For quite some time Arsenal have cursed their luck defensively, often dropping points and positions due to the weakness of their back line.
Over the years Arsenal fans have grown increasingly frustrated as the club has repeatedly opted to strengthen their attack and midfield only to seemingly ignore their problems at the back.
Last summer they looked to be remedying that finally, signing three defenders with a mixture of promise and experience. David Luiz was bought from Chelsea, Kieran Tierney joined from Celtic and the relatively unknown William Saliba made the move from Saint-Etienne – although he was sent straight back on loan.
But things haven’t exactly gone to plan for Arsenal and the two defenders that stayed with the club for the 2019/20 camapign. Despite a promising start, David Luiz appears to have reverted to type and is just as prone to a mistake as he is to making a goal-saving tackle, with one error leading to a goal in the Premier League this season.
Meanwhile, Tierney has struggled with injuries, having joined Arsenal while ruled out with a hip problem before dislocating his shoulder in December – which saw the Scot ruled out for another three months.
These struggles have been enhanced by the poor performances from the rest of Arsenal’s defenders, with Unai Emery, Freddie Ljungberg and Mikel Arteta fielding a variety of different backlines across the season.
Even the January arrivals of Pablo Mari and Cedric Soares have been unable to significantly boost their problems, although there is still the remainder of the 2019/20 Premier League season to come.
But regardless of what happens, could it be that Arsenal’s best defender of the 2019/20 campaign has not actually played for the club? Saliba, who has represented Saint-Etienne this term, was one of the highlights of an ultimately poor campaign for the French club – when he wasn’t dealing with injury problems of his own.
The French centre-back started in 11 of his 12 Ligue 1 appearances in the 2019/20 campaign including what would be the final seven of the season before the campaign was brought to a premature end. And although Saint-Etienne managed just two points from those seven matches, in Saliba there was promise.
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Among all the players in Europe’s top five leagues to have played at least 900 minutes this term, only two have a better ‘pure tackle success rate’ than Saliba.
‘Pure tackle success rate’ measures how effective a player is by dividing total tackles by a sum of total tackles + challenges lost + fouls conceded when attempting a tackle. Putting this all together, Saliba’s pure tackle success comes in at 79.17%, bettered only by Federico Fazio (80%) and Yerry Mina (82.22%). But perhaps more impressively, Saliba is the only outfield player to have played at least 900 minutes in Europe’s top five leagues without committing a foul from an attempted tackle.
When comparing Saliba’s pure tackle success rate with the current Arsenal players, it makes for grim reading for his defensive competition. Closest to Saliba is in fact winger Nicolas Pepe at 69.77%, while Cedric’s 67.16% was recorded during the first half of the season at Southampton.
Of Arsenal defenders to have actually played in the Premier League for the club this term, Calum Chambers leads the way with 66.67%, Sokratis has 58.14% while Luiz is as low as 57.14% with 11 fouls from tackles.
Although Saliba’s tackling ability could see him labelled a clean cut defender, former Arsenal striker Kevin Campbell has previously highlighted Saliba for being able to introduce a nasty streak to Arteta’s backline.
“He knows what he’s going to get from the [Shkodran] Mustafis of this world. He’s got to recruit new,” he told AFTV in March. “Saliba’s coming in, fantastic, we want Saliba in there.
“We want someone horrible at the back, probably another centre-half in there. Rob Holding, we’ve not heard about him, he’s another one that will be tested.
“Arteta has come from a place at City where you know what you’re going to get, these guys are trusted, they’ve got that consistency to perform.
“We had it, but we haven’t got it anymore, and it’s going to have to be a ruthless streak, that’s why I say rip it up and start again.
“Arteta, for me, is going to start doing that now because he hasn’t got time to be messing about.”