Arsenal’s Exodus of Central Defenders: Who Might Go?

June 3, 2020

Arsenal currently sit ninth, just inside the top half of the Premier League table. If the season had finished due to coronavirus, this would be the club’s lowest placing since the 1994/95 season.

When Unai Emery was sacked in late November, his team had two wins in their previous 11 league games and were winless in seven across all competitions. They looked far more likely to be relegated than to claim a European place.

Much of the blame was directed towards the manager but an equal amount was targeted at some of the players, namely Granit Xhaka and the central defenders. While Xhaka has flourished under new manager, Mikel Arteta, many of the centre-backs have failed to convince, leading to a potential exodus this summer.

The Athletic’s David Ornstein recently suggested that three first-choice defenders will be allowed to leave. Arsenal will listen to reasonable offers for Rob Holding, Sokratis Papastathopoulos and Shkodran Mustafi.

Sky Sports also reported that Arsenal are yet to trigger the optional one-year extension in David Luiz’s contract. Upon signing, it was initially reported that Luiz had joined on a two-year contract but it now appears the second year was optional. Should both reports be correct, the Gunners will find themselves bereft of experienced defenders.

Arsenal’s Potential Centre-Back Departures

Rob Holding

Holding’s transfer status is unexpected for most, given his relative youth and his positive relationship with the fans. But it’s easy to forget that his break-out performance, a dominant game against Chelsea’s Diego Costa in the 2017 FA Cup Final, took place almost three years ago.

Since then, his career has stalled as a result of a cruciate ligament rupture that put him out of action for 248 days. He returned to training in August 2019 but has been unable to get back into the first-team squad for any extended period.

At 24 years old (possibly 25 when the new season starts), Holding seems to have run out of time to establish himself, with the club willing to cash in on a player who may never return to the heights he reached early in his Arsenal career.

However, the Englishman still has a lot of goodwill at the club so a turnaround in training or a string of good performances could buy him more time. If a reasonable bid should fail to materialise, the club would likely be content to keep him.

Sokratis Papastathopoulos and Shkodran Mustafi

The listings of Sokratis and Mustafi seem to show a desire to move them on, at least more so than with Holding. Both have a contract until 2021, making now the perfect time to sell from the club’s perspective.

Sokratis is 31 and lacks the technical quality to play in the middle of Arteta’s team, as seen by his demotion to backup right-back towards the end of the season. Mustafi, 28, had something of a resurgence under Arteta but is struggling to cope with the weight of his past mistakes.

The club is unlikely to recoup much of the combined £52.6 million it cost to bring the pair in but freeing around £100,000 per week in wages for each player will give Arsenal a bit more financial freedom.

Their performance level and age also justify their sale. Sokratis, in particular, only has a few years of top-level football left and lacks the attributes to contribute much to a more attractive playstyle.

David Luiz

Luiz would be the most surprising exit, should he leave this summer. The Brazilian veteran fits well in Arteta’s system and is reportedly a good character in the dressing room and a positive influence on the younger players.

If he were to go, his single year stay would cost around £15 million, including wages, transfer fee and agent’s fee. Because of this, his departure seems to be the least likely of the four.

The Sky Sports report claimed that the extension had not been triggered but that doesn’t mean it won’t be in the future.

In reality, it seems unlikely Arsenal will allow all four to leave, even if acceptable offers came in.

Holding is likely to attract the most transfer interest so it would not be a surprise to see him go. Luiz seems to be setting up a return to Benfica but it appears the decision over the next year of his career is mostly in Arsenal’s hands.