The right-back position has been a slightly problematic area for Arsenal in the past few seasons. After Bacary Sagna left for Manchester City on a free transfer, Arsenal have muddled through with a myriad of names, such as Mathieu Debuchy, Calum Chambers, Héctor Bellerín and, more recently, Cédric Soares.
Last season, the club never really had anyone in the position who instilled confidence in either the fans, their teammates or Mikel Arteta. Héctor Bellerín seemed to have regressed at an alarming rate and Cédric Soares has been disappointing.
It was clear this summer that right-back was a priority position to fill and, on Deadline Day, Arsenal snapped up the signing of Takehiro Tomiyasu from Bologna for around £16m. Ever since the Japanese international has arrived, he has proven to be truly undroppable.
This summer was a crucial time for Arsenal. At the very least, there were 5 positions that needed filling:
- Left-back cover
- Centre midfielder
- Attacking midfielder
True, Arsenal didn’t end up with a centre-midfielder, but they addressed all the other areas, but the fact that a right-back, arguably one of the most pressing needs in the team, took so long to find is a mystery to many.
Arsenal spent most of the summer being linked to as many different names you could think of. A failed bid for Acrhaf Hakimi led to the Arsenal scouts to recommend Barcelona full-back Emerson Royal.
Emerson had been sold to Real Betis, but the Spanish giants held a buy-back clause in his contract, which soon allowed them to bring him back. The plan, it seemed, was that Barcelona would reacquire the player and then sell him on for a larger profit than the purchase clause to the highest bidder.
There were plenty of teams interested, but Arsenal seemed the most taken with the Brazilian, but after many failed attempts to sign the player, one of which included a swap-deal with Héctor Bellerín, Arsenal soon began to look elsewhere.
Over in the neighbouring Haringey, Tottenham had spent months of their own looking at the Bologna full-back Takehiro Tomiyasu. The exact reason why Tottenham decided to abandon their pursuit of Tomiyasu is unknown, but their managerial instability and their interest in other players likely meant that Tomiyasu was not entirely sold on joining them, in the end, neither team ended up with their intended target; Tottenham gazumped Arsenal to sign Emerson in a deal worth a reported £24m, while Arsenal took advantage of Tottenham’s hesitancy to sign Tomiyasu for £16m.
The deal raised eyebrows. For all their interest in Emerson, why the sudden switch to Tomiyasu? Especially since both fullbacks have vastly different playstyles.
While Tomiyasu has been an attacking asset to Arsenal, he is, ultimately, a defensive-minded full-back rather than an attacking one, whereas Emerson shares the opposite traits. In Emerson, Arsenal had clearly identified the traits that they enjoyed in Kieran Tierney and were hoping to replicate them on the opposite flank, signing Tomiyasu changed that.
Whatever misgivings Arsenal fans may have had regarding Tomiyasu have been totally forgotten in the months since.
Ever since his arrival, Tomiyasu has cemented his place in the team as perhaps the most undroppable of all of the summer signings.
While Aaron Ramsdale, Ben White and Martin Ødegaard have quickly won fans over, Tomiyasu has quietly gone about his duty and has seemingly wrestled the long-dormant Mr. Dependable title from Nacho Monreal, who left the club 2 seasons ago.
For many, Tomiyasu’s rise has always been on the cards. At the age of 11, he was handed a trial at Barcelona and was subsequently offered a place at the coveted La Masia Academy, but the idea of relocation to Spain did not appeal to Tomiyasu or his family, so he remained in Japan, joining Avispa Fukuoka’s youth team.
After a brief spell in Belgium, he joined Bologna, where he became indispensable to I Rossoblù. After injuries to key men, Tomiyasu was soon moved into the central defensive role, where he continued to impress.
It is this versatility that perhaps entranced Arsenal and Tottenham alike. For Arsenal, hybrid fullbacks have been something of a mixed bag, despite a promising start to his Arsenal career, Calum Chambers has been largely unimpressive and though summer signing Ben White has played many games in the fullback role, he is ultimately suited to a more central role.
Tomiyasu’s versatility has allowed him to strengthen areas of his game that many fullbacks tend to overlook. His aerial dominance is near-unrivalled and the toughness needed to play in the middle has done him no harm either, proving him to be one of the toughest fullbacks in the league to pass.
His versatility has not always been a plus though. Upon the announcement of his signing, Sky Sports News’ Kaveh Solhekol famously proclaimed that Tomiyasu was neither a centre defender or a fullback and that he had spoken ith an agent who had tried all summer to relocate him to the Premier League and that Arsenal were the only team willing to take a punt on him.
