Mikel Arteta is astonished by how quickly William Saliba has developed, but the Arsenal central defender’s elite status will face the ultimate test against Manchester City striker Erling Haaland.
It’s about time Mikel Arteta led Arsenal to a win over Manchester City in the Premier League. He’s failed to do so in seven attempts, hardly what Arsenal expected when they hired City manager Pep Guardiola’s chief protege to take the reins in 2019.
Arteta gets another chance to finally put his inside knowledge of Guardiola’s City machine to good use on Sunday. The game at the Emirates has obvious implications for this season’s Premier League title race, with just a single point separating these two big spenders, but Arsenal won’t make a dent unless Saliba can corral Haaland.
Arsenal can copy blueprint for handling Haaland
Keeping the ultimate scoring force in today’s game under wraps won’t be easy, but Saliba can take his cue from two other centre-backs. Antonio Rudiger and Craig Dawson have both had success against Haaland by adopting a rough-and-ready approach. Kind of like man-marking plus.
Dawson harassed Haaland enough to limit the prolific No. 9 to one shot and a mere 10 touches when Wolves shocked City 2-1 on Saturday, September 30.
Dawson may have had help, but what he did best was stick close to Haaland, rarely affording the striker a second to himself. Keeping Haaland with his back to goal limited his most direct threat, the ability to turn even half chances into goals.
What Dawson and Wolves achieved was reminiscent of how Antonio Rudiger frustrated Haaland when Real Madrid faced City in last season’s UEFA Champions League. Rudiger established a method for taking Haaland out of his comfort zone.
The formula usually involved latching onto the frontman and never letting go. Just like against Wolves a few months later, Haaland’s influence was rendered moot, “just 21 touches.”
There’s a blueprint for Saliba to follow when up against Haaland, but the man-marking plus approach does have some drawbacks.
Saliba’s partners must account for City’s other threats
No less an authority than Alan Shearer identified one of the limitations of man-marking after watching Rudiger cuddle Haaland into oblivion:
"This is one of the great dilemmas about man-marking, particularly when it is being done against the best sides. Focus the attention on one player and you leave gaps for the others to exploit and City carry danger everywhere."
Arsenal can take the risk of isolating Saliba against Haaland if other defenders and midfielders stay alert for clutch cameos from City’s supporting acts. Players like Phil Foden, Julian Alvarez, Bernardo Silva, Jack Grealish and Jeremy Doku.
Listing those names here provides a sobering reminder City are still loaded for bear even with Kevin De Bruyne on the treatment table. Stopping Guardiola’s mob is a tall order no matter what strategy Arteta employs, but having Saliba available at least gives Arsenal a better chance.
He wasn’t on the pitch when the Gunners were toyed with during a 4-1 defeat at the Etihad Stadium back in April. Saliba’s absence impacts Arsenal in many ways, not least because his presence usually means points in England’s top flight, per Sam Dean of the Daily Telegraph.
Dean including Arteta’s quote about Saliba’s development being “remarkable” is significant. The defender is one of the core players Arteta inherited from the ill-fated Unai Emery era, a group that also includes winger Bukayo Saka and forward Gabriel Martinelli.
This trio have elevated Arsenal more than all the money Arteta has poured into the transfer market, more than any supposed tactical and cultural revolution. Making progress from here demands beating City, and Saliba will need to be in peak form if Arsenal are going to finally make it happen.