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Matt Upson: Arsenal’s centre-backs are best in the league

04 Apr | BY Betway Insider | MIN READ TIME |
Matt Upson: Arsenal’s centre-backs are best in the league
Source: Alamy Stock Photo

The ex-Arsenal defender gives his thoughts on his former club's Premier League title push and looks ahead to England's chances at Euro 2024.

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What did you make of Man City v Arsenal match last weekend? 

While it wasn’t the most spectacular match in terms of high-octane goalmouth action from a style perspective, it was what was needed to get the job done.  

I think you should step back and really admire it. I thought it was quite fascinating tactically – you have to admire how Arsenal were out of possession and how focused they were on what they needed to do. Having the ball probably comes secondary. 

You can’t say that very often this season when you’ve watched Arsenal play. It’s all been about getting hold of the ball and dominating the play. Instead of wanting to go toe-to-toe with City, which I think Mikel Arteta has done previously and come off badly, he realised his team need to maybe not have the ball as much.  

He’ll have been thinking: “We need to be solid, and we’ve got players that can, when we win the ball high up, score goals.” One goal would have been enough to win the game. From that perspective, I thought it was really interesting. It was not a thriller in terms of some of the great Premier League games we’ve seen, but that won’t be bothering Arsenal.  

Will the result against City boost Arsenal’s confidence that they can win the league? 

Absolutely. I think they’re in a different world to what they were at this stage last season. They were still top at this stage last season but the signs were there. The wheels were starting to fall off a little bit. It’s got the reverse effect this year.  

Now they’re in the Champions League, with a knockout tie against a brilliant team and I think they’re capable of winning it. They’ve got the players. Saka is a little bit of a worry, whether or not he’s fully fit at the moment, going to be fit for the rest of the season. That’s a concern because obviously, take his goals out of the team, that’s a big problem.  

But as a whole, I think they’re just far more assured. That experience from last year has made Arsenal a much better team. Out of possession, they’re one of the best in the Premier League. I think that always gives you a good footing. 

Do you think Liverpool are now favourites to win the league? 

It’s actually a little bit of a lottery call. Can Arsenal win it? Yes, I think any of those top three can. So that’s the beauty of this Premier League season. Very rarely have we been at this stage, and there’s three that you can.  

You’re splitting hairs to choose which one you’d go for. You probably have to pick Liverpool as the favourites. It makes sense. The bookies don’t get that wrong too often. They’re two points ahead of Arsenal, three points ahead of City, and they’ve got a pretty good run-in when you look at it. You look at that and get why Liverpool are favourites - but any of the three can win, including Arsenal. 

What did you make of Roy Keane’s comments on Haaland saying has the skill level of a League Two footballer? 

He’s an interesting player, isn’t he? The one opportunity where he misses the ball where he could pop it back across on the set play was a big moment. In that game, that was seen as a huge opportunity. That’s how tight the game was.  

Haaland is still very raw. He’s all about his physical presence and getting in the box and losing defenders. So when you maybe only touch the ball 10 times in a game, you don’t have to be fantastic with it. As long as when you’re touching it, you’re statistically scoring a goal. That’s what he does. So last season, he blew the Premier League away on his goals tally.  

He is playing in a brilliant team, but he brought a different dimension. He did that by himself, just with his character, with his aggression, with his physicality, with his pace, with his direct running. So you have to contend with a lot. He’s not the tidiest of players that we’ve ever seen, but he’s effective. Everyone’s different. So that’s just his style and it’s hard to play against. 

Are Gabriel & Saliba the best centre-back partnership in the world? 

I would say they are and I think that their record would tell you that. They’ve got the defensive record in the Premier League in terms of conceding goals, I think they’re three goals better off than any other team. 

That’s usually generally a good marker, isn’t it? To say that you’ve got one of the best centre-back partnerships really does give you a chance. I think the midfield has a lot to do with it. Declan Rice has had a huge say, playing behind him is a dream in terms of what he brings. He can instinctively fill in.  

I love it when the centre-back steps out with the ball. Declan has got that centre-back instinct, which he played through under-18 and even in under-21 football. He played a lot at centre-half, so he really understands the role.  

He played a lot of games and he’s now a top player. But for his age, he’s still got a lot of awareness, and he’s had that from right at the beginning at West Ham. So he’s a huge part to play in the defensive record. But I feel that Gabriel is more confident when he has Saliba alongside him, and he makes clearer decisions. 

When Arsenal lost Saliba at the end of last season, I felt Gabriel was a little bit more distracted. He wasn’t as focused on his own game and what he brings in being physical. I love the way he stood up to Haaland on Sunday and how he went about that. I thought that was a real show of confidence. 

