Monday, November 28, 2022

A case for the defence + Saliba’s positive loan

Morning all. Some quick bits.

Let’s start with Bukayo Saka on defending. Here he is talking after the Leicester game:

“We have really shown, in the recent weeks, that we can fight to hold onto a scoreline.”

“And also, we can defend well. Last season we would maybe concede in this game, but today we really dug deep.”

I thought there was a short period, early in the second half, where our concentration lapsed just a little bit and Leicester had some chances, but in general I think we did well. As we have done since the opening three games of the season. The wins over Norwich and Burnley came about because we were really focused defensively, and we’ve built on those since.

I’ve seen people a little concerned about the perceived gap between the first choice defensive unit and the back-ups, and there is some merit in that. At left back, we’ve  brought in a player who can really slot in when Kieran Tierney is out, which is a vast improvement on last season when we had Sead Kolasinac or nobody, but you can’t have nobody so we had to use Granit Xhaka. It’s still early days for Nuno Tavares but he looks very promising.

Takehiro Tomiyasu is backed up by Cedric and Calum Chambers (not in the squad for the Leicester game); Rob Holding is now understudying Ben White; and Gabriel has Pablo Mari as back up. When the Brazilian went down in the first half on Saturday, it was a bit heart in mouth, to be honest. He’s been so good since he came in it’d be huge blow to be without him. As it stands though, as much as Mikel Arteta likes a left-footed player in that position, I’d be much more inclined to play Holding than Mari whose journeyman level has really been put in the spotlight by how good Gabriel has been.

Anyway, I’m not trying to catastrophise or anything, but it’s an interesting aspect of building a really solid defensive unit. When it establishes itself, that gap in quality becomes more pronounced, but also becomes more difficult to bridge because top level players want to play and if they know they’re going to be sitting on the bench a lot, they won’t join.

You get run of the mill footballers, like the many who backed up the famous back four/five down the years. You get players like Oleg Luzhny, Pascal Cygan etc. You need them for squad depth but you kinda hope you don’t have to play them much. This current defence still has a way to go to become that kind of a mainstay, but right now they’re very much first choice and everyone else knows it. It’s especially difficult in a season without Europe, there just isn’t as much football to go around, but as long as they stay together and keep clean sheets, our only problem as fans is deciding how much sympathy we have for the ones who don’t play.

Speaking of good defenders though, William Saliba appears to be doing very well for Marseille during his loan spell there. It is still early in the season, but reports have been good, and we all saw that amazing tackle on Mbappe in the PSG game the other week. It’s such a contentious debate point among Arsenal fans, but I think if you step back from it a bit, this isn’t a bad thing at all.

A 20 year old central defender is playing regularly and developing his game. At this point in their respective careers, Ben White was working through loan spells at Newport County and Peterborough United, while Gabriel had just moved from Brazilian side Avai to join Lille and to go out on loan to Troyes and Dinamo Zagreb. There really aren’t many 20 year centre-halves in the Premier League, in particular at the top end of the table, so while I completely understand some anxiety over his situation in general, this is not an usual trajectory.

Of course his trajectory has been askew since we – quite bizarrely when you think about it – paid £28m for a player to loan back to his own club for a year. That price-tag comes with expectations that are not necessarily realistic for 18 year olds, regardless of their talent. Then he suffered personal loss, there was 6 months without playing because of lockdown, we made a hash over a loan in the first half of last season which was a waste, and there’s been a sense that he’s not wanted, or that Arteta doesn’t like him.

I’m not sure it’s fair. Everything he’s said about Saliba has been pretty positive, but he’s always stressed the need for him to grow as player, which I don’t think is particularly unreasonable. It has often been presented as a binary choice between Saliba and defenders we don’t like, but ultimately we’ve gotten rid of those ones, and Saliba remains under contract.

I’ll admit I shared some concerns that we might not see him play for us, and I still do but to a much lesser extent. Arteta was often criticised for not trusting young players, or placing too much trust in old players who didn’t deserve it, so it was hard to see how Saliba might fit into the plans of that kind of manager. However, that kind of manager brought in 6 players under 23 this summer, has two Academy players of 19 and 20 playing regularly, and the team’s age profile and dynamic has changed considerably. It’s far easier to see a pathway for Saliba now – although convincing him of that might be the challenge, and the two years he’ll have left on his contract might demand a resolution next summer.

Last week, Arteta spoke about how Edu and loan manager Ben Knapper were in France to watch him during that PSG game, so it’s not as if we’ve just sent him away without keeping tabs on his development. Nor can they fail to have been impressed, so if this loan was designed with the idea of Saliba playing often and coming back as a better player to stake a claim with us, it’s working out. Even if the plan is to sell, his transfer value isn’t tanking or anything like that.

The season is long, let’s see how he goes for the rest of it, but it’s so far, so good, whatever the planned outcome for the end of it.

Right, let’s leave it there. Arsecast Extra from yesterday below if you haven’t had a chance to listen already. Enjoy!

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