Jurrien Timber sends Arsenal clear message in return as new role sheds light on transfer plan

Arsenal defender Jurriem Timber
Jurrien Timber marked his return to action in style -Credit:David Price/Arsenal FC via Getty Images

Arsenal may well have been missing plenty from left-back this season but absolute worldies from the edge of the box probably aren't one they had thought about. Mikel Arteta has tried plenty to solve his defensive conundrum left by the left-back spot - which has varied between who can progress the ball best, remain fit, slot into midfield naturally, and handle one-on-ones with coolness - but one influential option has remained unavailable.

In Jurrien Timber, Arsenal felt they were signing a truly brilliant option for the future and the now. To have been without him for eight months and to still be top of the table - albeit having played a game more than Manchester City, soon to be two on Tuesday night - is remarkably impressive.

What Timber brought, other than sheer competition for defensive places, was versatility and a skill range completely different to his new peers. The Dutchman has spent most of his senior career as a centre-back but is more than capable of operating on either flank or as a wing-back.

He can play in a back three, and dribbles more than his teammates to bring the ball out from the defence as well. His athleticism is another thing that has been unmatched by those who have tried to fill in.

All of this was on show, and more, in his return to action. Playing for the club's Under-21 side away to Blackburn Rovers in the Premier League 2, it took him just eight minutes to score. Outside of a thunderous strike from the top of the box, it is the position that was most notable.

Nothing happens by chance within a club and Arsenal's left-back toils coinciding with Timber's immediate return to the pitch being straight in on that side signals much. It is likely to have been Arteta's asking that he play in that spot, after all. Four years on from his start at the club it is no stretch to suggest he has the power over the academy to get a player into a certain spot for 45 minutes of youth football.

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Even more intriguingly at Ewood Park he often played the inverting role too, moving inside in possession and during the build-up to create the 3-2 shape for Mehmet Ali's side. It is one that has attracted much attention and tinkering this season in the senior squad and is of key importance to the overall effect of the side.

Timber was also given the freedom to roam about the pitch though, which led to his goal. Storming up the left flank he was in acres of space when taking a touch inside the Rovers area, and didn't shy away from truly taking advantage of his advanced spot as he slammed in seconds later.

Going back he was caught out several times by direct attacks when in a more natural full-back width, but largely marked his return solidly across the board. He was taken off at half-time having put in a good run out for 45 minutes, and the club are keen to manage him carefully after such a long layoff.

His positioning, though left-side dominant, was also varied in a way that the first-team doesn't work that often. At goal kicks he started hugging the touchline, often ahead of the central midfielders vertically, and rarely got involved in this passage of play.

However, when the ball was in open play he wouldn't let long pass him by before shifting to midfield as the inverted full-back. It is a role that Zinchenko made his own for most of last term and now there is the threat of real competition across the defence when Timber does return.

He won't be expected to provide such instant and incredible attacking output when he does, but Arsenal won't be complaining if the Timber Thunderbolt becomes a thing. With shooting like that, they've missed him more than they could have known.

Now with five games to go in the Premier League, the return of Timber, even for a brief period, is uplifting and a boost. The problems, some major and some minor, in defence, have been stark for Arteta.

Ben White's form was off until the turn of the year when everything eventually clicked for Arsenal; Takehiro Tomyasu has struggled with fitness; Jakub Kiwior spent the first half of the season still looking a little out of place, and Oleksandr Zinchenko has been a weak link defensively, unable to have the same impact in possession that he had last year.

Arteta has still managed to find a way to solidify the team with a strong system and spine throughout - the displays of Kiwior and White since the return from the winter break, in particular, have been largely masterful and a dramatic shift - but until the past two months things hadn't gelled in the same way.

The build-up methods in a 3-2 formation haven't worked as well and the left side has remained a problem. Zinchenko specifically has really struggled.

He has found himself in and out of the side in recent weeks, also hitting injury problems, and has been a defensive worry for much of the campaign. He will be the most worried by the dynamic return to action for Timber on Monday night, and what can be presumed as Arteta's call to play Timber on the left is telling.

The Gunners have signed five players in recent years capable of operating on the left and with fitness worries for many, and it not being the preferred role, questions had been asked. Ajax's Jorrel Hato, for example, is a player previously looked at before signing a new deal, and can play on the left.

Barcelona youth star Alejandro Balde is another. It all suggests that Arteta is not totally sold on his options no matter how versatile and useful. Timber's return, especially if there is more to come from him going forward like this, could change this all.