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Arsenal Season Preview: defenders


Arsenal v Brighton & Hove Albion - Premier League Photo by Stuart MacFarlane/Arsenal FC via Getty Images

Arsenal should have one of the better defenses in the Premier League for the 2022-23 season. The first choice defense (from last season) of Kieran Tierney, Gabriel Magalhaes, Ben White, and Takehiro Tomiyasu is quite good. In the 10 matches they started together, they conceded 0.8 goals per game. Over the course of a full season, that’s 30.4 goals conceded, which would have been tied for the third-best in the Premier League.

Clearly, the biggest concern for the Gunners defense is availability. With one or more of that quartet missing, Arsenal conceded 1.4 goals per game. That’s a season-long pace of 53.2, which would have been tied for 10th in the PL, two spots lower than Arsenal actually finished in terms of goals against. You cannot have a successful Premier League season with your first-choice backline only starting 10 matches together.

Kieran Tierney has missed chunks of multiple seasons and cannot be counted on to stay healthy. Takehiro Tomiyasu suffered back-to-back calf injuries that kept him out for most of the spring. Both missed all the preseason matches through injury and may or may not be available on Matchday 1.

Another “problem” facing Mikel Arteta is selection, at least when (if) everybody is fit. To that returning core of Tierney, Gabriel, White, and Tomiyasu, Arsenal added Oleksandr Zinchenko, who played primarily left back for Manchester City, and William Saliba, a RCB. Both have looked fantastic in preseason action. What Arteta’s preferred defense will look like this season is an open question.

I’ve not included Hector Bellerin or Pablo Mari on this list because neither are likely to be with the club this season, even though they are currently listed on the club website. Bellerin is likely to cancel his contract and move to Real Betis on a free transfer. Mari is almost certainly heading somewhere in Serie A. Nuno Tavares is on loan to Marseille.

Editor’s Note: I’ve decided to roll my best and worst case seasons into the positional previews. It makes more sense to have all the conversation about any particular player in one place rather than across multiple posts.

Kieran Tierney

Season Outlook: It’s all about health with Kieran Tierney. He has to stay fit. If he can’t, I think you have to start questioning whether he has a future at Arsenal. I don’t like to focus so heavily on fitness in season projections because anybody can get injured. A lot of injuries are random and just happen. But that doesn’t seem to be the case with KT. He gets hurt far too frequently.

And it’s a shame because he’s a really good player. He’s a fantastic 1-v-1 defender. He’s got plenty of pace. He gets forward and serves the ball into the box, although maybe not always as accurately as you’d like, that part comes and goes with him. He also seems to have the right attitude. He comes across as a leader who wants to battle for every ball and stand up for his teammates.

Best case season: Stays healthy. We know he’s a good player. We’ve seen it. It’s a simple question of staying fit and maintaining his form.

Worst case season: Gets hurt and misses an extended period of time again. There’s also a timeline where he stays mostly fit but struggles with his form like he did at times last season. When Cedric or Nuno Tavares was the backup left back, that didn’t matter. Tierney was playing over that pair regardless of form. But if Tierney doesn’t play well, Alex Zinchenko will take his spot.

And KT isn’t off to a good start this year. He suffered a setback in his recovery from knee surgery during the first official preseason match against FC Nurnberg and hasn’t played since. He’s close to a return, but it looks as if Zinchenko will be starting the season ahead of him if only for reasons of match fitness / sharpness.

Oleksandr Zinchenko

Season Outlook: Genuinely do not know where he will spend the majority of his time playing this season. Mikel Arteta has said he is a left back, but in the preseason match against Chelsea he was playing more of a hybrid LB, LCDM role. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if the best Arsenal lineup has both Zinchenko and Tierney on the pitch at the same time.

Best case season: Becomes an undroppable regular in the starting XI, whether that’s as a left back who pushes up the field almost like a defensive midfielder or as an actual midfielder, who is to say. He’s going to make the football smoother, easier on the eye, and hopefully more effective when Arsenal have the ball because of his ability to resist pressure, play with either foot, and pick a progressive pass. In a good season, he tallies a handful of assists and chips in with a goal or three.

Worst case season: Zinchenko is the first of several Arsenal players that I don’t really see having a bad season. I suppose there is always the danger of a new player not fitting into the team or the setup, but I think Mikel Arteta’s familiarity with him from their time at Manchester City mitigates that.

There are question marks around his actual defensive abilities. He’s not great 1-v-1, and you question how much actual defending he had to do playing for a City side that almost always had the ball or a lead with really good players around him. So yeah, a worst case season for Zinchenko is one where we find out he really doesn’t cut it on the defensive side of things.

Gabriel Magalhaes

Season Outlook: Gabriel Magalhaes is a quality centerback who I think doesn’t get his fair share of credit for his contributions and praise for his play. He’s physically imposing and can go toe-to-toe for strength with any attacker in the PL. He has enough pace to not get beat. He’s excellent in the air. And although I don’t think people notice it, his passing is quite good. The left centerback spot is his, and there really isn’t a true backup on the roster. William Saliba can and has played on the left, but he’s right-footed. And we all know how Mikel Arteta feels about that.

