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Kieran Tierney: Is this summer time to sell?
Recent links send KT to Newcastle
The post came off the back of Arsenal’s 2-1 win at home against Wolves, which you may remember was the Alexandre Lacazette late own goal game.
Tierney came off in that game around the 90th minute after doing a fine but pretty unremarkable job. He had attempted four crosses and completed two of them, both shots that didn’t end up on target (one block and one miss). He spent most of the game recycling possession in a way that didn’t cut at Wolves’s block. He didn’t complete any non-cross passes into the 18-yard box, didn’t dribble past a man and also didn’t tackle any dribblers. So, ho-hum.
At the time, the responses to the post made it clear that the base was behind Tierney, easily one of the most likable players in the squad even today. Some even suggested it would be nearly impossible to upgrade on him without spending something like twice the £25 million it took to get him from Celtic.
But, a year later, here we are. Oleksandr Zinchenko can be a liability defensively but also does things with the ball that Tierney could only dream of, even in his best form. For instance, Zinchenko is in the 95th percentile among Premier League defenders for both passes completed into the penalty area (non-crosses) and shot-creating actions from live play. He’s also in the 82nd percentile for carries into the penalty area.
Tierney’s 21-22 ranks in the same stats: 75th, 69th, 60th. Still very good, but noticeably below his usurper and in a system that would ask him to be incisive from a midfield role in possession more often and attack the wide areas less often, which plays away from his strengths.
Time to sell?
This week, reports understandably do seem to point to a move for Tierney, most recently to Newcastle. The response understandably runs the gamut, with everything from eager acceptance to complete denial. So, would that be the smart move?
To me, the answer is a reluctant “yes.” Zinchenko is injury-prone, yes, and therefore it’s important to keep another quality left-back in the squad, but that doesn’t necessarily be Kieran Tierney.
For one, the club does have Takehiro Tomiyasu around, who’s proven to be a capable option off the bench. And there’s absolutely nothing stopping Arsenal from pursuing a left back in the summer, be that a Leandro Trossard-style veteran looking to join a big club or an Ivan Fresneda-style prospect who’s good enough to play now but would also be ok developing with less playing time. That player could even be Lino Sousa, regarded as one of the best left back prospects around at the time he signed with Arsenal.
It’s also important to keep in mind the amount of money the club have tied up at left back. Tierney’s contract runs through 2026, and in he and Zinchenko, Arsenal have two of the top 11 earners among fullbacks in the Premier League. That would make sense for a Big Six club if both were starters (Ben White is also among the 11), but Tierney to date has started in only four league games and seems an afterthought even off the bench in recent weeks. It wouldn’t seem especially likely that when the club returns to the Champions League, those games would go to Tierney. If Zinchenko is starting against Fulham and Brentford and Crystal Palace, you’d probably want him on the pitch for Real Madrid or Bayern Munich or Napoli.
If Arsenal are able to be made whole via an outgoing Tierney transfer, that clears up a lot of room in the wage budget both to replace Tierney and to add other key pieces (£200,000 per week for Declan Rice, anyone?)
That brings us to the “strengthening a rival” argument. We’ve seen that rear its head particularly because Gabriel Jesus and Zinchenko are two of the leaders in Arsenal’s attempted title charge currently underway, while Manchester City would probably benefit from having one (or both) in its squad. Selling a good player to Newcastle, logic follows, could make the Magpies more of a threat next season.
I won’t engage that point of view on its most basic merits. Yes, it’s preferable to sell players who aren’t good to your rivals, or not do so at all. But there’s a lot more to the whole discussion than just “sell or keep.”
Part of the calculus comes in the form of money. As a fellow Premier League side, Newcastle are one of just a few who could both take on Tierney’s £110,000 per week wages AND pay a fee high enough where Arsenal wouldn’t take a loss on the player, say £35m. Sure, the gargantuan clubs of the world (remember that Real Madrid rumour?) could do it as well, but Arsenal aren’t really to the point where those clubs will be picking off its backups. And Tierney, while a good backup, is just that as things stand.
The other part of this all is the human side of it. Tierney joined Arsenal in a time of transition, and he powered the club through some of its lowest times. Arsenal have shown a deep respect for players who have served the club faithfully, when circumstances favor leaving to help their careers forward. They did it with everyone from Joe Willock to Hector Bellerin and Bernd Leno. Some players, be it due to circumstances within their control or not, will simply not be what the club needs to hit its highest highs. And, barring a dramatic change, Arsenal is at its best with Tierney on the periphery.
But that doesn’t mean KT doesn’t deserve a great career. If he’s not getting a shot at that with Arsenal, selling to a club like Newcastle can provide the player and club with the closest thing to a win-win they’ll find, even if it means the occasional Tierney cross into Isak for a goal when the two sides face off.
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After all, it’s not like saying “no” would prevent Newcastle from getting a great left back. But it could mean keeping a vocal player in the dressing room for no good reason and making him unhappy.
As Arsenal continues to proceed in its project, which one would hope would elevate the club to a status among Europe’s greats, more decisions like this one will have to be made. Players that fans love may be moved on for actual footballing reasons, and we’ll learn to love new players. That’s all part of the game.
And in Tierney’s case, if the rumors are true, there’s a possibility that everyone could be better off as a result.