To make sure you never miss out on your favourite NEW stories, we're happy to send you some reminders
Click 'OK' then 'Allow' to enable notifications
| Last updated
A Scotsman and a Japanese man walk onto a pitch. Rhythmic beauty, artistic brilliance condensed into football form. The cohesion of the collective with the expression of the individual. Mikel Arteta’s side in free-flowing motion in the midst of rigid structure, a paradox attainable through the use of two men, Takehiro Tomiyasu and Kieran Tierney.
At its best, the Spaniard’s system has 11 freshly oiled cogs seamlessly in motion, each piece acting on trained instinct to perform the requisite action. However, as the two fullback’s bodies fell apart, Arsenal’s season similarly fell into the abyss of what could have been. The analysis is not as simple as stating the drop off in quality from the dynamic pairing to Cedric Soares and Nuno Tavares is too great (albeit true), but there must be an analysis of *why* this is true.
Let’s start with the Japanese international. Signed from Bologna for £17 million on deadline day, the ambipedal fullback is the lynch-pin of Arsenal’s transitional structure.
In figure 1, Tomiyasu receives the ball just in from the touchline, with Martin Odegaard occupying the space just ahead of him. Along with Thomas Partey in the midfield, a triangle is formed, one that is entirely contingent on the 23-year-old’s ambipedal nature. In receiving the ball off Ben White, all passing lanes available to the fullback are best utilised on his left foot - around the corner to Odegaard, behind the onrushing Southampton midfielder into Partey, or over the midfielder into Granit Xhaka.
Football is a game of milliseconds, and the advantage gained from retaining speed of progression and outmanoeuvring an opposition press is crucial. Importantly, even in the chaos of the Hasenhüttl press, the 2-3 build up structure is present, with Tomiyasu-Partey-Xhaka forming a three man midfield.
However, it wasn’t the ambipedal nature of the Tomiyasu that reaped the ultimate reward in the fixture against Southampton, but rather, his spatial awareness and body orientation.
In receiving the ball from Arsenal’s Ghanian midfielder, Tomiyasu’s body orientation is crucial to what eventually leads to Alexandre Lacazette rifling home. In having his body open as the pass comes in, the Southampton player is encouraged to press, sensing an opportunity to cut the supply line before it reaches the Japanese fullback. Having been invited to press, the Saints man fails, with the former Bologna man playing a first time pass inside to Odegaard (who will frequently occupy the right half space when both Tomiyasu and Saka are wide).
Continuing the theme of his technical and mental proficiency, he drives into the space ahead of him and receives the ball back of Arsenal’s Norwegian, before sliding a pass into Young Player of the Year nominee Bukayo Saka.
Not only does the fullback help in transitional structure however, but also in sustaining pressure.
On this occasion, Arsenal are sustaining pressure, and have settled into their offensive 2-3-5 formation. On the far left of picture, Tierney acts as a de-facto left-winger, whilst Tomiyasu performs the role of inverted-wing-back. Once again, Tomiyasu’s technical excellence has him play the first time ball into Martin Odegaard in between lines. As the attack progresses, the fullback receives the ball back in the right half space, crossing into his partner Kieran Tierney, which leads to Arsenal’s second. (Fig. 5).
The role of Tomiyasu in these phases of play may appear trivial, the slightest of adjustment to body position here, the use of the left foot there, simple things right? In theory, yes, and they should be coachable facets of a player’s game (particularly body orientation). However, it’s when the alternative inadequacies are present that the importance of what the 23-year-old does can truly be appreciated.
Figures 6 and 7 highlight the technical and mental regression from the Japanese star to Cedric Soares. Receiving the ball off Gunners metronome Thomas Partey, Cedric’s first touch is insecure, bobbling forwards along the Selhurst Park turf, he is then rushed into a decision as a result of the miscontrol.
