It has been impossible to get away from the excitement around the signing of Gabriel Magalhaes.
As a fanbase, Gooners certainly don’t make it easy to disconnect: tracking planes, pulling traffic feeds, the works. Beyond the more fringe craziness though, it is easy to see why a lot is anticipated and expected.
There is no getting away from it: Arsenal are a poor team defensively. The league table bears this witness, the Expected Goals bear this witness. But perhaps the clearest indication of this is the fact that Unai Emery and Mikel Arteta, two men as diametrically opposed as you can get as far as managerial approaches go, both felt the need to take comfort in a back three.
Where Arteta is concerned, it is clear this system is purely about getting results. When he was appointed, some in the fanbase were of the opinion the rest of the season should be written off in the interest of putting a structure in place for 2020/21.
It was an alternative view, but was always unlikely. Beyond the utility of trophies and striving to qualify for Europe, wins are necessary for buy-in. It is all well and good telling players that the rest of the season doesn’t matter, but it is easier, especially for a rookie manager like Arteta, to convince the players of his methods when what they are actually working on is bearing fruit. That the likes of Emiliano Martinez and Kieran Tierney have alluded to the prescience that underpins his tactical instructions bears this out.
Going into the new season, however, Arteta would clearly prefer to be able to deploy more resources in the attacking half. To that end, the first step was always going to be getting a reliable centre-back pairing. As such, William Saliba and Gabriel represent Arsenal’s future beyond simply being young; they hold the key to the maturation of the current project.
There is a concern that, at 19 and 22 respectively, they may even be too young. The ideal situation is usually an older head alongside a young one, with a view to providing guidance and composure. Defending is complex, and successful centre-back partnerships are often built around players perfecting different aspects and complementing each other. Most Arsenal fans will remember the ill-fated attempt to pair Thomas Vermaelen with Lauren Koscielny, and so can understand why, despite being less agile, Per Mertesacker proved the optimum foil for either and both.
Are Arsenal making the same mistake all over by entrusting the heart of the defence to Saliba and Gabriel then?
Well, not quite. And this is not to opine, like some have done, that the French teenager should not be a starter. On the contrary, I have always thought of him as a starter. Saliba has already played more senior football than Raphael Varane did before breaking through as a starting centre-back for Real Madrid. That is not to say he is as good as Varane necessarily. Simply that youth need not be held against a defender.
So why do I think, despite their youth, the youngsters from Ligue 1 make a great pairing? Well, the key is to stop thinking of them in terms of age, and look instead at their respective styles.
The idea that ‘young’ equals ‘rash’ is a bit of an oversimplification. To return to Varane, it is worth noting that, in his partnership with Sergio Ramos, he has always been the more circumspect of the two, the safety net to catch what slips through and cover for his more flamboyant, proactive comrade.
That works well because of the mix of styles and attributes, and that same mix is what will make Saliba + Gabriel work. He may be only 19, but Saliba is extremely cool in his disposition, one who prefers to remain on his feet and survey the danger without over-committing — he will make blocks and clearances. Gabriel, on the other hand, is an aggressive, front-foot defender who looks comfortable sticking tight to opponents and nipping in to intercept — he will make tackles and seek to cut off the danger at source.
Interestingly, both men are well capable of fulfilling the other’s function. Saliba especially can also be tight and play aggressively, while Gabriel can drop deeper than his partner and mop up.
Is it perfect? No, it isn’t. Much has been said already about Saliba’s heading ability, and he will have to improve on that front, but it is purely a technical issue—look at the size of him! Gabriel is also, as one might expect of aggressive markers who are young, prone to positional errors from time to time. Some patience would be required, clearly.
However, Arsenal have got a good thing on their hands here. It is more than simply purchasing a pair of talented centre-backs, but clearly there has been some consideration of how their games fit together, and that offers a great deal of encouragement for the future as far as squad-planning goes.
Solace is a freelance football journalist, a tactics writer and an African football columnist with Goal. He’s also been an Arsenal fan since 2002.