Arsenal have been in the market for a dominant centre-back since Sol Campbell left 14 years ago. Plenty have tried to fill the void and tens of millions have been spent on defenders, but the search continues.
Despite this, Arsenal are still in the market for a centre-back. According to reports, West Ham United‘s Issa Diop tops the club’s wishlist with the £60million fee being mooted not enough to put the Gunners off.
West Ham were only outside of the relegation zone on goal difference before the COVID-19-enforced break. The Hammers had lost six of their last ten in the Premier League, conceding 16 goals over that period. Furthermore, only three teams have conceded more goals than David Moyes’ men (50).
On that basis, the London Stadium wouldn’t normally be a prime shopping destination if you’re looking to sure-up your defence. But the 23-year-old has all the traits required to develop into one of Europe’s best. And with other teams looking at the likes of Kalidou Koulibaly and Milan Škriniar, Arsenal could have a free run at the former Toulouse defender.
At 6ft 4ins, Diop is an intimidating physical presence. He’s also fairly experienced for a player of his age having racked up more than 75 Ligue 1 appearances and a further 55 in the Premier League. The West Ham No.23 has represented France at every level between under-16 and under-21 and it’s only a matter of time before he makes his debut for Les Bleus.
On paper, Diop doesn’t tick the boxes required for an Arsenal defender. Arteta wants to play football. He wants his centre-backs to be comfortable and competent in possession.
For all his faults, David Luiz has averaged 60 passes and 70 touches per 90 this season, for example. He might not be the most reliable defender but the Brazilian can be a good base for his team to build out from the back. Just ask Antonio Conte, who made the former Paris Saint-Germain man a key cog in his title-winning Chelsea side.
Diop attempts just 31.66 passes and averages 45 touches (per 90). On top of that, he finds a team-mate with just 79 per cent, six per cent fewer than Luiz. Taken in isolation, that doesn’t paint a positive picture of Diop. But context is important. West Ham aren’t a ball-playing team. Just because the Frenchman isn’t posting similar numbers to Luiz right now doesn’t mean he can’t.
He’s far from the finished product but there’s a lot for Arteta to work with.
In the image above, Diop is being pressed by Marcus Rashford with Manchester United aggressively looking to win the ball high up. In this scenario, other defenders would just punt the ball forward and possession would be lost. But at least it would in the opposition’s half.
However, Diop isn’t flustered and instead plays an incisive pass between two defensive lines straight into the feet of a team-mate. In one swift movement, the Hammers go from being pressed deep in their own half to having the ball in the middle third having bypassed six United players. The attack doesn’t lead to anything but the hosts have a sustained period of possession in the opposition’s half.
It’s a risky pass but the sort of proactive and positive approach which can be a real difference-maker for some teams, especially for a side like Arsenal. The Gunners have a number of talented players in the final third. Getting the ball to them will be the main part of Arteta’s plans.
If the former Manchester City assistant manager can work with Diop and develop him as a ball-player, he could be a special talent and one of the best centre-backs in the league.
The rumoured £60million may seem steep but many believed the £75million Liverpool parted with for Virgil van Dijk was excessive, and look how that panned out.