*This piece was originally posted on my Medium before yesterday’s match and so data used is valid as of 13/01/2021*
Arsenal’s recent turnaround in form of late has corresponded with Kieran Tierney being moved from playing Left Centre-Back, a role he performed admirably in, to a more familiar role as a Left Back for the 23 year-old Scot. This return to a back 4 has coincided with Tierney exploding as a creative threat for the Gunners with the former Celtic man leading the way for Arsenal in terms of Chances Created from Open Play in the 2020/21 season so far.
This has undoubtedly been a major plus for Arsenal, with Tierney proving a great attacking weapon as well as solid defensive presence, with his athleticism and stamina seeing him fly up and down the left wing at will for 90 minutes. But with Arsenal allowing Sead Kolasinac to join Schalke on loan it leaves Tierney with no clear back-up. Ainsley Maitland-Niles, Cedric Soares and Bukayo Saka can all play there, but there is an argument that only Saka can replicate Tierney’s role and that putting the 19 year-old at Left Back for any significant period of time may limit his ability to positively influence Arsenal’s attacking play, to which he has been key all season. This had led to Tierney playing the most minutes of any Arsenal outfield player this season and given the ground he covers every game and his physical style this is not ideal and Mikel Arteta will surely be looking to rest him in lesser competitions, but without a clear back-up option is this too much of a risk?
As a result of this lack of depth I thought it would make sense to look for a potential back-up option for Tierney. Given Arsenal’s budgetary constraints (with the club needing to take out a loan to cover costs associated with the pandemic) and registration problems (Arsenal don’t have enough Homegrown players to meet Premier League or Europa League registration criteria) I have looked to the EFL Championship for targets.
Arsenal need a player capable of fulfilling Tierney’s role. To do this they need to identify somebody who can dribble past opponents and get a high volume of good crosses into the box from a multitude of angles. The player also needs to be defensively solid and athletic enough to get up and down the left flank. It would also be beneficial if the player could play LWB or LCB as Arsenal may return to playing a 3–4–3 on occasion.
The above shows Attempted Dribbles per 90 and Attempted Crosses per 90 for all Full Backs (Both Right and Left Backs) with 500 minutes played or more in the EFL Championship this season. Bayern Munich bound Omar Richards and Ryan Giles (on loan from Wolves to Coventry City) lead the way for Left Backs, with Jeremy Ngakia and Djed Spence leading the way for Right Backs. Brentford’s Rico Henry and Derby County’s Lee Buchanan also perform well in both metrics.
The above shows Successful Defensive Actions per 90 and Percentage of Defensive Duels Won for all Full Backs (Both Right and Left Backs) with 500 minutes played or more in the EFL Championship this season. Again Omar Richards and Lee Buchanan excel in both metrics with Arsenal’s Jordi Osei-Tutu (Right Back on loan at Cardiff) also performing well. Adversely Rico Henry completes significantly less Defensive Actions but at a similar rate which is likely as a result of Brentford’s possession advantage over the majority of Championship sides.
My Selection — Lee Buchanan, Derby County
After assessing the performances of a few of the key performers, Rico Henry, Omar Richards, Lee Buchanan and Ryan Giles, and analysing their performances through the use of video scouting, I have decided to choose Lee Buchanan as my ‘recommendation’ for the back-up Left-Back role. With Richards close to joining Bayern and Rico Henry likely to command a large fee (or be promoted), it came down to two players, Lee Buchanan and Ryan Giles.
I went with Buchanan as I feel he is a more similar player to Tierney and a closer athletic match coupled with the fact that a deal to sign Buchanan would be much simpler than one to sign Giles who is on loan at Coventry from Wolves. Buchanan, an England u21 international, has made 20 senior league appearances for Derby since his debut in late 2019. At the age of 19 he has made 24 appearances for Derby in all competitions and has played for England’s u19, u20 and u21 sides.
When researching for this piece I decided to ask ‘Derby County Analysis’ on Twitter (give him a follow!) how much he thought it would take to prize Buchanan away from Pride Park and he said the following:
“In a normal scenario I think Derby would be looking for around 7 million given the high number of appearances he has for his age, the fact he is English and he has played for England u21s. But with the ongoing financial and takeover issues I think if someone bid a cheeky 3–4 million with add ons they could get him.”
He is referencing Derby’s current financial plight, with delays in an expected takeover meaning the club has been unable to pay it’s players in full for the month of December. With this financial trouble they may be willing to sell valuable players a lesser cost and thus Buchanan may be an ideal target, as he is young, homegrown, a tactical fit and could be a bargain given Derby’s financial woes.
Buchanan has fluctuated between playing as a LWB in a 3–4–3 and as a LB in a 4–2–3–1 as Derby have changed their system and manager in an attempt to climb out of relegation danger in the Championship. Buchanan has rotated with experienced Scottish left-back Craig Forsyth who has been dealing with injury problems all season. Let’s look at what Buchanan excels at and what he can improve at.
While not blessed with blistering pace, Buchanan is a good athlete with a very good engine and exceptional aerial prowess given his height. Buchanan is more than capable of winning aerial duels in both the attacking and defensive phases and this means he is not only useful in open play, but also from set-pieces. Although he stands at just under 6ft Buchanan is well built and tough to push off the ball. This physical prowess will put him in good stead in the Premier League, where physicality is of increasing importance. Buchanan’s athleticism and engine is also reflected in the fact that he has played the full 90 minutes in 12 of his 16 starts this season.
Tactical Awareness and Fit
Buchanan is very much in the mould of Tierney as a traditional ‘touchline’ full-back who loves to overlap and get to the byline to cross. He provides Derby with a lot of natural width in possession and forces defenders to commit very wide, opening spaces between defenders for runners to exploit as shown above. He would be able to replicate the role of Tierney as Arsenal’s furthest left player in possession without many problems.
As shown in the Data section, Buchanan is capable of putting in a large volume of crosses from the left flank, but what is most impressive to me is the variety of crosses he produces. Although his technique is not always perfect, Buchanan always looks to aim for the space in the box, as evidenced above where he exploits the space behind the Coventry defence and in front of the keeper and only narrowly misses the onrushing Waghorn. Buchanan is comfortable crossing from deep or from the further forward, with his pacey and whipped deliveries being quite reminiscent of Nacho Monreal.
This is one area in which Buchanan can be caught out occasionally. As he is very confident in his athletic ability, he tends to sit closer to his centre-back and leave space out wide. In this example he fails to get across quickly enough to stop the cross. This could be coached out of him but is perhaps a slightly worrying tendency.
Buchanan is however an excellent 1v1 defender, with the England u21 international patient in his approach. In the above example he ushers the ball wide and pushes the wide player away from the box with the resulting cross easily cleared as his teammates recover.
Overall Buchanan ticks a lot of boxes for Arsenal and could prove to be a bargain option that Arsenal could take advantage of.
Follow me on Twitter here