This summer, Arsenal have been consistently linked with two centre backs, Blackburn's Chris Samba and Bolton's Gary Cahill. Other names, have, of course, been included in daily rumour mills, but these two have been most linked and the ones that journalists 'in the know' assure me that Arsenal have bid for them.
The big question about these two defenders are will they help solve Arsenal's set piece problem, and will they be a hindrance or benefit to open play defending?
Right now at Arsenal, there are five centre backs on the first team books. Two of these five, Vermaelen and Koscielny, favour winning the ball back quickly, and thus will often take extra risks by advancing up the pitch. That style of play, combined with trying to hold an offside line (though there is a merited discussion to whether Arsenal should try to catch players offside when there is a degree of unknown among the back four), doesn't work with slow defenders, so Sebastien Squillaci often struggles, while Johan Djourou, with his pace and accomplished tackling, is the perfect partner for Vermaelen and Koscielny. Kyle Bartley, the fifth centre back, is more of an archetypical English centre back, relishing physical challenges. With Squillaci being somewhat useless, a new centre back would have to be more in line with the other three traits; otherwise it would, as we've seen with Mikael Silvestre and Sebastien Squillaci, defeat the purpose of buying a new centre back.
When looking at how Arsenal conceded goals over the past two seasons, the majority, 32 from 84, come from set pieces. Arsenal are often accused of having a soft centre, but they actually had the best defence in open play, because of a possession based game and the better implementation of a pressing game (though that could use work). Clearly, set pieces are, and will remain a problem until they are sorted out, which is easy to do according to Arsene Wenger (which begs the question: why has it taken so long to do so?). This summer, Wenger has come to the conclusion that Arsenal need bigger players to defend set pieces, which is apparently the reason for his pursuit of Samba. While height does have something to do with it, a bigger factor is organisation, both on the pitch, but crucially (and this is perhaps where Arsenal get it wrong), off it. Also, Arsenal missed Thomas Vermaelen for almost the whole of last season, and it is interesting to note that the percentage of goals conceded from set pieces jumps by 10% between 2009-10 and 2010-11.
Samba: Skill sets and stats
Chris Samba is the archetypical Premier League defender. Big, an aerial presence, and, a bit slow. For Blackburn Rovers, the lack of pace in a defender is fine, as they don't generally play a high line, but for Arsenal it is more of a problem. Samba is a pretty good tackler, winning a higher percentage of tackles last season than any Arsenal centre back bar Laurent Koscielny. He also reads the game fairly well, making 2.1 interceptions per game, which is a figure bettered at Arsenal again by only Laurent Koscielny (for the purpose of this exercise, Thomas Vermaelen, having played only 4 times, is left out), and his percentage of aerial duels won is higher than any other Arsenal player. His passing, though, is atrocious, completing only 64% of all passes (only the goalkeepers at Arsenal have that low a figure). Furthermore, his lack of pace would mean he'd get caught out just as Sebastien Squillaci, Mikael Silvestre, Pascal Cygan (the list goes one) were. All of the above were caught out by a lack of pace (and perhaps with Cygan, positioning), which would mean that to accommodate Samba, Arsenal would have to change their defensive strategy, which would put out the other defenders at the club, creating more problems than the amount of solutions solved.
Cahill: Skill sets and stats
Gary Cahill is similar to Chris Samba in that he's fairly tall (6'2), decent in the air (but not as good as Samba), and a solid Premier League defender. Cahill has more pace than Samba, and is about the same in tackling (again, only Koscielny is better). Cahill, however, is somewhat let down by his reading of the game; he got ripped apart by Stoke in the FA Cup semi-final, and, as the cliche goes, looked like a deer caught in headlights. Furthermore, the amounts of interceptions per game are less than all centre backs at Arsenal and are third among centre backs at his own club, Bolton Wanderers. So while he may be a better passer of the ball and quicker than Samba, he appears to be worse at reading the game and would adapt worse to Arsenal's high line; in summation, he is a little worse than what we already have, while Samba would at least add a different approach in height.
However, it wouldn't be surprising if Arsene Wenger is not targeting these two at all, and put off by the exuberant prices, is searching among European leagues for a cheaper, and, in all likelihood, better solution. While it might not satisfy the demands of some fans, both Thomas Vermaelen and Kolo Toure, excellent defenders at Arsenal, were found overseas, and the fans demand for an "English" centre back is often given too much credence by a TalkSport driven media. Finally, Arsenal might not even need to sign someone who is a "big man". Better organisation can solve their defensive issues as a whole and combined with signing a Vermaelen or Koscielny prototype (who are both fairly adept in the air) I think it would satisfy the defensive demands that Arsenal have.