Why Arsenal’s Mikel Arteta sees signs of defensive improvement with Gunners’ new center-back pairing

Mikel Arteta believes that his center-back pairing of Gabriel and Ben White has already built the sort of complementary relationship that can help drive Arsenal forward from defense.

Gabriel and White — who cost combined fees in excess of $100 million (£75 million) when they arrived in the summers of 2020 and 2021, respectively — have anchored the Arsenal defense to two clean sheets in their last two games with the former in particular winning much praise for his display in Saturday’s victory away to Burnley.

Arsenal have long been searching for a stable, long-term partnership at the center of their backline and arguably not since Arteta was a player stationed in front of Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny has there been the consistency required from that position. Since the start of 2015 the club hierarchy have invested around $250 million in the position and only now do they seem to believe they have found building blocks for the future in the two 23-year-olds.

Though Arsenal had an impressive defensive record last season, where they conceded the third fewest goals in the league at 39, their rearguard was not always as convincing as the end results suggested with opponents registering shots on their goal worth nearly 44 expected goals. Partnerships were rarely set in stone with the likes of David Luiz, Rob Holding, Pablo Mari and even Gabriel himself drifting in and out of favor.

Perhaps most significantly much of the strength in their backline came at the cost of attacking impetus at the other end. Consecutive 1-0 victories over Norwich City and Burnley hardly offer an indication that Arsenal can be both strong at the back and volume scorers at the other end but Arteta believes his new center-back pairing can help drive their teammates up the pitch.

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“I think that they complement each other really well,” Arteta said of the Gabriel-White tandem. “When you talk about that defensive unit and that core, the qualities that we need in every phase of the player, I think they complement each other really well. Obviously they need to build that relationship. We have other relationships that have worked as well. I think our defensive record in the last few years has been pretty good. It’s something that they need, to experience situations, gain confidence, gain trust, belief, communication – that makes the job easier.

“I think they have different qualities but at the same time they can read each other pretty well, and you can see the connection when we are training. How they respond and relate one with the other one in ball possession, for example, is a big one and we have a left- and right-footed player and naturally they are both really happy to go and commit the next line for example and take the ball in tighter spaces and try to break lines all the time when they have the ball. 

“They are both comfortable staying high with a high line and having to defend the space in behind, when they are isolated in wider spaces they can do that and protect each other’s back really good when someone is breaking the backline.”

Arteta added that he had been hard at work with his defensive line in the hope that improvements there could offer momentum to his side’s bid to clamber up the table, which has seen them pick up maximum points since the international break after three straight defeats to start the league campaign.

It remains to be seen whether he will rotate his defense for the visit to AFC Wimbledon in the EFL Cup on Wednesday or indeed further forward in his side, where progression without the ball has been evident since the return of Martin Odegaard on a permanent deal from Real Madrid. The Norwegian earned headlines for his match-winning free kick at Turf Moor but his two successful tackles, five recoveries and blocked shot were no less important to the cause.

Indeed in Arsenal’s two matches since the international break Odegaard has been involved for more than 20 percent of the successful presses the Gunners have carried out have involved their new signing. As late as the 93rd minute against Burnley on Saturday he was chasing Clarets danger man Dwight McNeill, forcing him to move the play backward to Charlie Taylor, whose punt forward leads to the sort of aerial duel in midfield that the visitors would welcome as they look to defend a one-goal lead late on.

Odegaard pressed McNeill in the last moments of Arsenal’s win over Burnley

“He’s probably the first to do it [those defensive responsibilities],” said Arteta. “I was really impressed with [Pierre-Emerick] Auba[meyang] as well — I think his rhythm and high pressing was fantastic. It was a real commitment and purpose because you can go to try and win the ball or put pressure [on] – but you can tell when you are really doing it or when you’ve been told to do it. 

“There was a big meaning behind it and when you go to places like that, when you are having difficult moments and you want to start to get results, I think you have to go to those basics and have every single player do that, even the ones that came on — I think they were superb, lifted the momentum of the team and took us to a different level. I think that’s really important.”

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