the threat. Only they were better occupied too, with Saka’s positioning sometimes dragging them out of the defensive line and into midfield.
This happened again and again with Saka involved. The teenager dragged Canos out and quickly play the ball around him.
He would drift wide to bind Brentford players, occupying both the right-back and the right centre-back so Tierney could burst into space inside.
Or drop off of the frontline while inside, where Martinelli always looked to move upfield, dragging a centre-back out with him as Tierney made a run in behind.
And his presence deeper even encouraged Granit Xhaka to push on and occupy two players, including the same right-sided centre-back again, so Tierney had more space on the outside.
Suddenly it wasn’t so obvious who was marking who, or who had to track who, because Arsenal were so much more flexible. And the difference was the Tierney now received the ball behind the man marking him, over and over again, instead of being handed it and having to dribble past someone before delivering into the box or picking a man out.
Brentford found it much harder to handle and there may not have been a goal but the change did lead to Arsenal’s best chance of the game, with Tierney pulling the ball back to Pepe, who forced a great stop from David Raya.
If combination play and dragging opponents out of their shape is where Arsenal need to improve most, Saka and Smith Rowe are the keys.
If Mikel Arteta’s side are to improve when it comes to breaking down defences this season, Tierney and his partnership with whoever plays on the left is going to be crucial. There was nothing to celebrate in the season opener but there was a big lesson to be taken; the experiment with an out-and-out forward playing on the left needs to end if Arsenal are going to improve going forward.
Playing a left-sided midfielder who wants to come towards the ball is the best way to get the most out of Tierney, who excels moving away from it. Saka and Smith Rowe provide that quality like nobody else in the current Arsenal squad.