The biggest cheer of the night at the Emirates came when Kieran Tierney was taken off. Nothing personal, of course: when the player replacing you is Hector Bellerin, a club hero making his first appearance in eight months, you’re always going to struggle to get your due. Still, it was a night of quiet progress for Tierney, a man making his belated debut in the twin shadows of a £25 million price tag, and the immense expectations invested in him.
It’s often said you become a better player out of the side than in it. And curiously, the longer Tierney has spent on the sidelines, recovering from his double hernia operation in May, the more his stock has risen. Arsenal’s lurching start to the season, which continued here with a riotous, knockabout 5-0 win over Nottingham Forest in the Carabao Cup, has somehow intensified the urgency of Tierney’s return to a defence with more holes in it than an M Night Shyamalan movie plot.
So, first impressions? Not bad. Not wonderful, either, but then only to be expected given his lack of minutes. Naturally, the Andy Robertson comparisons are inevitable, but early on at least Tierney seemed to be playing a more cautious game than the elastic, buccaneering style Robertson has made his own at Liverpool. Here, he tended to arrive in the second wave of attack, choosing his moments carefully, keen above all to avoid getting caught on the counter by a Nottingham Forest side who occasionally looked dangerous on the break.
Defensively, there were few complaints. He tucked in well to win the ball off Albert Adomah. He could probably have done a little better at stopping a dangerous cross from Yuri Ribeiro. But at least there were few signs of the desperate, kamikaze lunges that occasionally pock-marked his time at Celtic, and which inspired his former captain Scott Brown to observe that Tierney would tackle his own grandmother if she was on the ball.
Still, it’s going forward where Arsenal fans really expect Tierney to earn his corn. And as the game went on, Tierney began to open his legs and show his class. He began to overlap more frequently around the outside of Reiss Nelson. On the hour, he sent Joe Lolley the wrong way with a lovely feint and shimmy before putting a searching cross into the area. It was the first real sign of that famous Tierney pace, the sort that once he reaches full fitness, can burn holes in plastic.
Perhaps he could have been a little more adventurous still. As the game began to stretch out, as the rain began to teem, Tierney began to drift from the game rather than take hold of it: as Bukayo Saka fought off two Forest defenders in the left corner, Emery waved his arm at Tierney, 50 yards back on the halfway line, urging him forward to support his team-mate.
Still, it was his first game in almost five months, and ultimately this was the real goal: minutes in the legs, experience in the bank, injury avoided. And perhaps, in the long run, Tierney’s delayed entrance may do him some good. He has avoided the giddy hoopla that tends to accompany all big summer signings, allowing him to get his bearings, do his rehab, slip in under the radar.
The clamour for him to start at Old Trafford next Monday must be resisted. There’s still work to be done, a process of adaptation and acclimatisation that demands time and care and above all patience. How will Tierney deal with taking the ball under pressure? How will his body and game adapt to the relentless, concussive intensity of the Premier League? How will he deal when Mo Salah is running at him, or Bernardo Silva pressing him furiously near his own goal-line? We still don’t know. But on a night of renewal and reset for Arsenal, this was just the sort of start Tierney would have wanted.