Arsenal start the 2023-24 Premier League season returning all four preferred starters from a defensive unit that tied for the third fewest goals conceded last year. That goals conceded stat doesn’t the full story. The Gunners defense was incredible in the first half of the season, started to show cracks after the World Cup, and was thoroughly mediocre (or worse) down the stretch.
Arsenal's defensive performance over the 3 distinct periods of this season, pre WC, Post WC, without Saliba— Scott Willis (@scottjwillis) May 16, 2023
This probably deserves longer than a tweet level analysis. pic.twitter.com/22BHTleEkG
I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little concerned about Arsenal defensively entering the season. Down the stretch last season, it seemed a little too easy for opponents to open up the backline to generate quality chances and score relatively easy goals. That trend continued in the preseason. Arsenal didn’t give up all that many goals in the warmup matches, but some of the ones they did surrender felt softly conceded.
William Saliba and Gabriel Magalhaes will once again anchor the backline, and if the pair stay healthy, I feel confident that the Gunners will have one of the best defenses in the Premier League. Ben White, who seamlessly moved to right back last season, will start on the right. Oleksandr Zinchenko, when healthy, will be the starter on the left. The Ukrainian missed all the preseason matches recovering from the calf injury he picked up down the stretch last season and may not be match fit to start the season.
Fortunately, new addition Jurrien Timber has looked excellent playing the same, inverting left fullback role. Timber primarily played on the right side last season at Ajax and may get some minutes as a rotational option to rest Ben White. He has also played on the right side of a back three, although Mikel Arteta hasn’t shown much inclination to use that formation.
Timber’s ability to play multiple positions across the backline is a hallmark of Mikel Arteta defenders. Takehiro Tomiyasu is second or third on the depth chart at both right and left back and can also play centerback. The Japanese defender’s struggles to stay fit last season overshadowed the fact that the previous year, when he joined Arsenal on deadline day, he was one of the acquisitions of the season in the Premier League. He is an excellent shutdown defender and should play a larger role this season.
Jakub Kiwior impressed in the preseason as well, flashing his skills in the MLS All Star Skills Competition and showing surprisingly well in limited minutes in the Zinchenko role. The 23-year old Polish international joined the club in the January transfer window ostensibly to be a backup LCB for Gabriel. If he plays like he did in the preseason, he’s going to earn more minutes this season.
Kieran Tierney appears to be the odd man out on the defensive depth chart. He’s exclusively a left back, yet Kiwior and Timber both were selected ahead of him in the preseason. Tierney might be 5th on the depth chart, behind Zinchenko, Timber, Kiwior, and even Tomiyasu, who was used on the left ahead of him last season at times. And he’s a really good player! Two seasons ago, he was an every week starter who some wanted to see become the next club captain.
Tierney’s “issue” is that he’s not as talented with the ball at his feet as the guys ahead of him, as Mikel Arteta’s setup requires. He’s more of a traditional, overlapping fullback. He still might be loaned or sold before the close of the window.
Rob Holding is still with the club, seemingly content with his spot well down the depth chart. He doesn’t have the quality to play significant minutes for Arsenal, that was made abundantly clear last season. But he’s excellent in the air and carved out a niche for himself as “The Closer” for the Gunners last season. Mikel Arteta would consistently bring him on late in matches to help see things out. If he’s fine with that, I’m fine with it. Everybody at the club seems to like him, and Holding apparently spends the most time of any player with Win, the Arsenal team dog. That’s gotta be worth something, right? It is to me.
Cedric Soares is also somehow still at the club, finding his way front and center of as many pictures as he possible can (see e.g. the Declan Rice being introduced to the team video). If he plays pretty much at all this season, something will have gone very, very wrong for the Gunners. Nuno Tavares will be loaned or sold before the close of the transfer window. He didn’t even participate in media day with the team.