William Saliba has shone for Arsenal this season; Mikel Arteta’s side sit top of the Premier League having won eight out of nine games.
Luis Diaz had a head start as he raced onto Jordan Henderson’s pass but it did not matter. William Saliba, sprinting back in pursuit, soon reeled him in, muscling the Liverpool winger off the ball and winning a goal kick to the sound of cheers from the stands.
“He does so well there,” said Gary Neville on co-commentary. “Diaz looks like he can cut back across the Arsenal centre-back, but no. He is having none of it. Strength and pace combined.”
It was a crucial intervention and, significantly, it came at a pivotal point in Sunday’s game at the Emirates Stadium, barely a minute after Darwin Nunez had scored Liverpool’s first-half equaliser, and not long before Bukayo Saka put Arsenal back in front.
Saliba’s overall performance was not perfect. The 21-year-old showed his relative inexperience when he lost Roberto Firmino in the build-up to Liverpool’s second goal soon after the break.
But that explosive recovery run to deny Diaz was just the latest example of how his introduction to the team, following two years on loan at Marseille, has helped transform Arsenal from top-four outsiders into Premier League pace-setters.
There is a lot to like about Saliba. His composure on the ball has delighted supporters. His physical stature too. But the pace which enabled him to catch Diaz on Sunday is arguably his best quality.
Saliba clocked a top speed of 34.5 kilometres per hour in that game, putting him 25th among the 445 players to have featured in the Premier League this season and second among all centre-backs.
His speed, demonstrated even more memorably with his sensational last-ditch tackle on Kylian Mbappe during Marseille’s goalless draw with Paris Saint-Germain last season, has given Mikel Arteta the security he needed to realise his long-held vision for Arsenal by pushing their defensive line higher up the pitch.
Their start distance, a metric which shows how far upfield, on average, a team begin their passing sequences, has increased by almost three metres compared to the 2020/21 campaign, taking them from 12th to second among Premier League clubs.
It is an approach which has been employed to devastating effect in recent years by Manchester City, where Arteta learned his trade as Pep Guardiola’s assistant, and of course by Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool.
The idea is to squeeze opponents, increase compactness, and in turn facilitate high pressing, which is intended to force opposition errors in dangerous areas and ensure territorial dominance.
Arsenal are now doing just that and the increased effectiveness of their pressing can be seen in the numbers.
With Gabriel Jesus leading the line – the Brazilian was once described by Guardiola as the best pressing forward in the world – Arteta’s side are winning possession in the final third more frequently than in either of the last two seasons. Only Leicester and Newcastle have forced more high turnovers leading to shots.
The distance between Arsenal’s players has reduced. So too has the space available to opponents seeking to build from the back. But the high line offers benefits at the other end of the pitch too.
On Sunday at the Emirates Stadium, Arsenal caught Liverpool offside on six separate occasions, the second-highest total by any side in a single Premier League game all season.
In total, Arsenal have caught their opponents offside 22 times this season, a total second only to Fulham’s, putting their average at 2.4 per game compared to 1.7 per game last term.
It is of course a high-risk strategy.
Saliba was able to recover when Diaz sprang Arsenal’s offside trap in the first half on Sunday, but not when the Colombian got in behind to set up Nunez’s equaliser moments earlier.
Tottenham’s leveller in the north London derby came in similar circumstances, while Manchester United exploited Arsenal’s high line repeatedly in their 3-1 win at Old Trafford in September.
The increased risk is, however, deemed to be worth it by Arteta, who outlined his desire for Arsenal to control games by pinning opponents back in their own half last season.
“At 3-1, we have to make 300,000 passes in the opponent’s half,” he said after a ragged 3-2 win over Watford in March. “We didn’t do that. You had the feeling it was open right until the end.”
That game at Vicarage Road, which featured a panic-inducing late goal by Moussa Sissoko, was one of many in which Arteta’s side found themselves ceding the initiative and clinging on, introducing Rob Holding from the bench, dropping deep and hoping for the best.
But Sunday’s win over Liverpool, although achieved by the same scoreline, underlined their progress in the intervening months.
Arsenal did not allow Liverpool a single shot between the 53rd minute, when Firmino scored their second, and the seventh minute of stoppage time. By the end, Liverpool had only had 19 touches in Arsenal’s box, by far their lowest total of the season, and only eight efforts on goal, also a season low.
Rather than sinking back into their own half as they did at Watford last season, Arsenal instead kept Liverpool at arm’s length in much the same way they have almost every side they have faced lately.
Indeed, only Manchester City have allowed their opponents fewer shots in the Premier League this season, or registered a lower total of expected goals against.
Arsenal are defending by having the ball.
Their average share of possession has jumped from 53 per cent to 57 per cent, and what’s also notable is where on the pitch they are now playing. Arsenal are making more passes in the opposition half and fewer in their own. The emphasis has shifted.
Saliba has played an important role on that side of things too.
He ranks sixth in the Premier League for successful passes and ninth for forward passes. When he is not picking out team-mates ahead of him, he is driving upfield himself. Only two players, City duo Joao Cancelo and Ruben Dias, have made more carries.
It helps, of course, that Arsenal’s attackers have been able to capitalise on the territorial dominance their higher defensive line has given them this season.
Jesus, Saka and Gabriel Martinelli, supported by Granit Xhaka – who is thriving in a more advanced role, another beneficiary of the higher line – and Martin Odegaard, have formed a deadly front three.
Liverpool are just the latest side to find that out first hand.
Arsenal’s numbers for shots, goals scored and expected goals have all increased significantly on last season, placing them firmly among the Premier League’s elite and underlining that their best start to a campaign in years is no fluke.
Instead, it is the result of careful squad building, years of gradual progress, and, of course, the introduction of a player in Saliba who has accelerated their evolution, allowing them to move higher up the pitch and, in turn, higher up the Premier League table.