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Kieran Tierney interview: Arsenal players see bright future under 'brilliant' Mikel Arteta
Kieran Tierney speaks exclusively to Sky Sports about Arsenal's recent struggles, why he's optimistic about the future under Mikel Arteta, and how he's put his injury woes behind him
Last Updated: 25/06/20 8:15pm
There has been little to smile about for Arsenal since the Premier League restart. The 3-0 loss to Manchester City could easily have been worse and Saturday's acrimonious defeat at Brighton was another heavy blow.
But there is one feel-good story amid the gloom and that is the return of Kieran Tierney. The 23-year-old, sidelined by injury for much of his debut season at Arsenal, made his first appearance in six months at the Etihad Stadium, earning praise from Mikel Arteta for his "incredible attitude" and completing a comeback that had been a long time in the making.
The circumstances into which he has returned are far from ideal. Arsenal find themselves in 10th place ahead of Thursday's clash with Southampton. Their hopes of Champions League qualification have been badly damaged, the injuries are piling up, and after Saturday's implosion against Brighton, familiar questions were asked of their character.
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"Obviously it's not the result we wanted or the result we had worked hard for, but it's something we need to deal with," Tierney tells Sky Sports.
"The bus journey was quiet on the way home, but I think we've reacted well in training. We've got a point to prove and we need to go out there and get the results that the manager wants and the fans deserve."
Brighton's Neal Maupay accused Arsenal of lacking humility on Saturday but there is little evidence of that in Tierney. Ronny Deila, the manager who gave him his debut at Celtic, regarded him as the best professional he had ever worked with. His successor, Brendan Rodgers, was equally impressed.
It's a similar story with Arteta and the admiration is mutual.
"He's been brilliant," says Tierney. "Obviously I was injured when he first came in and that was so unfortunate because you want to impress the new manager and get off to a good start. But even then, he was good with me. He watched me from afar and asked for updates on how I was doing."
Arteta was similarly attentive during the lockdown, which came into force just as Tierney was nearing his return to fitness following the dislocated shoulder he suffered against West Ham in December.
"We did Zoom calls and he gave me stuff to work on and pointers to look out for in certain games," says Tierney. "It's been an absolute joy to train with him. I feel as if I'm learning every single day and I was grateful for the opportunity he gave me against Manchester City. It was my first game in so long and a big game for the club, so for him to trust me was brilliant."
All the players are hurting, it's a tough time for everyone at the club, but there are going to be better days ahead
Tierney describes the intensity of Arsenal's training sessions as "incredible" over the last few weeks and while recent results have been difficult for supporters to stomach, there is optimism within the squad that Arteta's methods will eventually take the club back to its old heights.
The Spaniard is attempting to overhaul Arsenal's playing style, to restore their identity as a potent attacking force at the same time as modernising their approach without the ball in order to bring them in line with high-pressing rivals such as Manchester City and Liverpool. It is an ambitious undertaking which demands full commitment on the part of the players.
"Every day in training you know you're going there to work," says Tierney. "There are times for a laugh and a joke - Mikel loves that as well - but when we're working, we're working. It's a lot of tactical stuff as well, and that's going to help us all get an understanding of how he wants us to play.
"I've said before, something like that is not going to just work straight away, it's going to be a process, but there is light at the end of the tunnel and we need to stay focused on that. There are going to be bad results and bad games, but as a team we need to keep the confidence, stick together and kick on again."
Thursday's trip to Southampton will be a test of that togetherness - Arsenal can ill afford to drop more points in the race for the Champions League places - but Tierney insists the players are desperate to put recent setbacks behind them and help Arteta realise his vision for the side.
"All the players are hurting, it's a tough time for everyone at the club, but there are going to be better days ahead," he says. "The last two results haven't been ideal, but the work-rate is still at 100 per cent every day in training. We're working so hard and we're working to the gameplan that the manager wants. We all believe in it and we're all buying into it."
From a personal perspective, Tierney is eager to make up for lost time.