There are, of course, several things wrong with this statement. First of all, Tomiyasu was coveted by a large number of clubs in and around Europe and secondly, Tottenham themselves had tried and failed to land the full-back, meaning that Arsenal were not the only interested party.
After a short international break following the closing of the transfer window, Tomiyasu was handed his full Arsenal debut in the 1-0 home win over Norwich City. Of course, the overall quality of the opposition must be taken into account, but Tomiyasu gave an impressive showing on the day, winning 5 out of 5 aerial duels in the first-half alone.
A trying test followed two weeks later, as Arsenal faced off against their North London rivals in the North London Derby, a 3-1 win.
Tomiyasu was again unbeatable on the day and while Tottenham did manage to peg one back in the dying embers of the match, Tomiyasu was exceptional throughout. Heung-min Son was simply unable to wriggle free of the full-back’s vice-like grip and it came as no surprise that his goal came from the middle of the park, rather than from the flank.
Tomiyasu’s performances have thrown Arsenal’s depth into sharp-relief. Arsenal’s depth in the position this season are Calum Chambers, Cédric Soares and potentially Ainsley Maitland-Niles, although he may no longer be an option if his move to AS Roma does indeed go through.
The lack of quality on that side means that Arsenal are woefully ill-equipped if Tomiyasu were to pick up an injury or a suspension.
The same fate befell the team last season when, without adequate cover for Kieran Tierney, the team began to fall apart, with the left-hand flank becoming a particularly poor spot for the team to be able to defend. However, the approval of Nuno Tavares has meant that Arsenal have a worthy candidate to step in should Tierney ever fall absent.
Chambers’ time with Arsenal seems limited. He was absent from the side for a number of weeks prior to his inclusion on the sub’s bench against Norwich City and the club have yet to take up the option for a further year present in his contract.
Elsewhere, the club may also look to move on from Cédric Soares. The growing influence of Kia Joorabchian at the club meant that he was one of many of the agent’s clients snapped up by the club, but Cédric may well be the next to leave.
With this in mind, Arsenal will likely turn their attention to a more capable back-up in the summer. Chambers will potentially be seeking pastures new in January and Cédric may well be off in the summer, while Héctor Bellerín seems even less likely to continue under Mikel Arteta.
But who could Arsenal bring in? Whoever comes in would need to be happy playing back-up to Tomiyasu as he is virtually undroppable at the moment. Barcelona’s Segiño Dest has reportedly been told that he is surplus to requirements, Devyne Rensch at Ajax could be a welcome alternative, as to could either Tariq Lamptey at Brighton & Hove Albion (Arsenal do have a long-standing interest in the player), Jayden Bogle at Sheffield United or even Jeremie Frimpong at Bayer Leverkusen.
For now, Arsenal seem to have found a settled defence. Tomiyasu’s influence at full-back has meant that he has been able to keep the rest of the defenders in check. Ben White has formed a formidable partnership with Gabriel Magalhães and the ability to switch flanks with either foot has proven a useful addition for both Tavares and Tomiyasu.
When asked why Ben White does not pass the ball to him as much as other players, Tomiyasu lent some insight as to what a pass into him means.
“It is because Ben White is a good player. Often, passes from the centre back to the full-backs become ‘pressure passes’. I play centre back too, & simple passes to the full-backs are actually the last option I consider. If the full-back is not under opposition pressure I will play the pass, but if the winger is right in front, you’ll end up caught by the press. So Ben White is a good player who doesn’t play passes that put you under pressureTakehiro Tomiyasu on why Ben White does not pass to him very often.
This quite typifies the kind of player that Arsenal have in their ranks. Tomiyasu understands the role of a central defender and therefore understands why the pass does not always need to come to him.
In the modern game, fullbacks are often required to drop deep into midfield. This is a system that has been known for a while, but was perfected by Pep Guardiola. The system was essentially created to address the imbalance in midfield, especially whenever a break from the opposition began.
For Arsenal, the roles are often changed. Whenever Ben White begins one of his marauding runs into midfield, Tomiyasu will drop back into the central role to cover Gabriel Magalhães.
The system works wonders for both players and Tomiyasu is the glue that holds it all together. Players like Martin Ødegaard are more than capable of dropping deep to collect the ball and carrying it forward, so too can either Granit Xhaka or Thomas Partey, but White is more effective, given his role and he is unable to function in it correctly, without Tomiyasu.
It’s been a while since Arsenal have had a player as dependable as Tomiyasu in the side and while Nacho Monreal may well have held the Mr. Dependable title, it seems Arsenal finally have a player willing to stand as the heir to the coveted throne.