Arsenal fans are undoubtedly excited at the prospect of combining Wiliam Saliba and Gabriel Magalhaes in central defense this upcoming season.
However, Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta is already pumping the brakes on the hype-train surrounding the young center-backs. Prior to facing reigning champions Liverpool in the Community Shield, Arsenal was reportedly poised to let Rob Holding move to Newcastle on loan. However, since that dogged performance at Wembley, multiple sources have now begun to report a change in heart from the Arsenal leadership. In a matter of days, Holding has gone from surplus to requirements to figuring into the manager’s plans for next season.
With the recent arrival of Gabriel Magalhaes from Lille, there is a rejuvenated wind of hope blowing through a fanbase that has been burned by false downs many times before. The young left-footed Brazilian center-back is set to forge a partnership with French phenom William Saliba, in what could become a generational pairing at the Emirates. Yet, the Holding transfer U-turn may be a peek into the mind of Arteta.
While Holding is not the type of center-back who will elevate the club to a title-challenging status, he is a player with whom Arteta is forging a level of trust. Holding undoubtedly has limitations and deficiencies within his game, but he remains a relatively steady player with a strong sense of character which makes him a safe option for Arteta. With two victories over Chelsea in FA Cup finals and a commendable fight-back from a nasty injury, Holding has exhibited the type of toughness that the manager needs within a squad looking to claw its way back up the table.
Most importantly, Arteta is very aware of the fact that he will need safe options to call upon throughout a season in which two fresh-faced center-backs will be blooded early and often. No one can deny the potential of Magalhaes and Saliba, but these two diamonds in the rough will need patience and guidance to truly shine.
With the need to compete in four separate competitions in what will most likely be a system consisting of three center-backs, Arsenal will need quality depth to rotate the backline fairly regularly. Fans can’t expect to see Saliba and Magalhaes week in and week out all season long.
Assimilating two new players under the age of 23 into a new league, country, and team will be a nuanced process for Arteta. Ensuring that both players build a rapport with their teammates, balance their physical workload, and maintain a healthy level of confidence will be an imperfect science. The presence of experienced players like Holding and Pablo Mari will be a crucial safety net throughout this process.
At both of their former clubs, Saliba and Magalhaes were partnered with experienced and stable role models. Loic Perrin was Saliba’s guide at Saint-Étienne. The 35-year-old Frenchman steadied the defense alongside Saliba when the youngster was able to return to the pitch following a metatarsal fracture. Likewise, Jose Fonte filled a similar role alongside Magalhaes at Lille. In conjunction with these elder statesmen, Saliba and Magalhaes developed the reputations that caught Arsenal’s eye.
With this in mind, it’s easy to see the importance of David Luiz both on and off the pitch. Despite his penchant for making mistakes, he is Arsenal’s most experienced, and arguably best, defender. There is no doubt that some fans have found it difficult to fully embrace Luiz after the tumultuous season he has had.
While that’s fair, one can not deny the impact he has had on the morale of the squad and the fact that many players at the club look towards him for guidance and leadership. Like Perrin for Saliba and Fonte for Gabriel, Luiz will need to be a calming force in the locker room and at the heart of the back three for Arsenal next season.
This is not easy to hear. Trust me I want nothing more than to believe we have uncovered the next Raphael Varane and Thiago Silva right before they hit their prime. I would love nothing more than to see Saliba and Magalhaes partner in a back four that will kickstart a Liverpool-esque fairy tale run for Arsenal, but as things stand we need to tread with caution.
Fans won’t be happy hearing that our shiny new signings won’t be starting every game, making a player like Holding a necessary and even vital cog for next season. Supporters won’t want to entrust Luiz with quite as much responsibility as he is set to have next season, but he will probably be even more influential than Saliba and Magalhaes. These are the hard truths that we will have to accept as our young center-backs find their feet and hopefully begin to thrive in north London.