What sort of Centre-Back profile should Arsenal be targeting in the upcoming window?
By Vinay Shankar (Tactical Analyst)
So much has been said of Arsenal’s defenders, yet so little’s been done. After the terrible game against Watford yesterday, my tactical review was purely going to be on slating our centre-halves and being critical of our midfield, which wasn’t worth it so I decided to write about what attributes we need for a solid backline.
Every Arsenal fan thinks of Sol Campbell when the topic of centre-back comes up, but it’s been nearly 14 years since said left the club and the search for a defensive talisman continues. It’s amazing how every famous team, be it at club or international level, always gets associated with that leader in defence, be it Sergio Ramos, Paolo Maldini, Campbell for the Invincibles, Virgil Van Dijk in this day and age among many others. William Saliba is a highly-rated prospect and all his coaches have termed him incredibly mature for his age, but he’s just a small piece of the puzzle. Irrespective of recruitment in other positions, this transfer window is going to be incredibly crucial in terms of improving our defensive quality.
To get a sense of the type of centre-back we need, context is very much important, especially in English football. Aside from long-ball merchants Burnley and Sheffield United to an extent, the type of centre-halves in the top flight has changed a lot from the olden days of tough-tackling, physical, long-ball punting type players. Every old-school Arsenal pundit will always talk about why the club should sign these types of players but for a team building a possession-based style, it just won’t work out. Over the last few years, technical attributes are just as much a necessity as the physical attributes while signing a central defender in the top flight. The demands of the Premier league make it one of the toughest leagues for centre-backs in the world and quality scouting is very much the need of the hour to build a solid defensive unit.
Arsenal’s biggest bugbear defensively this season has been in transition when they lose the ball upfield. This is primarily because our defenders just don’t have the pace or positioning to guard the channels and the game against Watford yesterday or the Everton game before lockdown should be convincing enough to highlight the problem if it wasn’t obvious already.
Laurent Koscielny is our best defender in the Emirates era and he was one of the fastest defenders in the league, despite his Achilles issues. He had the recovery pace to deal with wingers and forwards with ease. As I wrote in my centre-back targets piece during the lockdown, “Since Laurent Koscielny, Arsenal haven’t had a front-footed defender with the right mix of aggression, recovery pace, strong aerially with a good reading of the game and crucially, comfortable on the ball.”
The other key characteristic that is crucial in the league is aerial ability. The key point of emphasis is not just about winning the first header but also about regaining possession. For a lot of teams in the league, the long ball for the striker to attack is their ‘out-ball’, so possession-based teams need defenders who can not only win the header but also regain possession. This is where Arsenal are really lacking and Mustafi is a good example to highlight this. When one looks at stats, Mustafi wins a high percentage of aerial duels but he has absolutely no control over the direction of the header, which essentially leads to pin-balling in the centre of the field, giving Arsenal no chance to keep up the pressure.
One only needs to look at the Liverpool game at the Emirates to get an idea of what we need from our centre-halves and I don’t mean the mistakes by Van Dijk. Arsenal couldn’t get out of their half for most of the game and were just left to deal with waves and waves of pressure. The partnership of Van Dijk and Gomez with Fabinho ahead of them just strangled Arsenal and just kept up the relentless pressure.
There are other very important aspects while scouting obviously like comfort on the ball, body shape while defending, positional aspects while employing a high line and so on, but the importance of pace and winning aerial duels cannot be overstated in the context of Arsenal and has to be addressed in this transfer window for the rebuild under Mikel Arteta to take shape. This would mean clearing out what we have as much as possible with ruthlessness being the operative word.