For the past couple of seasons, left-back has been a problem position for Arsenal. Kieran Tierney is undoubtedly the club’s first choice, but the Scottish international’s poor injury record means top-quality backup is required.
A lack of this arguably cost the Gunners during a crucial stage of last season as Granit Xhaka was asked to fill in during the Europa League semi-final first leg against Villarreal with disastrous outcomes. Sources within the club have since admitted that they suffered during that period, and it appeared that they had addressed the issue when Nuno Tavares was brought in from Benfica last summer.
The Portuguese defender impressed during a run in the side in October and November, but his form has tailed off dramatically during the latter half of the season. He was subbed off before the second half in consecutive starts, and despite being given more consistent game time recently, there are still some concerns over his defensive capabilities. With this in mind, it’s no surprise that Arsenal are looking for alternatives in the transfer market and football.london understands that Bologna’s Aaron Hickey is one of the players being tracked.
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Bologna has proved a happy hunting ground for the Gunners recently, with the signing of Takehiro Tomiyasu largely proving to be a success so far. Watching Hickey, it’s easy to see why Mikel Arteta might be keen on raiding I Rossoblu again this summer.
In an age of flying attacking full-backs, the Scottish international possesses a remarkable knack for defending one-vs-one that is similar to that of Tomiyasu. He ranks in the 90th percentile for dribblers tacked across Europe’s top five leagues in the past year (59.3%) and is up in the 99th for the number of times dribbled past – one higher than Tomiyasu (as per fbref).
Similarly to the Japanese international, he will not look to overcommit to tackles in these situations, instead preferring to use his 6 ft 1″ frame and considerable pace for a man of his size to get himself between his opponent and the ball. Take this instance below where he is up against Fiorentina’s Giacomo Bonaventura. The Italian midfielder is on the edge of the box, slightly ahead of Hickey (highlighted in White), and wants to drive to the by-line to deliver a cross for one of his teammates.
Hickey, though uses his speed to recover and get in front of Bonaventura. The Italian struggles desperately to get around him, but the ball is ultimately guided out of play.
Watching this, it’s hard not to be reminded of the way Tomiyasu used his strength and pace to guide the ball out of play when up against one of the trickiest wingers in the Premier League in Said Benrahma. Even Hickey’s stance when defending – upright in posture but with crouched legs to maintain a low centre of gravity to make him more able to react to what the attacker does – is reminiscent of his former Bologna teammate.
Given that many of the concerns around Tavares are over his defensive game, the Scot’s proficiency in this area is a welcome boost. For example, during Sunday’s win over West Ham, Tavares was positionally poor and allowed Vladimir Coufal to easily put in the cross that led to Jarrod Bowen’s goal, prompting fury from Rob Holding. It’s difficult to picture Hickey making a similar kind of mistake.
Like Tavares, Hickey is happy to drive infield onto his right foot when attacking and has actually scored a few goals for Bologna by doing that this season. While he is not the most spectacular passer, with just an 81.5% success rate (as per fbref), the Glaswegian left back’s two footedness and defensive solidity make him the perfect candidate to fill the inverted full back role that Tomiyasu has thrived in over on thr right this season.
While Tierney did that ably on the left during Tomiyasu’s spell out with injury before a knee injury of his own ruled him out for the season, it’s no secret that he’s at his best when putting in dangerous deliveries in the final third. This kind of stylistic variety is what Arteta has already stated that he wants from his squad.
“It’s exactly what I want that we have players that can play in the same role with different qualities that give us different options, and you have the reassurance that they both can perform at the highest level,” the Spaniard said back in February.
On top of all this, Hickey is just 19-years-of-age, meaning that he will not take up one of the non-homegrown player spots in Arsenal’s 25 man Premier League squad should he arrive next season. Despite being 21 when he signed, Tavares fit into this criteria by virtue of the fact that he was born after January 1st 2000. Speaking after the summer transfer window came to a close, Arsenal technical director Edu revealed this was a big factor in the decision to sign him.
“Tierney, in the first half of the season, he did quite well, but in the second half of the season, he lost 48% of the games, which gave Mikel some challenges to try and adapt some players there,” the Brazilian said. “You’ll remember in this period when Tierney was injured he had to adapt Bukayo Saka sometimes, Granit (Xhaka) sometimes in a period of the season which was to us really important. To have a better-balanced position, that’s why we go to Nuno (Tavares) because Nuno is under-21.”
Come next season though, this will not apply, meaning that Tavares would take up one of the non-homegrown spots in the squad. While this isn’t too much of a problem now as Arsenal are not close to the 17 player limit, the Gunners are keen on bringing in more established players in the centre forward and central midfield positions. They have been linked to players like Gabriel Jesus and Arthur Melo, both of whom would take up one of the non-homegrown player spots. If Arsenal were to replace Tavares with Hickey, then they could potentially free up space for some more experienced additions to the squad.
While he’s not perfect, it’s clear that Hickey ticks a lot of the Gunners’ boxes. football.london understands that Bologna are asking for around €20 million for the 19-year-old this summer, but with plenty of important work to do in the market, it remains to be seen if Arsenal will be able to pull the deal off.
Source by Football London