This in and of itself isn’t disastrous, the Crystal Palace press has been encouraged, and a simple pass into Odegaard allows for the rotation of possession and a switch to the left hand side, where Nuno Tavares is hugging the touchline (in a similar fashion to Tierney in fig 4.). Instead, the Portuguese panics, and looks for a non-existent pass into Lacazette, leading to a turnover of possession and another spell of Palace attacks.
Arteta has proven himself to be a coach that improves upon the talent that is there, and minimises the deficiencies. Granit Xhaka and the protection of his lack of speed in transition is the hallmark of this. However, some players simply cannot compute what is asked of them. The amalgam of this being that everything stellar about Tomiyasu’s body orientation is distinctly absent in Cedric’s.
The 30-year-old’s body orientation is channelling the spirit of Tiamat. It is primordial chaos, uncontrolled like a car being lashed around by the gust of a tornado. Cedric is unprepared to receive the pass, in the air as the ball is milliseconds from him.
Similar to what occurred in figures 6 and 7, the lack of basics in the Portuguese right-backs game means Arsenal are swiftly dispossessed and the electric Selhurst Park faithful are further buoyed as their team continues to mount pressure. The lack of technical security not only means that Arsenal are unable to sustain attacks, they also invite undue pressure onto the back-line, meaning Arsenal create a rod for their own back.
We see a similar reflection of mental and technical regression when switching over to the Gunners left-hand side.
The role of the left back in Arsenal’s system is different to that on the other flank, with the role being that of joining a forward five offensively. Body orientation is once again fundamental to this, in frequently receiving the ball off the midfield or defence, the left-back needs an open body to allow the ball to run across themselves, allowing quick forward progression.
Figures 10 and 11 show the stark contrast in body orientation between Tierney and Tavares, a near identical match to the regression apparent on the right hand side. Tavares is unsure, nervous, and this reflects in his posture. His body is closed off, meaning his first touch will inevitably take him into danger, inviting the Palace press. Compare this to the Scotsman, who allows the pass to run across him from Thomas Partey, and thus allows for the continuation of the attack. The opening of the body means that the space in-front of the 25-year-old can be immediately utilised, those milli-seconds at the elite level of sport are crucial.
By joining the front five offensively, offensive decision making is a core tenant of a successful fullback in Mikel Arteta’s side, and this is perhaps where the biggest drop off of all can be seen.
In a game of fine margins, heavy are the shoulders that influence them. In figures 12,13 and 14, the impact of having a player combining technical proficiency with mental capabilities is overwhelmingly apparent.
Arsenal’s 25-year-old Scotsman finds himself in the left half space on this occasion, with Martinelli holding width. Exhibiting technical excellence and composure of the highest order against the to-be Champions, he spots Saka’s run towards the penalty spot, and inevitably the starboy does the rest.
This is in stark contrast to Nuno Tavares who receives the ball in a similar position, albeit slightly more central. In this instance he has Smith Rowe holding width for him, and a simple pass out to the Croydon De Bruyne gives him a chance to either take on his man, or float a ball in towards one of three Arsenal players in the box.
The drop off in quality is remarkable, and when you consider that a back four of Tomiyasu-White-Gabriel-Tierney started merely 10 league games together all season, the need to address this regression of quality is all the more urgent.
Having a regular structure is the hallmark of a successful side, and when you aren’t blessed with the luxuries of depth that a Manchester City or Liverpool have, the decline when key cogs are removed from that machine are all the more apparent.
Mikel Arteta’s side have been linked with various fullback signings, most notably Manchester City’s Oleksandr Zinchenko and Bologna’s Aaron Hickey. The Gunner’s will be further boosted by Ligue 1 Young Player of the Year William Saliba returning to the club, and confirming his intention to continue on next season.
Whether Arteta opts for White and Saliba as a supporting cast for Tomiyasu remains to be seen, as does any potential pursuit of Zinchenko for the left hand side. However, with the injury record of the leading fullback candidates the Gunners currently employ, adequate depth is a necessity. If not, those in the famous red and white risk chaos threatening the poetic order Arteta has created.
Chosen for YouChosen for You
Most Read StoriesMost Read