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Gunner Thoughts

Forward Look: A Physical Battle to Keep Eyes On

Last week presented a good physical test, but Mitrovic is in form and presents the toughest challenges Arsenal’s duo have faced this year.

What’s this, a second straight Saliba article? Yes.

… and I am not sorry!

Can you have enough Saliba content? Probably but with how he’s kicked off his Arsenal caps, it’s probably a higher threshold than two blogs. So, away we go!


Yesterday I wrote about the immediate impact Saliba has had, and took a look at the fact that Arsenal have to be prioritizing his contract extension as soon as the window closes, but today I want to talk about Saliba alongside his partner, Gabriel.

The two started off the year tremendously well. They were rocks at the foundation of Arsenal’s defensive triumph against Crystal Palace. It might seem dramatic, but in the second half of the Palace game, when Arsenal were under pressure and unable to get themselves a foothold, conceding could have been likely. In fact, I may go as far as saying that past teams may have been unable to weather the storm and would in fact have conceded. Had Arsenal only managed to get a draw against Palace, and struggled to find their footing, it could be fair to wonder if there would have been a domino effect.

If they aren’t filled with confidence after a 2-0 win and clean sheet, do they fear the worst when Leicester pull within one goal, not once but twice? Do they feel shaky as a team and shell up rather than burst forward and claim goals for themselves within five minutes of each soft concession to win 4-2?

What’s the mood like around camp with a pair of draws and/or convincing performances. As I said, dramatic. But what matters is that this bit of fabricated anxiety never happened and Gabriel and Saliba are huge reasons why Arsenal have started so well, and that beginning was a well-earned defensive clean sheet away from home.

Last weekend against Bournemouth, Arsenal put together their most comprehensive performance of the season. But more than that, it was a performance that gave us a glimpse of just how good this young side could be and an immense amount of hope that that ceiling of potential is only rising.

But I went into the game very interested in watching Saliba and Gabriel, mostly how they — or Saliba more specifically — handled the size of Philip Billing and Kieffer Moore, Bournemouth’s forwards. Billing is listed as 6 ft 4 in while Moore stands 6 ft 5in…and neither are ‘slight’ by any definition. Neither are as skilled as Mitrovich, who will be a step up, but it was a preliminary test of Saliba’s ability to handle the league, but also a glimpse toward this weekend.

One fear a few people hand, more so before Saliba’s loan to Marseille, would be Saliba’s ability to transition into the physical Premier League. The ability to take a hammering every week and good it out two fold, while playing the attacking, technical style Arteta demands. It was the desire to see growth in this area as well as playing in a side that mimicked Arsenal’s play more than Etienne or Nice that justified his loan to Marseille, in the minds of some people — myself included.

Well, needless to say, the test was passed with flying colors. With the team controlling much of the ball, something I expect them to do against Fulham this weekend at The Emirates, the opportunities for Moore or Billing to get on the ball were limited to innocent areas. Certainly Billing whose heat map shows a forward forced out of the center entirely in order to find himself space before coming off in the 65th minute.

Philip Billing heat map v. Arsenal. Source: SofaScore.

Moore managed a few more touches, 42, and got himself into more dangerous areas, but when we look at his stats on the day, we see a relatively innocuous player. 1 shot creating action, .1 xG, 20 carries none of which were progressive, which suggests he was forced backwards or side to side. He managed two shots on the day but one came in the 78th minutes, another in 90+ injury time.

Kiefer Moore heat map v. Arsenal. Source: SofaScore

Interestingly, when we look at Moore’s heat map it looks quite similar to Mitrovic’s heat map from Fulham’s 3-2 win against Brentford.

Aleksander Mitrovic heat map v. Brentford. Source: SofaScore

Both favor a wing if they are going to move wide — albeit different sides — but the concentration of the role is what they can do when they take up spaces in the center of box. Obviously we can see for more concentration around the penalty spot in Mitrovic’s heat map but Saliba and Gabriel will have the task of limiting those opportunities and making Aleksander’s map look less like the one above and more like Moore’s.

One aspect of this weekend’s duel with Moore that impressed me was Gabriel and Saliba’s communication with one another and the accountability they shared to ensure that one of them was touch tight to Moore at all times. There were also moments, when fitting, that the pair were able to latch onto Moore’s isolation and pinch or squeeze him into losing duels or going backwards. Additional shout out for Granit Xhaka, especially toward the end of the match for assisting the pair if Moore tried to linger toward the top of the box.

The only moment that gives some worry is Moore’s shot in the 78th minute. He stands off Saliba’s shoulder, makes a quick darting run across Saliba’s front, timed with the cross, and gets a very good header away. Fortunately Ramsdale is up to the task, but it’s the type of moment that Mitrovich will certainly look for. To Saliba’s credit, he does put a shoulder and stays fairly physical with Moore to put him off, this weekend will probably prove to be a bigger test.

Mitrovich is far superior with his feet and will look to get himself into the half spaces that test the communication and resolve of center back and fullback pairings, something he did this weekend on Fulham’s opening goal and his own goal. When he scored, it came from finding that space on the back post and winning the physical battle against Mbuemo. This will likely mean everyone in the backline is in for the fight, and that Arsenal may need to have a plan for assisting Zinchnko, an obvious defensive weakness.

Finally, Mitrovic is a menace when it comes to set pieces, an aspect that Arsenal have been good at defending so far this year, but if Arsenal are able to dominate possession, those set piece opportunities will be viewed as a crucial in Fulham’s eyes. Look for them to scheme ways to really target Mitrovic.

Gabriel and Saliba have begun this year in extremely good form but this could be their most difficult forward challenge so far. Zaha more of a challenge for Ben White, although Saliba was fantastic at cleaning up anything that leaked through. Vardy, probably not quite the dynamic, attacking threat he once was.

A few of Saliba and Gabriel’s stats tell their defensive story:

StatSalibaGabriel
Tackles (won)3 (2)4 (3)
Pressures1316
Defensive 3rd Pressures78
Mid 3rd Pressures56
Blocks57
Interceptions102
Source: fbRef

Two stats that really stand out to me: blocks and interceptions. Their blocks tell me a story of two center backs hawking around the ball and putting their body on the line to make an intervention. The difference in interceptions, and number that Saliba has, shows me a pairing that has a blooming relationship. Saliba steps up and tries to route out passes and opportunities, to keep the ball in the opposition area, and keep Arsenal on the front foot. Gabriel on the other hand is more likely to drop off and keep the game in front of him. A good dynamic to already have established after three competitive caps together.

Another aspect of Arsenal’s early success that the pair are contributing to, and will be important to continue all season, is the dominant and oppressive play in the opposition half.

Arsenal season “Action Zones”. Source: WhoScored.com

This season, Arsenal are spending 76% of their matches outside of their own defensive third. Three factors in this: better possession and patience, simply playing teams they should dominate in terms of ball possession, and a structure with and without the ball that helps their counter press.

A major part of Arsenal’s attacking game is their ability to keep opponents under pressure and locked in their own half. This relentless presence is made possible through their 2-3-5 attacking shape that keeps three in the midfield and Saliba and Gabriel there to clean up any clearances or loose balls to regain possession. As Arteta has said, “we must kill teams with 300,000 passes” which can only be done with the ball at your feet. Thankfully, both have been exceptional at aiding in this against weaker teams.

Certainly a tough challenge against a striker in form. Definitely one to keep a keen eye on. Mitrovich has a knack for creating a goal out of nothing and making the most out of an innocuous cross. Will be a great challenge for Arsenal’s defense.

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