Whether it be through fixture pile-ups, injuries or sheer incompetence, Unai Emery has certainly had his troubles with centre-backs at Arsenal this season.
The Spaniard has cycled through Sokratis Papastathopoulos, Laurent Koscielny, Rob Holding, Nacho Monreal, Stephan Lichtsteiner, Konstantinos Mavropanos and Shkodran Mustafi at various points in the season, and that’s just off the top of our heads. In fact, even Granit Xhaka has had a go.
However, the latter of that long list of actual defenders has proved to be a serious problem for Emery, with Mustafi putting in a woeful performance in a 3-2 defeat to Crystal Palace on Sunday which drew the ire of a host of fans and savants.
Sky Sports pundit Jamie Carragher lambasted Mustafi after the Emirates defeat to the Eagles, calling the German a ‘mess’.
“I wasn’t surprised by this,” he told Sky Sports. “He’s been a mess since he joined the club really and this is another example of it. He’s at fault for the second goal as well.”
Meanwhile, one incandescent Gunner has even set up an online petition calling for Mustafi to be sent to jail for life as a result of footballing incompetence. Just a tad harsh, eh? Nevertheless, the petition has already racked up over 600 signatures.
While we’re not calling for any footballer to be sent down for simply putting in a few bad performances, it’s clear that Mustafi is an issue that Emery needs to fix. One with which Arsenal fans have lost patience.
So, with the summer transfer window racing into view, which centre-backs could Arsenal target to solve their ‘Mustafi problem’ and add some much-needed backbone to Emery’s defence?
1. Homegrown quota
If your team is suffering under aerial bombardment and looking completely unorganised when even the simplest ball is put into the box, who better to stop the bleeding than Everton’s king of headers?
The Toffees have taken 10 points from a possible 12 during their last four home games, drawing 0-0 with Liverpool and beating Chelsea, Arsenal and Man Utd 2-0, 1-0 and 4-0, respectively.
That’s one mightily impressive run of results and central to that has been the form of Michael Keane.
The England international has won eight aerial duels and made nine interceptions – sitting only behind Lucas Digne in both regards among Everton’s defenders – while he sits joint-top with Digne in Everton’s defence in terms of clearances during those games with 18.
All that, and he didn’t even play against Arsenal due to illness.
Last season, his maiden campaign at Goodison Park, Keane often looked like a blundering mess. However, what we didn’t know was that he nearly lost his foot due to a challenge on him from former Everton striker James Vaughan during a League Cup tie with Sunderland. Keane played through the pain and risked his limb, ultimately having a very detrimental effect on his performances.
Eventually, though, he recovered. This term, Keane has won 167 aerial duels in the Premier League, the fourth-highest of any Premier League defender, even having fractured his skull during an away trip to Bournemouth at the start of the campaign.
It’s a big difference to be honest. He’s not the same Michael that I saw in the pre-season and the first match as well. For me his value is more now than he was last season or what I saw in the pre-season. Michael now is more like what we expect. He has conditions to improve.
Marco Silva on Michael Keane’s improvement this season.
An England recall is the least the 26-year-old has deserved this season and Arsenal could do far worse than targeting the former Man Utd man. The main sticking point would be Everton’s ambitions to gatecrash the Premier League’s top four and how far they’re willing to go to keep their best players at Goodison Park.
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2. Agent Vieira
Sitting comfortably in eighth in Ligue 1 and with the best defence outside the division’s top two, ex-Arsenal captain Patrick Vieira is taking to managerial life in Europe very well indeed with Nice.
Of course, if you have the worst attack in the French top flight, scoring just 23 goals in 33 games, your defence has to be pretty solid.
One of the cornerstones to Vieira’s water-tight outfit has been France U21 international, Malang Sarr. The 20-year-old has been deployed at centre-back in 21 of his 29 starts this season, shifting to left-back in his other eight due to his versatility, and has carried himself with the confidence and maturity of a defender approaching his 30s.
Sarr’s reading of the game has allowed him to make 2.12 interceptions per 90 minutes in Ligue 1 this season, the most of any Nice defender, while Les Aiglons have kept 13 clean sheets in the 30 league games he has played this term.
