William Saliba’s return to Arsenal in the summer after his loan spell at Marseille presented Mikel Arteta with a selection conundrum in defence. The Frenchman shone in Ligue 1 last season but Arteta already had two very good centre-backs in Ben White and Gabriel Magalhães. They were first choice last season, when Arsenal finished fifth, so Saliba’s return threw a spanner in the works.
Arsenal’s defensive line had a clear pattern last season: the left-back was given the licence to attack and the right-back would tuck inside to ensure the team was not caught out. Takehiro Tomiyasu joined from Bologna last year to carry out this duty at right-back, and he did it brilliantly when fit, but an injury towards the end of the campaign restricted the Japanese defender to just 20 starts in the Premier League.
Tomiyasu had slotted into the Arsenal defence seamlessly but, as the new season neared, it was clear he would not be fit to start at right-back in Arteta’s favoured 4-2-3-1 system. If anything, this eased Arteta’s selection issue. White had played right-back a couple of times last season, and a handful of times for Brighton in the 2020-21 season, so moving into the role was not an alien concept for him. The decision to use the 25-year-old at right-back also meant that Saliba could come into the heart of the defence alongside Gabriel.
Arsenal’s defence has thrived this season with White at right-back, Saliba partnering Gabriel in the middle, and Kieran Tierney, Oleksandr Zinchenko or Tomiyasu taking up the left-back spot. They are top of the league; no team has conceded fewer goals (11) and no team has kept more clean sheets (six). Their 1-0 win at Stamford Bridge on Sunday summed up their defensive strength, with Chelsea producing just one shot on target in front of their own fans.
Signing Gabriel Jesus to replace Alexandre Lacazette has been instrumental in the way Arsenal hurt opponents, with Gabriel Martinelli, Martin Ødegaard and Bukayo Saka all benefiting from his movement, workrate and intelligence. Yet, as effective as that quartet has been when they push forward, the team’s results have been as much about their defensive resolve and their balance at the back. They are conceding just 7.9 shots per game this season, down from 11.2 last season. Only Manchester City (7.1) are conceding fewer shots.
Saliba’s return has been brilliant for Arsenal’s defence and he is likely to start for France at the World Cup, but will White’s shift to right-back hamper his hopes of playing for England at the World Cup later this month? Gareth Southgate is not blessed with fit, top-quality, in-form and versatile defenders. His performance against Chelsea had Arteta raving about him. “I am really happy with him,” said the Arsenal manager. “He is playing in different positions and is acclimating himself in a great way to that full-back position. His understanding with the players around him is top. I really like him. He trains every single day and he plays under any circumstances. I love the boy.”
Southgate has plenty of right-backs to call upon, even if Reece James is currently absent. Kieran Trippier is likely to be the manager’s first choice right wing-back – unless the Newcastle defender is required on the left – with Trent Alexander-Arnold an able deputy in the role. Pep Guardiola says Kyle Walker is “likely” to be fit for the World Cup, even if his lack of match fitness weighs against him – he has not featured for Manchester City since their 6-3 win in the Manchester derby at the start of October.
With James, Trippier, Alexander-Arnold and Walker all brilliant attacking wing-backs, Southgate may ask White to occupy the right-sided centre-back spot in a three-man backline, where he can give balance to the defence like he does at Arsenal. Of all the players who can operate in that role, White is the best at present. He is difficult to get the better of – he is being dribbled past just 0.7 times per 90 minutes. Walker is extremely fast, but White is also blessed with the pace to recover and ensure that he is not caught out by long balls over the top into the channels.
Southgate would be foolish to overlook White for the World Cup. He is inexperienced on the international stage, having made just four appearances for England and none of them in competitive fixtures, but he is a versatile defender who has been pivotal to his club’s flying start to the campaign. Southgate is fortunate to have a defender of White’s calibre who can play a couple of roles in defence.