Arsenal are looking to address a problem area this summer with links to a number of centre-backs. It’s encouraging to see the Gunners identifying this as an issue and acting early in the transfer window.
The North Londoners conceded 51 goals during Unai Emery’s debut season at the helm with only two teams in the top ten shipping more.
But that doesn’t tell the whole story. When looking at the expected goals against (xGA) metric, Arsenal actually overperformed in the league, despite conceding a half-century of goals.
The defence at the Emirates is actually worse than first feared. There’s no quick fix, either. But signing players suited to the system you intend to play goes a long way to plugging those gaps.
The Gunners have a certain profile in mind with the three defenders recently linked all being under the age of 23. According to reports, Arsenal have seen a bid for Joachim Andersen turned down by Sampdoria.
Yet to be called up by Denmark, the 23-year-old helped Samp to a respectable ninth-place finish in Serie A last season having conceded nine goals fewer than in 2017/18.
Though it was very much a team effort, Andersen did have a number of individual standout matches which showcased just how good he can be.
One such game was the 1-0 win over Atalanta in October. Andersen made nine interceptions and nine clearances as well as winning four of his six aerial duels, putting in the kind of dominant and mature display that would be usually associated with a defender of Virgil van Dijk‘s calibre.
He’s comfortable on the ball, averaging 63.61 passes per 90, an essential trait for an Emery centre-back. Shkodran Mustafi averaged 61 passes last season, highlighting the fact the defenders at the Emirates see a lot of the ball.
Andersen’s heat map suggests he is an aggressive, proactive defender who isn’t averse to stepping up into midfield. Again, a trait which would be welcomed by Arsenal. It’s perhaps why he’s the top target ahead of Dayot Upamecano.
The RB Leipzig man is a different type of defender to his Sampdoria counterpart. He’s a defence-first player with the 20-year-old not really venturing forward.
The system he’s deployed in could have an impact on this. The Bundesliga side like to sit a little deeper and draw the opposition on before hitting them on the break. It means Upamecano isn’t required to push further up the pitch. He can defend his 18-yard line. And he does that extremely well.
He’s much busier of the two, averaging 2.02 tackles and 2.32 interceptions per 90 minutes while winning an impressive 3.72 aerial duels. While he’s not as aggressive as Andersen at progressing up the pitch, he is just as forward-thinking. Of his 55.94 passes, 41.3 per cent go forward.
Emery’s Arsenal aren’t a counter-attacking team but with the pace of Alex Iwobi, Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang they could be devastating on the break from time to time. Upamecano’s ability on the ball, coupled with his vision, could be a useful trait.
The third player being linked with a move to the Emirates is more of a project. St-Étienne’s William Saliba has all the potential in the world. If he develops as expected he will be one of the best defenders in Europe by the time he’s 25.
However, at 18 he still has a lot to learn and the Premier League isn’t necessarily a finishing school.
Saliba is the sort of signing you make with the future in mind. The sort of centre-back you tie down to a long-term deal when your defence is already in rude health.
Signing the youngster before returning him to France on loan would be good for his development. But it doesn’t address Arsenal’s current and well-documented problems.
If Saliba is to join then it’d have to be him and one other. With the budget at the Emirates tight this summer it’s not something they could feasibly do, at least not without sales.
In an ideal world, Emery would sign Saliba and Andersen. The Sampdoria man is better suited to the system at the Emirates and doesn’t have Upamecano’s injury record. Even without the 18-year-old Frenchman, Andersen is the sort of signing the Gunners should be making. A leader for the defence and a player you can build around for the foreseeable future.