Arsenal paid £25m to sign the left-back from Celtic in August but injuries have limited him to just 13 appearances in all competitions so far. He arrived in north London with a hip problem having had double hernia surgery back in Scotland. No sooner had he recovered than he was required to go under the knife again to fix his dislocated shoulder.
"I'd had doubts about whether the injury I'd had before was ever going to go away, it was so ongoing and I was playing through it for that long," he says. "To eventually get through it was a weight lifted off my shoulders, but then dislocating the shoulder was just another freak accident. There was nothing I could have done about it."
It was a testing period for Tierney, but he is grateful to his family, friends and the medical staff at Arsenal for helping him through it.
"It's not ideal when you're injured and you're away from your family and everything is new, but I've got good people around me and good people at the club. Whoever helps you in the dark times, they are the people you need to cherish. They know who they are and I know who they are."
The shoulder injury allowed Tierney to travel home to Glasgow for Christmas - "that was huge for me," he says - but a few days later he returned to London to focus on his rehabilitation. When the coronavirus outbreak delayed his return further, he resolved to work even harder.
"I used it to my advantage," he says. "I went away and worked as hard as I could. I was in contact with the sports science guys asking for the most I could do in order to help me get into good shape for coming back, because six months was the longest I'd not played football in my life.
"It was tough and it was obviously frustrating, but I think everything is sent to test you and everything happens for a reason. I've had obstacles before and hard work is how I've found my way past the bad days.
"Just work hard, and the better days will come."
It's an attitude which has served him well throughout his career.
At Celtic, he captained the side at 21 and team-mates were often taken aback by his ferocity in training. During the 2017 Scottish Cup final against Aberdeen, he was rushed to hospital with a broken jaw - only to reappear at Hampden Park in full kit to join the celebrations after the final whistle. "I'd have spat my teeth out to play on," he said at the time.
Such dedication and determination are considered by some to be qualities that this Arsenal side lacks, but to Tierney they come naturally. "I'll bring what I can bring," he shrugs. "I don't try to be a leader or anything like that. I'm just who I am. It's how I play and how I work. I've learned from good people as well."
He cites Celtic captain Scott Brown as the biggest influence.
"He epitomises what a leader is," says Tierney. "He is the perfect leader. I worked under him for so long and he taught me so much about football and about life. I'm not like him in many ways, but he taught people how to be themselves and how to be the best that they can be, and that's what I try to do. If people say I show leadership, then that's brilliant."
The rest of them are all snooded-up, wearing hats and the rest of it. But the winter down here is nothing compared to the winter in Scotland. It's not even cold down here
Tierney is already a popular figure among team-mates and Arsenal supporters, who, as well as being excited by his ability, have taken great amusement from his penchant for shunning thermal training gear in favour of shorts and a t-shirt even in the depths of winter.
"The rest of them are all snooded-up, wearing hats and the rest of it," he chuckles. "But the winter down here is nothing compared to the winter in Scotland. It's not even cold down here. You should see the weather in Scotland, then we'll talk.
"People always say, 'why aren't you training in a jumper?' but I never play in a jumper on a Saturday, so it makes sense to wear the same attire in training. I don't mean anything by it, it's just what I feel comfortable in."
Rodgers, his manager for three years at Celtic, described it as "old-school determination" but it's Tierney's attributes as a player that really mark him out. He spent most of his time at Celtic playing "more like a winger than a left-back", in his own words, but he is also capable of filling in at centre-back, as he did following David Luiz's sending off against Manchester City, and even playing on the right-hand side.
"I think everyone likes attacking and trying to get assists, but I also love the defensive aspect, the one-v-ones and getting back and helping out because you need to start by defending, that's very important for the team," he says. "But it doesn't matter where you play as long as you play. I'll always try to give my all no matter what."
Arteta now needs to see the same mentality across the Arsenal squad. He has handled Tierney's return to action cautiously so far, resting him against Brighton following his start against City, but the expectation is that he will be back in the team against Southampton on Thursday. The expectation is that he will soon become a leader at Arsenal just as he did at Celtic.
Watch Southampton vs Arsenal live on Sky Sports Football or Sky Sports Main Event from 5.30pm on Thursday; Kick-off is 6pm