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Arsenal midway grades: centerbacks

When you’ve conceded the joint-fewest goals in the Premier League, your centerbacks are probably having a good season.

Chelsea FC v Arsenal FC - Premier League Photo by David Price/Arsenal FC via Getty Images

Next up in our not-quite-mid-season review series are the Arsenal centerbacks. They’ve been fantastic. Arsenal have conceded the joint-fewest goals in the Premier League (11). A large part of that is due to William Saliba and Gabriel Magalhaes’ excellent play. Mikel Arteta’s setup asks a lot of his centerbacks. They’re often left defending as a pair because the outside backs have tucked in and pushed up, and they’ve answered the call.

Perhaps their best aspect is the partnership they’ve formed in a short period of time. They cover for each other really well. On the rare occasion that one has made a mistake / gotten beat, the other has been well-positioned to cover.

I’ve also decided to link to each player’s FBREF profile page, so you can take a look at their advanced stats, too. The data are for the last 365 days. In case you missed it, yesterday I took a look at how the goalkeepers have fared so far this season.

William Saliba
Grade: A+

What is there to say about William Saliba that hasn’t been said already. He’s been a revelation this season. His play has vaulted him into the conversation for best young centerback in the world and places him among the best in the Premier League. He’s such a calm, graceful player. It’s a joy to watch him defend.

He’s big, strong, fast, and rarely gets beat. He’s in the 96th percentile for pass completion and the 74th for progressive passes. He’s 94th percentile for dribbles completed. Put simply, he wins the ball back and gets it up the field. He has also chipped in with two Premier League goals on set pieces this season, which is what the top of the top centerbacks do.

His defensive numbers are lackluster, but you don’t need to have watched much of him to know he’s a really good defender. Saliba doesn’t have much opportunity to rack up tackles, interceptions, blocks, etc because Arsenal have so much of the ball and defend so well,

He does make the occasional on-ball mistake. They’re infrequent, about once every two to three matches, but they’re glaring. He’s gotten caught in possession or hit a poor back pass to Aaron Ramsdale that has gifted the opposing team a good chance. Obviously, the more he minimizes those errors, the better.

Gabriel Magalhaes
Grade: A+

Gabriel has flown under the radar a bit this season, but for my money, he’s been every bit as good as William Saliba. Saliba is the shiny, new toy that people are seeing for the first time. Gabriel’s game isn’t as flashy as Saliba’s because he doesn’t glide around the pitch or make eye-popping plays in the same way.

Gabriel is more of a bruiser, whose physicality is more readily apparent. He’s just a solid, solid player. He consistently makes good plays both defensively and with the ball at his feet.

There was a point 5 or 6 matches into the season where Gabriel and Saliba were rivaled only by Manchester City’s defenders for progressive passes and progressive dribbles. Gabriel’s on-ball numbers have since fallen off a bit, but he still has a high (86th percentile) pass completion percentage.

Like Saliba, he has the occasional mistake in his game. He’s more prone to errors in judgment, usually stepping up at the wrong time / too aggressively and being forced to give away the foul. They’re infrequent mistakes, one every game-and-a-half to two games, I’d reckon.

Gabriel leads the Premier League in goals from centerbacks since the start of last season (2 this year, 5 last). He’s a menace on set pieces, both in the air and battling through defenders to knock in bouncing balls.

Rob Holding
Grade: C-

Holding has struggled this season. Some of that is to be expected because he’s hardly playing, and it’s difficult to maintain match sharpness when you’re not getting much time. He’s made some uncharacteristic, noticeable mistakes in his Europa League appearances — stepping too aggressively, getting spun too easily — which may indicate that he’s trying to hard to make an impression.

He’s been fine in the Premier League in his role as The Closer. He’s above the 90% percentile for aerials won, which is exactly what you want when you bring on an additional centerback to defend against teams hoofing into the area.

I was surprised to see his pass completion percentage pushing 90%, which places him in the 86th percentile. Unlike Gabriel and Saliba, Holding does not pass the ball progressively that often. And anecdotally, it feels as if he badly misplaces at least one pass every match.

We know what Rob Holding is. He’s a mostly fine squad player. This season, perhaps because Arsenal’s CB play has been so good or perhaps Holding doesn’t really fit the way Mikel Arteta wants to play, his shortcomings have been more noticeable. He’s a fine backup, but if everybody is healthy, it’s more likely that one of the fullbacks slides over to the middle than Holding comes into the starting lineup.

Tomorrow we take a look at how the fullbacks have performed this season.