If there is a common thread to Arsenal’s recent, stuttering form it has been the absence of William Saliba.
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For all the talk of pressure, nerves and the ‘B’ word (it rhymes with Aristotle), it’s the absence of their domineering centre-back which has really hurt the Gunners.
Saliba has missed five games with a back injury and will not return in Wednesday’s title showdown with Manchester City. Without him, Arsenal have conceded nine goals and, as you may have heard, drawn their last three games.
There are myriad other factors at play in a title run-in but, bottom line, do Arsenal really let slip two-goal leads at Liverpool and West Ham and give rock-bottom Southampton a two-goal start with Saliba at hand? Their defensive record with the Frenchman in the line-up suggests not.
So, not a great time to be facing Erling Haaland, then. And not a great time to be Saliba’s understudy.
In many ways this top-of-the-table clash underlines the gulf that still exists between the two title chargers. Arsenal may have a five-point lead in the table but, by most other measures, Manchester City remain way ahead. Nothing encapsulates that more than Haaland v Rob Holding.
Some saw Haaland – whose 32 league goals are more than double that scored by Arsenal’s top scorer Gabriel Martinelli – as a luxury City didn’t need, which makes their World Cup-winning striker Julian Alvarez the luxury back-up to the luxury.
In the red corner, Saliba’s back-up Holding is a man who has managed just 96 league appearances in seven seasons in north London, without ever really convincing anyone he belongs at the top level.
It would be inaccurate and grossly unfair to lay all the blame for Arsenal’s ills at one man’s door but there is no avoiding the fact the 27-year-old was given a torrid afternoon by Michail Antonio in the draw with West Ham and appeared at least partially culpable for two of Southampton’s goals last time out.
Mikel Arteta’s faith in the former Bolton trainee has been firm, as demonstrated by his perseverance in continuing with the £50million Ben White – signed as a centre-back, remember – at right-back.
Arteta spoke on Tuesday of finding solutions to City’s attacking prowess and that may involve a change in formation, tactics or personnel. Maybe Holding will be taken out of the firing line and White thrust into a now unfamiliar role.
But whatever the approach and whatever the outcome, that Arsenal find themselves in this situation – with one, albeit key, injury threatening to unravel their phenomenal season – shows just how much of an advantage City still hold over their rivals for the title.
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