Takehiro Tomiyasu. Kieran Tierney. Each of them had their turn as an emerging Arsenal favorite, each of them bursting forward with lung-bursting runs to remind us of the likes of Sagna or Cole, and it felt like they would be nailed-on starters for the foreseeable future. And then…well…it all went somewhat sideways. Both players suffered injuries, Tierney missing the 2021-22 run-in and Tomi missing the 2022-23 run-in. Each was instrumental, even inspirational at times, but both now seem almost forgettable. What gives?
The short version is that each has been Pipped. For those unfamiliar, Wally Pipp was one his way to becoming one of the best to have ever played baseball back in the early 1900s. He led the American League in home runs in 1916 and 1917. He helped the New York Yankees win three consecutive American League pennants from 1921 through 1923, winning the 1923 World Series. Then, in 1925, he sat out a match due to a headache, clearing the way for Lou Gehrig to commence his record-setting streak of 2,130 games played, a record that would stand for almost sixty years. This spawned the phrase “to be Pipped.”
Tomiyasu’s case is the clearer one, so let’s start there. He set Gooners’ hearts alight with his bombing runs forward throughout most of the 2021-22 season, looking like he’d laid claim to the right-back spot for the near-future. However, a serious calf injury ended his campaign and cleared the way for Ben White to slot over from CB, from which he had been impressive but was even more so as the kind of right back who could get forward, invert a bit when necessary, and, most crucially, link up with Bukayo Saka. There’s really no shame in losing one’s position when your replacement performs as well as Gehrig or White performed. In fact, Tomiyasu was so good and so trusted by Arteta that he was entrusted at left-back over Tierney himself, even if it was just for a few matches.
Tierney’s case is the more-puzzling, even if we admit that Zinchenko has dazzled as he’s almost invented the inverted left-back position on the fly. However, when injuries to Saliba, Tomiyasu, and Zinchenko forced Arteta’s hand, he didn’t turn to Tierney even though his only other alternatives were to play the clearly out-of-his-depth Holding or to throw on the newly-signed Kiwior (who displaced Tierney at left-back so that Partey could play at right-back in the waning weeks).. Tierney could have deputised at centre-back, the role he plays for Scotland, but, for some reason, Arteta apparently couldn’t stomach that. Even after it became clear that moving White to CB deprived Saka of valuable service, Arteta, perhaps stubbornly, stuck to his guns. Tierney has his short-comings. He’s not great in the air. He struggles against inverted wingers. He hasn’t learned to replicate the role Zinchenko plays. Still, the same is true of Zinchenko on at least two of the those three scores.
Looking at it from another perspective, maybe it’s Tomiyasu whose future is the more perilous. Signing Jurriën Timber is an indication that Arteta may want to occasionally “flip” the backline, at times going with Zinchenko as the inverting left-back who becomes an additional midfielder while White operates as a somewhat-more traditional right-back who gets up the pitch but stays wide-ish, at times going with TImber as the inverting right-back who becomes the additional midfielder while Tierney operates as the more-traditional left-back who gets up the pitch but stays wide. This may leave Tomiyasu on the outs, as he’d be behind White and Timber in either case.
On a broader scale, it’s quite grand to ponder the idea that Arteta may have a dilemma very different to the one he’s dealt with since taking the helm. He now has a plethora of options at multiple positions. Add into this mix the signings of Trossard, Havertz and Timber and the returns to fitness of Smith Rowe Tierney, and Tomiyasu, He can no longer fall back on the idea of a thin squad that ties his tactical hands. He’s now playing with a full deck.
Even if Guardiola and Man City are dealing from the bottom of the deck, we should expect something quite grand from the upcoming season. It’s up to Arteta to show that he can manage a squad that offers him options. What this means for Tierney and Tomiyasu is anyone’s guess.