Who do you think is the best centre back in the league? 

In terms of the Premier League at the moment, it is between Virgil van Dijk and Saliba. I think it is difficult. Van Dijk is in a different stage of his career, he has more of a presence and aura around him because of what he’s achieved, because of his stature at that club.  

Saliba, even though he is now looked at as a top player, he’s still on that journey. He’s a lot younger. So it’s hard to differentiate the two. They’ve both got relatively different styles. I think Saliba is an amazing mover and I think he can get tight. 

He has the backing of himself physically in terms of his mobility. I think that is real strength, the fact that he can match people all over the pitch. Whereas Van Dijk reads the game a bit better. He maybe doesn’t go in certain areas, and he cleans up and he makes it look easy. So it’s very difficult to split it. 

Do you believe Arsenal still need a striker in the summer? If so, who would like to see them sign? 

When you talk of a Haaland or a Kane, Arsenal don’t possess these types of players in that position. So whether or not that is a key focus, you think if you’re going to put a goalscorer in there, it’s just finding the right player, the right fit at the right price. And that’s not easy. So that might be a reason why that hasn’t happened so far. And they’ve gone through different options and they’ve worked around it and they’ve done that extremely well. So to be in this position without that player that’s banging in a silly amount of goals is a testament to how good the team’s been. 

Arsenal face Bayern in the quarter-finals of the Champions League next week, do you think they can qualify? 

I was at the Porto game, which I thought Arsenal ground out really, really well against a tough team that’s set up on the day brilliantly to make life difficult. I think this will be a different game. I think this will be two teams believing that their football can win the game, and they’ll go and express themselves and play how they want to play. 

Does that suit Arsenal more? Perhaps it does, because I thought the game against Porto is the game where they historically trip up, and they didn’t. I thought that was a massive confidence boost to manage that game, to understand what they needed to do to get through to the next round. They did that. It was another stepping stone, another part of growth for the team.  

This is just going to be a great heavyweight clash where both teams are good enough to win on the day with their style. I see it going that way, and I think it will be quite an open game. Arsenal will want to start fast under the lights in a midweek game. The atmosphere will be incredible and it will need to be.  

Looking ahead to Euro 2024, how do you see England performing in the tournament? 

There’s so much to play for, I think it’s an amazing squad. I know in terms of who is going to play in that midfield role with Declan Rice there are questions and it’ll be really interesting. We’ve got to go and play. We’ve got the attacking side of the selection of players. Historically, the manager has done fantastic in tournaments, taking England to the latter stages regularly. So I don’t see why it’s going to be any different this time around. Defensively, that’s the only worry for England, because attacking-wise, there’s no better team. 

Should Jared Bowen make the squad for Euro 2024? 

After his last two performances for England, certainly after the Belgium game, yes – 100 per cent he has a chance. He played for England in the same way that he played for West Ham. I think he turned up with the Jarrod Bowen that turns up at the London Stadium every week and was direct. He was confident and he ran at people – I thought he was excellent. For me, he should be on the plane. 

Do you think Jarrad Branthwaite deserves to make the squad? 

He deserves it in terms of how he’s played in the Premier League. He’s been brilliant. He’s had a lot of action, he’s got great instinct, and he is defending his box so well. It’s just getting used to that different style because there’s matches where you’re so dominant, you’re going from a team where you’re defending for your life to controlling matches, being high up on the halfway line all the time.  

The rest of it, he’ll do comfortably. But it is just getting used to that international football. It’s a very different style. He’s got huge potential to be a top centre-back and play for England and really feature in the national team for sure. 

Harry Maguire has been in and out of United’s team this season, should Southgate start him this summer?  

If everyone’s fit, John Stones is your No. 1 choice, even though he’s not playing centre-back a lot for Manchester City. 

Southgate should consider playing Kyle Walker there, but I think Harry Maguire has done well, I think to come through what he’s been through is a testament to him, and it hasn’t been easy. He’s not done a lot wrong for England at all. But is he in good enough form when you watch him week in, week out to think he’s starting for England at centre-back? I think there’s a big question mark over that.  

Walker is an interesting option, but whether or not he could be centre-back I’m not sure. It hasn’t really been done in a full campaign and Gareth Southgate mainly wants a back four. A back three may work, but would England make that formation change now?

Betway Insider

Betway Insider

The Insider is an editorial blog for Betway, one of the best betting sites, featuring sporting insight, intelligent comment and informed betting tips for football betting and all other major sports.

Betway Insider

Betway Insider

The Insider is an editorial blog for Betway, one of the best betting sites, featuring sporting insight, intelligent comment and informed betting tips for football betting and all other major sports.