SOCCER

Saliba and Zinchenko add depth and quality to Arsenal’s defense – so Arteta has more options

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The new season is underway and Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta probably doesn’t know exactly who his best fullback is. And that’s not a bad thing.

In that 2-0 win over Crystal Palace, Arsenal recorded a clean sheet with a defensive unit that included two debutants. Familiar faces Gabriel and Ben White were joined by new boys William Saliba and Oleksandr Zinchenko, with the Frenchman named man of the match on his first competitive appearance at Arsenal. Kieran Tierney has come on as a substitute, while Takehiro Tomiyasu will soon be available again after injury. Arsenal’s defense has more depth and more quality – and that means Arteta has to deal with more decisions.

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This is a situation the director will welcome. Last season, Arsenal’s first-choice quartet of Tierney, Gabriel, White and Tomiyasu was almost too established. They laid the foundations for Arsenal’s turnaround after a disastrous start, with Nuno Tavares replacing Tierney at times. But when Arsenal suffered further injuries, the drop in quality became too big to sustain.

Arteta now has options. Saliba’s return is as intriguing as it is exciting. What will this mean for last season’s partnership between Gabriel and White, which kicked off the vast majority of Premier League games?

Although the players made their official debut in the Arsenal defense at Selhurst Park, the selection was still somewhat familiar. Arsenal have enjoyed a very stable pre-season and have been able to select the same starting XI against Palace as they have in each of their last two first-team friendlies.

Saliba was an authoritative presence at the heart of the defence. After a quick start from Arsenal failed, they relied on his insurance to protect their goal. There will be tougher tasks ahead and consistency is the hallmark of the best centre-backs. Nevertheless, it was a very encouraging start.

“You don’t really see that at 21,” Arteta marveled after the match. “For a start in the Premier League, against this opponent – where you face difficult players – and (to) resolve the situation as he did with that composure, with that composure and with that presence. A big credit to the boy.

With Tomiyasu out, the chance to call on Saliba meant White was deployed at right-back. It’s a position he held occasionally last season, but thanks to Saliba’s return he could feature there more regularly in 2022-23.

Against Palace, as in pre-season, White and Zinchenko played as reverse full-backs. When Arsenal had possession, they ducked into the field to occupy central midfield, meaning Arsenal attacked in a 2-3-5 form. This aspect of the role suits White – it means he can play the ball as a deep playmaker in central areas where he is most effective.

Of course, this means that when the team loses the ball, the opposition can send long diagonals behind the full-backs. In that game, White found himself up against Wilfried Zaha, arguably one of the toughest opponents in the league. He looked stretched at times, but managed eight tackles in the game – the most an Arsenal player has made in a Premier League game since Lucas Torreira against Chelsea in 2019.

“He did very well,” Arteta said of White’s performance at the back. “We know individually when you’re so tight with (Zaha) how difficult it is to take the ball from him. He upsets you – the way he tries to play the game is really tricky and we need to discuss.

“Ben can play in different positions and that’s a big plus for any player – and he really enjoys playing there.”


White liked to get the better of Zaha (Photo: Stuart MacFarlane/Arsenal FC via Getty Images)

In the end, Arsenal won the battle on their right flank. When White was beaten, he had Saliba backing him up. On one occasion in the penalty area, Zaha eluded White, but the Frenchman intervened with an immaculate sliding tackle.

Another well-timed tackle from Saliba on Zaha was so good that when the referee exploded, you almost assumed it was so he could trotted to the touchline and admire a replay. In reality, it was to bring the game back for an earlier foul by Thomas Partey.

With the game well balanced at 1-0, Arteta brought on Tierney for Zinchenko after 83 minutes. The Scotsman, who came on alongside the lively Eddie Nketiah (who replaced Gabriel Jesus), helped Arsenal win by a two-goal margin. Rob Holding, so often a late substitute last season to help see the games through, remained in reserve.

“When Kieran came on he was fantastic,” Arteta told the BBC after the game. “He hasn’t played for four months and when he arrived he really helped the team close the game.”

It wasn’t a perfect defensive display. Palace had two very good chances, which fell on Odsonne Edouard and Eberechi Eze. On both occasions, Aaron Ramsdale managed to divert the ball from the goal. When Arsenal’s defense was beaten, their keeper saved them.

But it’s clear that Arteta now has an interesting mix of components as he plans to set up his ideal back four. There will probably be a horse-for-course approach: some matches will suit Tierney and Tomiyasu more than Zinchenko and White. There’s also the Europa League to consider – Arsenal’s return to European competition means there’s more football to do and some rotation will be required. Form and physical condition will be determining factors in the selection of the manager.

Who is Arsenal’s best back? Arteta may not know that, and it may not matter either.

(Top photo: Julian Finney/Getty Images)

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