As a general rule, Premier League teams need at least five senior central defenders to allow for tactical flexibility, injury cover and normal squad rotation.
The recent reports about the transfer status of half the Arsenal defence is ringing alarm bells for more than a few fans.
If the stories are to be believed, David Luiz may be released at the end of his contract and Rob Holding, Sokratis Papastathopoulos and Shkodran Mustafi could all be sold this summer.
If that happens, Arsenal will be left with four first team centre-backs.
The problems this could cause are illustrated perfectly by Manchester City this season (2019/20). Once Aymeric Laporte was injured, they were left with John Stones and Nicolas Otamendi as their only first-team defenders.
Poor performances from both necessitated the movement of Fernandinho and Rodri into a deeper role and Eric Garcia from the youth team into the first team. The general consensus is that issues brought about by this one injury and their lack of depth played a large part in their inability to defend their Premier League title.
With the current players at their disposal, and a worse squad overall, Arsenal could face some enormous problems next season.
Who Could Step Up?
Of the remaining four, Calum Chambers will likely be the frontrunner for a position as one of the two starting centre-backs. A couple of years ago, it looked like he might be sold but a successful loan spell at Fulham in the 2018/19 season and his recent run in the first team has seemingly convinced the Arsenal hierarchy to keep him.
Unfortunately, his good form at the end of 2019, which convinced fans and the management of his viability as a first-choice defender, was put to an end by a serious cruciate ligament rupture. The Premier League break has allowed the defender to recover without missing too many games with Chambers reportedly returning to training in the past week.
As is often seen with these types of injuries, it could take far longer than expected for him to get back to his best. Holding has seen his career grind to a halt over the last two years at the hands of the same injury. At 25, Chambers has outgrown his ‘young prospect’ tagline but injuries and strong competition has prevented him from accumulating much game time at Arsenal. He has shown that he can perform well but there will be doubts about his ability to step up and lead a backline by himself.
Arteta reportedly plans to exercise the option to buy Pablo Mari, following his brief loan spell at the club. Mari only managed two appearances for the club but he showed some positive signs, helping the team to claim a victory and a clean sheet in both the games he started. Regardless of his brief success, the Spaniard is untested at the highest level so it would be difficult to rely on him as the lynchpin of the defence.
Konstantinos Mavropanos has, at 22 years old, only managed eight appearances across three seasons at the club. He looked set to spend the remainder of the 2019/20 season on loan at Nürnberg but another injury in his recent game against Bochum could threaten that.
As is the curse for many Arsenal players, injuries have been the biggest roadblock in the young defender’s development, contributing to 34 missed games across 162 days of injury.
This causes two major problems in his integration into the first-team squad. Firstly, his terrible luck with injuries makes it hard to rely on his continued availability.
Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, the injuries have almost certainly hampered his development. His 14 appearances in the past two years are a worrying omen for a player so in need of experience.
William Saliba is perhaps the most hyped of the available defenders. With little evidence of his ability, the fanbase seems to have anointed him as the key member of the defence and a nailed on starter from the beginning of next season.
As with the rest of the available defenders, the biggest issue with Saliba’s inclusion is a lack of experience. The 19-year-old has fewer than 40 appearances in total and spent much of 2019 injured. However much quality the young defender has, it is hard to confidently predict what role he will be able to play in his debut Premier League season.
Essentially, looking at the four players likely to be at the club next season, every option has a question mark over either their health and fitness or their ability to lead a defence for an entire season. Chambers could be forced to take on the leadership role but his injury record could stand in the way of consistent inclusion in the team.
Inversely, Saliba could find his development hampered by a responsibility to perform from his first game. Mari and Mavropanos are harder to judge, given their lack of Premier League level experience. Arsenal could find out that they lack the necessary quality to compete, without any time to do anything about it.
As well as the senior central defenders, there are a couple of players who might be expected to take a step up into the senior squad next season.
Zech Medley’s promotion has been long awaited and Arteta might see the absence of senior players as a good chance to give youth a chance. Similarly, Daniel Ballard will be evaluated after his return from Swindon Town.
The general consensus is that neither of these players will be ready for significant game time, especially alongside other inexperienced players like Mavropanos and Saliba.
Of course, as mentioned above, all of this is hypothetical. The club might yet trigger Luiz’s extension or fail to sell the others. There is also the possibility that the club plan to reinforce this position in the transfer window, although that seems unlikely given the financial implications of the coronavirus.
Looking at the state of the squad after the rumoured departures shows one thing above all else. This squad is not ready for an exodus of four central defenders. The club would be left filling important positions with inexperienced and unproven players at best and sub-Premier League level players at worst.