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Unai Emery will hope fit-again full-backs can solve his defensive problems with Arsenal likely to line up in Spaniard’s favoured formation
Arsenal’s 5-0 victory over Nottingham Forest on Tuesday was about as perfect a night as you can get against lower league opposition in the Carabao Cup.
A big win and starring roles for some of Arsenal’s youngsters grabbed the headlines, but the most meaningful success was the long-awaited return of one full-back, and the long-awaited debut of another.
When Hector Bellerin replaced Kieran Tierney in the 77th minute on Tuesday, both were given a standing ovation: Tierney for a promising debut, and Bellerin for completing his recovery from a knee injury that has sidelined him since January.
Their returns to fitness offers a glimmer of hope in easing the defensive issues that have seemingly dogged them for years. In the early weeks of this season, Arsenal’s performances have already been characterised by the individual errors of centre-backs Sokratis and David Luiz.
Bellerin and Tierney, of course, will not replace Sokratis and Luiz, but they can at least offer some previously unprovided protection.
Since Bellerin’s injury at the beginning of the year, Unai Emery’s starting full-backs, Sead Kolasinac and Ainsley Maitland-Niles, have needed protecting themselves.
Neither are natural defenders; Kolasinac roams forward as if he’s a winger, frequently vacating his defensive responsibilities, whilst Maitland-Niles is a utility midfielder shovelled into the backline through lack of another option. As he proved with his sending off against Watford last weekend, his inexperience is too often costly.
To combat this, Emery has experimented to varying success with a back-five and a midfield diamond, the latter often leaving Arsenal more exposed, as proved in last month’s 3-1 defeat to Liverpool.
Bellerin and Tierney provide more mobile and reliable options that will make the centre-backs’ jobs easier and ease Emery’s fear that his side will be exposed on the flanks.
After all, Emery’s system is designed for full-backs to flourish rather than falter. Last season, Bellerin excelled in an all-action role before injury curtailed his year prematurely. His five Premier League assists were the joint-highest of his career, despite only featuring 19 times.
Tuesday’s performance indicates that Tierney could be an equally impressive addition to Arsenal’s backline. If he’s to make a similar impression as his countryman Andy Robertson at Liverpool, the £25 million Arsenal spent on him will look a bargain.
Yet, while the expectation is that these two can solve Arsenal’s defensive issues, they still have points to prove.
Tierney needs to adjust to the jump in quality from the Scottish Premiership to the Premier League, while a post-injury loss of pace could be fatal to Bellerin’s acceleration-based game.
The same could be said about Rob Holding, who also returned from a similar injury to Bellerin’s on Tuesday and offers a less error-prone central option than Sokratis and Luiz.
Regardless, Emery will give all three time to re-integrate. In fact, Tierney is probably the only one who has a slight chance of starting at Old Trafford on Monday. Once fully match fit, if they can help to plug such a notoriously leaky defence, their returns could prove crucial in pulling away from the Champions League-chasing pack.