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Danny Stewart: Could there really be a problem brewing for Kieran Tierney at Arsenal?

© David Blunsden/Action Plus/ShutterstockKieran Tierney returned to the Arsenal starting line-up against Everton last Monday night, but was substituted after an hour
Kieran Tierney returned to the Arsenal starting line-up against Everton last Monday night, but was substituted after an hour

In the midst of another dramatic week in Scottish football, one of Steve Clarke’s World Cup hopefuls posted a reminder he is still very much alive and well.

A cult hero among Arsenal’s fans for his commitment, all-action style and – on one memorable occasion – choice of a Tesco plastic bag over Gucci or Louis Vuitton as a match-day accessory, Kieran Tierney had been notable by his absence.

Prior to his return against Everton last Monday night – in which he stormed down the left wing to set up Martin Odegaard for his goal – KT had missed the Gunners’ previous six Premier League games.

The first couple, against Aston Villa and Leicester City, can be written off as injury-related as he had badly bruised his ankle in training.

The next four, however, came down to manager Mikel Arteta’s desire to stick with the man who had impressed when he came in to replace Tierney, Nuno Tavares.

With Arsenal having signed the Portuguese Under-21 internationalist for £8million from Benfica in the summer, specifically to provide competition at left-back, the strategy might sound straightforward enough.

What surprised all those who follow the London club – and will have potentially alarmed the Scotland manager – was the fact Tavares committed a serious mistake in the loss to Liverpool in the middle of the run.

The 21-year-old effectively provided an assist for Diogo Jota for the Reds’ second, a goal that gave Jurgen Klopp’s men the platform to kick on and race to a 4-0 win.

Given his age and comparative lack of experience, easing him out in the next game in favour of Tierney was the obvious move.

The club, after all, paid £25m for the Scot when taking him south from Celtic in 2019, and he was comfortably one of their best players last season.

Thanks, too, to a typically-bullish display for Scotland in the 2-0 win in Moldova a few days prior to the Anfield game, his fitness to play was not in question.

But Arteta opted again to start the left-back he signed over the one he inherited on his appointment, sparking a heated debate.

Mikel Arteta and Kieran Tierney (Pic: Peter Powell / Shutterstock)

Martin Keown, one of Arsenal’s Invincibles and now an influential commentator on the club’s business, was quick to read the tea leaves – and wasn’t sure he liked what he was seeing.

Describing Tierney’s continued absence from the side as “a mystery”, he said he feared there was”a problem brewing”.

While the 24-year-old was very much the leader he and the supporters had been waiting for, he fretted the manager might not believe in him as much they did.

Another pundit, former Aston Villa and England forward, Gabby Agbonlahor, pointed up one possible point in Tavares’ favour, arguing that he was quicker than Tierney.

The Scot, he said, was a better defender than his rival – an important plus, given the quality of wide players Arsenal encounter in the Premier League.

When he replaced Tierney for the final half-hour against Everton, Tavares was not at his best and, on one occasion, was clearly bawled out by his goalkeeper, Aaron Ramsdale, for allowing a cross in.

While the mental strength of the Portuguese has yet to be determined, Tierney’s is there for all to see.

At Arsenal, he has worked his way through a serious injury, and the early departure from the club of Unai Emery – the man who signed him – to impose his personality on the team.

With Scotland, he has not just survived, but thrived in a situation where he has had Champions League winner, Andy Robertson, ahead of him in his favoured position.

It spoke volumes of Clarke’s respect for Tierney’s quality that he rejigged the team to find a system that could accommodate both players.

That could also be seen as a payback for the player’s attitude in the dark blue of his country, where he has been happy to slot in as the left of a back three and, when asked, even gave it a go at right-back.

In the unlikely event of Arteta choosing to freeze him out in the longer term in favour of Tavares, that inner strength will see Tierney through.

Equally, he is under contract until 2026, but would not look to stay somewhere he was not wanted.

Not when there would be plenty of exciting challenges to be had elsewhere, and a host of managers – here and abroad – eager to have KT giving his all for their team.