Most importantly for Emery, though, is that Sarr combines his solidarity with fantastic ball-playing abilities. His 89.52% pass accuracy is well in excess of Mustafi’s (82.55%) while he has made 56.51 successful passes per 90 minutes in Ligue 1 this term – more than Koscielny (54.13), Sokratis (51.23) and Mustafi (50.66) have managed for the Gunners.
— OGC Nice (@ogcnice) March 11, 2019
Playing alongside experienced defenders such as ex-Bayern Munich man, Dante, obviously helps Sarr’s development, so one would assume the chance to learn from the likes of Koscielny and Sokratis would be something he would jump at. His blistering pace should also help extend the lifespan of some of Arsenal’s elder statesmen, meaning Emery can persist playing the high line he favours.
And considering he would likely be available for far less than any other player on this list, Sarr seems like the most obvious choice.
3. The ambitious target
While Sarr may be a very reasonable, realistic and affordable option, fans want to see serious ambition from their club. None more so than Arsenal.
So, of all the young defenders we’re pretty sure are going to be available this summer, whose name tops that talent list? Ajax’s Matthijs de Ligt.
Sure, all signs point toward a move to Barcelona or Pep Guardiola’s Man City in the summer, but in football, nothing is certain and the list of admirers for De Ligt has seemingly grown too long to write on a piece of paper following his contribution to Holland and Ajax’s runs to the Uefa Nations League and Champions League semi-finals.
Erik ten Hag has already confirmed the defender will leave the club this summer, telling Suddeutschen Zeitung: “There’s zero chance Matthijs de Ligt is staying at Ajax. There are so many clubs interested in him.”
Matthijs de Ligt made 10 clearances against Juventus; the most by any player in a #UCL match vs. Juve this season.
It wasn't a bad goal either. 😏 pic.twitter.com/X7375K0eJX
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) April 16, 2019
A bidding war is likely to ensue but if Arsenal were to really show their ambition and dig in for a deal – surely helped if they were to secure Champions League qualification – they’d be getting their hands on one of Europe’s hottest properties and a defender who could solve their centre-back issues for a decade and more.
4. The quick fix
This isn’t likely to stir excitement among Arsenal fans or be top of their list, but Eric Bailly is a name that just keeps on being linked.
The Ivorian defender joined Man Utd for a £30m fee in June 2016 but has simply not found his feet at Old Trafford, suffering from injury, poor form and a general lack of confidence.
However, Bailly faced Emery’s Sevilla six times during his La Liga stint with Villarreal and although the defender ran out on the losing side on five occasions, he is thought to have caught the eye of the now-Arsenal manager.
The Red Devils reportedly rejected a loan advance from Arsenal in January – hardly surprising given their top-four battle – but are still looking to move the defender on as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer raises funds for a massive squad overhaul this summer and certainly couldn’t command the fee for which they signed Bailly in the first place.
When the dust has settled on this season and should Arsenal fail to capture a more glamorous target, Bailly may well prove to be the plaster Emery uses to stop the bleeding in his defence.
5. The big-money statement
As eluded to with De Ligt, Arsenal fans are going to want statement signings this summer to show they can compete at the top of the Premier League and that the board are backing Emery.
And while De Ligt may just end up being out of reach for the Gunners, they shouldn’t stop their hunt for a big name there.
Another titan centre-back who could surprisingly be available this summer is Barcelona’s Samuel Umtiti.
The France international has won a La Liga title and two Copa del Reys since moving from Lyon in 2016 but has seen injury restrict him to just 95 appearances across all competitions.
As such, Umtiti now finds himself behind Gerard Pique and Clement Lenglet in the centre-back pecking order at the Nou Camp, while Barcelona-based outlet SPORT have suggested the World Cup winner is unhappy at his ‘complicated situation’.
Given his pedigree and that he is still only 25, it is thought Umtiti’s fee could be anything within the region of £70m, meaning Arsenal would have to sell before they’re able to make a bid.
Shed some of that dead weight and sign Umtiti, though, and Arsenal wouldn’t just be getting a secondary defender, reliant on his partner. They’d be getting a real defensive leader and a rock in the middle around which Emery could build his dynasty.