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For a country that only has a population of just over three million people, it is hardly surprising that year upon year, Wales struggle in qualifying campaigns for major tournaments. The last World Cup they reached was in 1958 and they have rarely looked like getting close since. However, with 50 million people fewer than neighbours England, for Wales to have produced the footballing talent they have in recent years is rather incredible.
Ian Rush, Mark Hughes, Ryan Giggs, Gary Speed and the like immediately spring to mind, with fresh young talent in Gareth Bale, Aaron Ramsey and Joe Allen promising a bright (or possibly just a brighter) future. One of the rather more unsung members of the current crop of players is Wales and Swansea captain Ashley Williams, who, although he is adored by fans of both his club and country, arguably does not receive the credit he deserves for being a top-level Premier League player. He is the eighth best centre-back this season according to WhoScored.com's statistically based ratings, and with his performances so impressive, a move to one of England's major clubs could be justified.
Williams fits the Swansea set-up brilliantly. Strong and athletic like his centre-back partner Chico, he is more composed in possession than one might expect of a physically intimidating defender. As one can see from his WhoScored player profile, he passes the ball like a true Swansea player, completing 86.9% of his pass attempts. Interestingly, given the rumours of an end-of-season bid from Arsenal, third in this category in the whole Premier League, behind only Arsenal midfielder Mikel Arteta (92.4%) and Swansea's Ki Sung-Yueng (92.1%), is Gunners centre-back Per Mertesacker (92%). Williams is more direct in his distribution, though, with 5.3 long balls per game, while the German international will often simply find Arteta or Jack Wilshere to then move the ball upfield. Perhaps the two would complement each other, and whether Williams would be Mertesacker's prospective replacement or partner is the bigger question, but that is nothing more than mere speculation.
There is good reason for Swansea to do their best to hold onto one of their most prized assets, though. He has missed only one game all season and that was through suspension; he has been ever-present in those 27 matches, with only nine Premier League outfielders having been on the field more than Williams this campaign.
Going forwards, despite his prowess in the air (2.2 aerial duels won per game), Williams offers little in front of goal, but that is not what has caught the eye of potential suitors. Protecting his own goalkeeper is where he stands out, with the Swansea captain having blocked 39 shots this season, an incredible 11 more than any other player in the whole league. He is committed to the cause he is fighting for and portrays that in his willingness to throw himself at opposition shots with such frequency.
Another area in which he stands out is in clearing the ball. Only Aston Villa's Ciaran Clark (304) has made more clearances in the Premier League this season than Williams (301). Swansea tend to have more of the ball than teams they play against, and four teams have made more clearances than Michael Laudrup's team have in total, while Villa have made the most. The reality of the matter is that when the ball comes into the Swansea penalty area it is Williams who is dominant and prevents goalscoring chances more than any other player.
Whilst Williams is might be considered one of Swansea's more reliable players given his consistent selection, the Wales captain is no stranger to a mistake. He is more than capable of slipping up at a key time, in much the same way that Arsenal's defenders so often do. In fact, since Swansea's promotion to the top flight of English football, only one outfielder has made more errors leading directly to a goal than Williams (3), and that player is Arsenal's Thomas Vermaelen (5). Furthermore, joint second with Williams is Vermaelen's partner in crime, Per Mertesacker. Of course, an error-prone defender is not something that Arsene Wenger will actively search out when looking for a new signing, but it is a rather intriguing coincidence that these players are so similar in this sense.
That is not to take anything away from the abilities of any of these players. But perhaps the only reason that so many people hold Vermaelen and Mertesacker in a higher regard than Williams is the fact that they play for a bigger side. It may be harsh to say so, but Arsenal's defensive frailties have been brutally exposed on one too many occasions this season and it is no surprise that Sunday's north London derby defeat has led to rumours of a move for Williams. As Premier League centre-backs go, there are few better than the Welshman, and very few who would be better suited to Arsenal.