Arsenal - Tottenham: It's not been easy but Saliba and Dier are now crucial to their sides

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Arsenal - Tottenham: It's not been easy but Saliba and Dier are now crucial to their sides
Arsenal - Tottenham: It's not been easy but Saliba and Dier are now crucial to their sides
Arsenal - Tottenham: It's not been easy but Saliba and Dier are now crucial to their sides
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William Saliba (21) and Eric Dier (28) go head to head this weekend in a critical North London derby, and the pair have been utterly instrumental to their sides' swift start to the campaign. In what is set to be arguably the biggest game of the Premier League season so far, both teams will be relying on them to ward off the threats of Harry Kane (29) and Gabriel Jesus (25), who will offer them their toughest tests so far.

Saliba has been nothing short of magnificent for the Gunners since being introduced into the side, and at just 21 years old, there are shades of Rio Ferdinand in the way he plays. Freakishly quick and robust, he has forged a powerful partnership next to Gabriel Magalhaes.

His performances have been so good, that the also-impressive Ben White has had to shift to the right back position to make space for him. An imposing presence in the opposition’s penalty area too, he has bagged two goals, against Bournemouth and Brentford. A revelation for his side who are sitting at the summit of the Premier League.

Dier has continued where he left off last season under Antonio Conte. In the heart of a back three, his leadership qualities and ability to mop up danger in the penalty area have been crucial to Spurs. Strong and good in the air, he has contributed thoroughly to an outfit who have defended really well, and become one of Conte’s most trusted and reliable men.

But a year ago, it wasn’t so obvious that Saliba and Dier would be where they are today. It hasn’t been the most straightforward of journeys for either of them.

The Frenchman had been shipped out on loan for the third time after signing for Arsenal back in 2019 – much to the dismay of fans. As one of the most highly rated young centre backs in the world, it was bewildering to many that he wasn’t given a chance, especially with the likes of Calum Chambers and Rob Holding in the squad.

But after a stunning season at Marseille, he furthered his already phenomenal reputation, winning the Ligue 1 Player of the Season award as he helped his team to second in the table behind Paris Saint-Germain. Despite the views from many that Mikel Arteta didn’t fancy him, the Spaniard was keen to make clear that he was set to be a part of his plans for the new season.

After his goal against Bournemouth earlier in the campaign, Arteta was full of praise for Saliba.

"What he is doing at 21 years old is rare. He remains really humble. He wants to learn, he wants to train every day and he is really demanding of himself and he is giving a lot to the team," Arteta said.

And perhaps the manager deserves a huge amount of credit for Saliba's performances. Despite the clamour for him to be in the squad for the last three years, Arteta was resolute in his beliefs that being out on loan would benefit him more.

He has ultimately been proven right. At such a young age, he already possesses authoritative maturity beyond his years. This could easily be attributed to the experience he gathered in France, which also led to a first international call-up at the beginning of the year. He now has seven caps for Les Bleus.

We have seen some moments of inexperience and naivety from Saliba, namely in the Manchester United game when he was caught out by their rapid front line. But that was without the injured Thomas Partey, who usually guards the defence with world-class expertise.

Centre backs tend to peak late into their 20s, so the performances of the 21-year-old are a scary proposition for any centre forward who is set to go up against him. He comes up against one of the world's best strikers in Kane this weekend, which will be a real test of his quality.

On the white side of North London, Dier has been through his fair share of ups and down since signing back in 2014. Initially seen as a defender, Mauricio Pochettino utilised him in midfield besides the effortless Mousa Dembele, and he performed to a really high level, sweeping up in front of the defence.

However, the Argentine seemingly had a change of heart, and switched his system to a 3-4-3 and pushed Dier into the centre of defence. Again, he continued to perform well with Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld accompanying him, but it was known that he preferred to play in midfield. 

As the Spurs defence aged, Pochettino returned to a back four, with Dier being constantly moved around between centre back and holding midfield. His performances began to take a hit.

But Pochettino always believed his best position was in defence. Writing exclusively in the Daily Mail back in 2017, he said: "I've told Eric he has what it takes to be the best English centre back but he has to be convinced of that himself.

"We've put the conditions in place for him to improve. But he broke into the national team thanks to his displays in the [midfield] holding role and ended up scoring a couple of big goals. 

"After we signed [Victor] Wanyama [in summer, 2016], Eric, who now sees himself as a midfielder, felt that we had treated him badly because Wanyama's arrival would halt his development. His performances have started to suffer this season.

"We've spoken a lot recently but I've felt he hasn't been telling me everything. Later on, I once again tried to understand why he couldn't shake off the shackles and I offered to help him with whatever it was."

With the arrival of Jose Mourinho in 2019, the England international began to look incongruous in midfield and finally made the decision that his best position was in defence. 

In 2020, he said: "It was something we spoke about (when Jose Mourinho arrived). It was a decision I actually made before the manager arrived here. It was something on my mind for a while and I spoke with Pochettino over various seasons. I felt the time was right in terms of my age, in terms of what I have done and my career."

He became a key player for Mourinho, but despite this, his form was still poor. In a back four, he simply didn't look cut out for the highest level, with his lack of pace and mobility a real issue.

Many fans called for a replacement to be bought in, but he continued to play under Mourinho and during the short tenure of Nuno Espirito Santo. His leadership at the back was a factor as to why managers trusted him.

But there was soon to be a sharp upturn in performances once Conte was named as the new Spurs manager at the end of 2021. Immediately, the Italian had the same opinion as his predecessors on the Englishman - his organisational skills meant he was indispensable to the team and he was simply too important to drop.

But this time, it was the perfect match. Conte's appointment meant a return to a three-at-the-back system where Dier flourished under Pochettino.

And as a result, he is playing with real quality again. Imperious in the heart of the defence with Cristian Romero and Ben Davies covering for his lack of pace, his weaknesses are no longer being exposed.

Conte's system is constructed in a way where everyone works as a team, and the midfielders offer a lot of protection to the defence. All these factors combined saw Dier recalled to the England team just last week, and play in both Nations League matches against Italy and Germany. He played pretty well, too.

His confidence is well and truly back, and he merited that national team call-up after a slump which lasted a fair few years.

So this weekend, both players are set to go up against Kane and Jesus, but they will unquestionably be up for the challenge. It is a contest of huge significance, as the bitter rivals look to make an early statement and show that they're ready to be competitors at the top of the Premier League.

The winner will also start the weekend sitting comfortably at the top of the table.

Without a shadow of a doubt though, Arsenal and Tottenham will each need Saliba and Dier to be at their dominant best if they want to come away from the game with a victory, and truly plant their flag down in the middle of North London.

Follow all the action as the Premier League returns this weekend on Flashscore.