Best case season: Replicates or improves his scoring haul from last year (4 goals, tied most among CBs in the PL) while continuing to eliminate mistakes from his game. Cements himself as one of the top CBs in the Premier League. Personally, I think he’s already pushing Top 5. Earns a starting place for Brazil at the World Cup.

Worst case season: His habit of mistiming a step up / getting a bit too aggressive up the pitch worsens. He’s good for a mistake like that every four or five matches, which is fine. That’s well above the Mustafi line. If his mistakes become more frequent, it’ll become an issue. He’s also a feisty, physical player who has had some trouble with cautions. In a bad season, he picks up more cards and one or two more send-offs.

In his worst case season, he also loses multiple teeth on the pitch.

William Saliba

Season Outlook: For me, Saliba was one of the two most impressive players for Arsenal in the preseason, alongside Gabriel Jesus. He’s big, strong, and physical tackler. He’s a good passer. And the most remarkable part about his game is that he always seems incredibly composed regardless of the situation — attackers running at him, under heavy pressure on the ball, you name it. It’s hard to believe he’s only 21.

Best case season: Becomes Mikel Arteta’s first-choice RCB. Recognized as one of the best, if not the best, young CB in the Premier League. Forces his way into the conversation for a starting spot for France at the World Cup.

Worst case season: Can’t lock down the RCB over Ben White once Takehiro Tomiyasu is back at RB. Whether or not he actually is unhappy with whatever his role becomes, that media narrative comes back and lingers over him and the club the entire season. Rumors of tensions between him and Mikel Arteta abound and become an unwanted distraction.

Ben White

Season Outlook: Watching White play RB in the preseason was interesting. He got way up the pitch, on the ball, and involved in the play 20-30 yards from goal. With what we saw from Alex Zinchenko on the left against Chelsea, it seems as if Mikel Arteta is going to have his fullbacks quite high up the pitch.

Of course, Ben White is a centerback. He was just deputizing at RB because Takehiro Tomiyasu was out with an injury. But it’s likely we’ll see White at RB at various times during the season either because Tomiyasu isn’t available or because Mikel Arteta wants to give a particular opponent a different look.

White is a solid, steady centerback. I think his quality went a bit underappreciated last year, especially after the question marks about purchase price, aerial ability, and the defensive side of his game when Arsenal bought him. People struggled to see past their initial opinion and recognize his consistently strong performances.

Best case season: Continues to improve as part of a stellar overall Arsenal defensive unit. Adds a few assists on vertical through balls, long balls, and / or progressive carries to passes instead of just being part of the early buildup. Plays well enough that he makes the England squad for the World Cup.

Worst case season: Loses his first-choice RCB starting spot to William Saliba and can’t get much of a look-in at RB either. There is also a world in which he plays a bunch but his defensive abilities don’t quite measure up when playing in a more aggressive, attacking formation that asks him to make more individual plays as a defender.

Rob Holding

Season Outlook: Rob Holding isn’t going to have much to do this season, hopefully. He’s fifth on the centerback depth chart, and if he’s playing significant minutes, it’ll be because the guys ahead of him got hurt or forgot how to kick a football and put in a tackle. He’s a fine player, probably a slightly above average Premier League centerback. He’s just got younger, more talented options in front of him.

Best case season: Continues his role as the closer in Premier League matches and excels in the Europa League and cup competitions.

Worst case season: Gets lost down the depth chart and hardly plays. Starts finding his way into transfer rumors by the January window and probably is sold by summer.

Takehiro Tomiyasu

Season Outlook: When healthy, he shuts down the right side of the pitch. Reliable and solid. Those are the two words that best describe his defensive play. He rarely gets beat, is almost never out of position, and makes few mistakes. Opponents aren’t really able to generate an attack down his side.

Best case season: Picks up where he left off before injuries derailed his season — that is as a candidate for “under the radar signing of the year.” Obviously, he doesn’t qualify for that imaginary award this season, but he could easily be one of those “nobody really talks about him but he’s incredibly important to how his team wants to play” type of players a la Kyle Walker (also a right back). In a great season, he adds a bit more attacking contribution to his game. He can get forward and has the passing ability to make some stuff happen. It’s just a question of him actually doing it.

Worst case season: Continues to be plagued by injuries as he was in the second half of last season and over the summer.

Cedric Soares

Season Outlook: Cedric is the quintessential “does what it says on the can” footballer. He’s a fine reserve player. You more or less know what you’re going to get from him when he plays — a 5 or 6 out of 10 performance and an occasional 4 of 10.

Best case season: He only plays in the early rounds of cup competitions. He finds a vein of form, as he has in the past at Arsenal, at the right time and puts in some stellar performances when needed.

Worst case season: He has to play significant minutes in the Premier League.