Kieran Tierney would give Arsenal direction and identity as Mikel Arteta’s new captain

Kieran Tierney’s tenacity represents everything Mikel Arteta wants Arsenal to become and the defender would be a bold statement to succeed the deposed Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang

Lawrence Ostlere
Wednesday 15 December 2021 08:46 GMT
Aubameyang Stripped Of Arsenal Captaincy

In a tense and occasionally awkward press conference, Mikel Arteta’s torment was plain to see. Hours earlier a terse club statement had announced the end of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s Arsenal captaincy due to his “latest breach of discipline”, and now Arteta was reliving the hardest conversation of his coaching career. “If I had to choose, I wouldn’t like to be here talking about it,” he said. “[Our relationship was] really, really good, that’s why it’s painful.”

But as the dust settles, removing Aubameyang from the captaincy appears like a ruthless but sensible decision. Disciplinary problems have offered the manager a chance to put his own stamp on the role and whoever comes next must now embody everything Arteta wants his team to become. Yet choosing Aubameyang’s replacement will not be easy, and it is a choice which could come to define the Arteta era.

A scroll through the Arsenal squad does not throw up many outstanding candidates. Beyond the obvious lack of a natural leader, one glaring problem is that so few of Arteta’s regular starters are in their prime: only one of his most-played XI this season is aged 25-30, the 28-year-old midfielder Thomas Partey, who is still finding his feet in English football. The only one over 30 is Aubameyang; the rest are still young and learning on the job. The broader squad is effectively split in two, between a hardened old guard and a blooming crop of young new things, and Arteta must choose a direction.

Among the more experienced players, Granit Xhaka appears the most likely candidate but he will have his reservations after he was hounded out of the captaincy under previous manager Unai Emery. Another older head, Alexandre Lacazette, captained the team against Southampton in Aubameyang’s absence last weekend, but he would be an odd choice beyond the short term while his future at the club remains unresolved.

The standout players among the younger generation this season have been academy graduates Bukayo Saka and Emile Smith Rowe, but they already carry the team at times and Arteta will not want to increase their burden. Other options include recent signings like 23-year-old goalkeeper Aaron Ramsdale, impressing as a vocal organiser at the back, and Brazilian centre-back Gabriel, also 23, although his English is limited. Then there is 22-year-old midfielder Martin Odegaard, the captain of Norway. “He’s got this personality,” Arteta said when Odegaard was given his country’s captaincy in March. “He’s a really humble and easygoing guy but at the same time, he’s very, very professional and very dedicated.”

But the most bold and intriguing candidate is left-back Kieran Tierney. The 24-year-old is tenacious and determined with a highly professional attitude, all qualities Arteta strives for in his side. His place is not entirely assured right now under competition from Nuno Taveres, but a fit Tierney will always get game time with his versatility to play in different positions – left side of a back three, left-back in a four, wing-back – and he can be counted upon in difficult moments, not something Arteta could always say about Aubameyang.

Earlier this season Arteta said of the Scotland defender: “I think he can be [Arsenal captain one day] because he has the respect and the admiration of every member of the staff and every player. It’s just the way he is, he does it in a natural way. He’s a shy boy but I think he represents all of the values we want to install and that are in the DNA of this club. He’s a natural leader. You see how he behaves on that pitch, and when he talks he says the right thing and it’s exactly what we’re looking for.”

Kieran Tierney is one of the first names on Steve Clarke's team-sheet

While together at Celtic, Brendan Rodgers gave Tierney the armband on occasions and tipped him to be a future Scotland captain. Before a game against Arsenal last season the now-Leicester manager was asked about a rumoured training ground confrontation between Tierney and teammate David Luiz. “Kieran is frightened of no one,” Rodgers said. “That’s how he plays and it’s what he is on the field. There were plenty of spats in Glasgow, don’t worry about that.

“He plays with great leadership. At Celtic he had a great mentor in Scott Brown, an incredible captain, and ­Kieran was very close to him. Kieran watched him and saw how he performed every day. Every day he’ll be at the training ground being the best he can. He doesn’t waste time doing stupid things. He’ll be back home afterwards, ­living a quiet life to be the best he can be. That was the attitude and energy I first saw in him. He played like a supporter, he would give his life for it.”

In many ways Tierney is the antithesis of 21st century Arsenal: he is not particularly skilful, or decadent, or French. He brings his boots to games in a carrier bag and his attitude to cold weather makes Sean Dyche look soft. But perhaps that’s the point: a football captain is an emotional and spiritual role more than technical or tactical, someone to follow into battle. The best captains do not need to be the team’s best player but their standards should be higher than the rest, and Tierney fits that mould.

Arteta will initially share the captaincy among his “leadership group” and it is understandable if he is cautious in making a permanent appointment, perhaps leaning on Lacazette and Xhaka in the interim. He could even defer to the players: both Xhaka and Aubameyang were voted in by their peers, a practice used at the start of each season by Pep Guardiola at Manchester City, where Arteta began his coaching career.

Caution might be wise when the role of Arsenal captain has been more burden than inspiration in recent years, but the manager also has a chance to be brave. Lacazette and Xhaka still have roles to play, but instead of taking the captaincy they could support a fresh face like Tierney who would symbolise everything that’s good about the team right now – young and hungry, passionate and energetic, determined to go forwards at every opportunity. Whatever the choice, it could come to define the identity of Arteta’s Arsenal.

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