Football News

Arsenal transfer targets: Could Riccardo Calafiori break up one of the Premier League’s best duos?

By Mohamed Moallim

Published: 16:30, 3 July 2024

Arsenal are reportedly looking to make Bologna defender Riccardo Calafiori their first major signing this summer.

It was another “what-if” season for the Gunners as they again finished as runners-up to Manchester City.

Unlike in the 2022/23 campaign, Mikel Arteta’s men went into the final matchday with a chance at glory, but City held their ground and made no mistakes.

Having accumulated 89 points, their highest total since the Invincibles’ championship-winning season, Pep Guardiola’s side won England’s top division by two points.

It stands to reason Arteta will be looking to refresh his squad, with Jurriën Timber, who missed the bulk of their last campaign, feeling like a new signing.

However, it’s in the attacking areas where supporters are hopeful of reinforcements, though for the time being, it seems strengthening an already impregnable defence is top of the wishlist.

Calafiori, who enjoyed a breakthrough season in Serie A last term, has been identified and thus presents a curious proposition.

The five-time capped Italian centre-back starred in a brief Euro 2024 stay, most notably assisting Mattia Zaccagni for their equalizer against Croatia, which sent Luciano Spalletti’s team into the Round of 16. They duly lost 2-0 to Switzerland, but the Rome native was suspended, which shielded him from the intense criticism of the local media.

Almost ever-present in Thiago Motta’s side, Calafiori, who is left-footed, occupied the left side of Bologna’s central defence. Although he can play left-back, his prospective addition could make Gabriel Magalhães somewhat nervous, as that is where he’s positioned in Arsenal’s formidable backline.

One might wonder about the pursuit, as his central defensive partnership with William Saliba was the cornerstone behind the Gunners’ transformation from contenders to challengers. In that 2022/23 campaign, they lost just three of the 27 games that Saliba and Gabriel started together, winning 21 (78%). That win percentage dropped to 33% when Rob Holding and Gabriel partnered.

It was the same again last season. The pair started 34 Premier League games together. When they were on the pitch together, Arteta’s side conceded just 0.73 expected goals per game while keeping more clean sheets (17) and conceding the fewest shots on target per 90 minutes (2.31).

Nemanja Vidić, who knows about successful defensive partnerships, is a fan. “The two from Arsenal [William Saliba and Gabriel Magalhães] are doing well,” he said in a Times interview.

“Watching them, I feel they like defending and want the clean sheet. I like the mentality they show. And they are a partnership. That is important. Arsenal, this season, have not been conceding many goals.”

Furthermore, Gabriel and Saliba won 25 of the games they started last season, which is a 73.5% win rate.

As touched upon, Calafiori has already displayed his versatility. He was predominantly used as a left-back during a brief spell at FC Basel, from where he joined Bologna after leaving his boyhood club Roma. At the Swiss outfit, Calafiori made no fewer than 38 appearances, with 21 of those outings coming at left-back, which is a previous skill that may come in handy if he makes the switch to North London. Arteta is also no stranger to utilising a centre-back in that position, with Jakub Kiwior stationed there during Oleksandr Zinchenko’s time on the sidelines last season.

José Mourinho proved to be a fan, even suggesting that Arteta used Kiwior as a left-back because his physicality helps win duels and defend set pieces. Interestingly, the Spaniard realized he couldn’t ask a player who is a centre-back by trade to replicate Zinchenko’s highly nuanced role. Instead, Kiwior was deployed as a more traditional fullback, with Ben White switching from the right.

“You can’t ask players to do things that they don’t feel especially capable of doing in a natural way, so we have to tweak a few things to make sure players play to their strength,” Arteta said.

If anything, it’s something he’s seemingly borrowed from mentor Pep Guardiola, who surprised many by fielding Croatian central defender Josko Gvardiol as City’s primary left-back during the run-in.

The tactical change had a significant impact on City in two ways. Firstly, it allowed the Premier League champions to overload their opponents centrally, bringing Phil Foden closer to Kevin De Bruyne. Secondly, it gave Gvardiol the freedom to move into the left flank. As opposing defenders got drawn in by Foden’s movement, City ensured their left-back had space and freedom. Guardiola has previous experience with Nathan Aké, now the Netherlands’ first-choice left-back.

Calafiori, whom many expect to arrive in his new surroundings as Gabriel’s understudy, could very well end up by his side, especially in the big games where a three-centre-back defence — with Calafiori mimicking the Aké/Gvardiol role — might pay dividends.