Saturday, June 12, 2021

The Strange Case of William Saliba

When a deal was agreed in the region of £27 million for William Saliba back in the summer of 2019, Arsenal fans were ecstatic. The ‘Mbappé of centre-backs’ was highly sought after, with rivals Spurs also in the mix, but Saliba said his destination was never in doubt.

It is no secret that Arsenal have many admirers in France, with thanks to Arsène Wenger, Robert Pires, Patrick Vieira, and all of the other notable French figures from their past. William Saliba grew up as one of these admirers; photos of him in old Arsenal kits have circulated the internet ever since his announcement, causing fans to fall in love with the defender before he even stepped foot on The Emirates’ pitch.

A young William Saliba in an Arsenal shirt

Fast forward to 2021, and this day is still yet to come. Saliba has not been registered into any of Mikel Arteta’s major squads, and has only featured in a handful of u21’s cup fixtures. Amidst fears that a lack of playing-time will hinder his development, the club have decided to loan him until the summer, with Saliba undergoing a medical this morning at Nice.

Why was Saliba so sought-after?

During his time at Saint-Étienne, William Saliba became one of the most promising young centre-backs on the planet. He formed a formidable partnership with Wesley Fofana, who of course is currently proving his quality week-in week-out with new club Leicester City.

The teenager put up incredible numbers in Ligue 1. During his 2 seasons at the top of French football, Saliba committed only 3 errors leading to a shot, a stat which has haunted Arsenal players of recent past. Furthermore, he won 63% of all his duels, boasted a dribble success rate of 82%, and consistently drew more fouls than he committed.

Saliba has an impressive all-around defensive game

There are loads more impressive stats I could mention, including his 1 yellow card (with 0 reds), 1.8 tackles per game, or his 2.8 clearances, but his games goes far and beyond the data. He is the definition of a modern defender, with outstanding passing and the ability to progress the ball through the midfield.

Saliba poses a dangerous aerial threat too, at both ends of the pitch, thanks to his 6 foot 4 inch frame. Despite his towering height, he is as rapid and agile as the quickest forwards, giving him every chance in duels and battles.

This, plus his tender age of 18 (now 19), made him a target all across Europe in the 2019 summer transfer window. Arsenal fans were understandably ecstatic when he signed a contract with their team, though it hasn’t quite worked out how they had dreamed.

Saliba’s return to Saint-Étienne

It was agreed that Saliba would return on loan to Saint-Étienne for the 2019/2020 season. He picked up an injury and missed a number of games, before the French football season was cut short due to the Coronavirus outbreak. Though an unfortunate situation out of anybody’s hands, this was not ideal for either party; the loan was intended to help further his development before stepping up to the challenge into the Premier League.

Saliba joined Les Verts aged 16

That summer, he had the potential of playing in the Coupe de France final against PSG, but his two clubs failed to meet an agreement surrounding the situation, as the date of the final was outside of his loan spell. This would have been an incredible opportunity for him, and he was understandable frustrated, saying: “The two clubs did everything for me to play. But they did not reach an agreement. I was very disappointed.”

Following this let-down, Saliba was well and truly an Arsenal player. Fans were excited to see the Frenchman in action in the upcoming season, especially after the acquisition of Gabriel Magalhães from fellow Ligue 1 side Lille; the two appeared very much as though they would form a solid partnership at the heart of the Gunners’ defence.

At the beginning of October, Saliba was yet to feature for Arsenal, and fans began to worry over what was taking place behind the scenes. It was at this time that it came to the public’s attention that he had lost his mother just a few months earlier. Sympathetic, Arsenal fans took a step back. They understood that he would feature when ready to do so.

However, Saliba wasn’t registered in either the Premier League or Europa League squads, but fans still held out hope that he could make his first senior appearance in the FA Cup; this didn’t happen either. There was little explanation from the club as to why he wasn’t given a chance, with multiple journalists asking Mikel Arteta during his many press conferences.

Neither Saliba nor Özil were registered for Arsenal this season

A proposed loan move either back to France or down to the Championship fell through towards the end of the transfer window, resulting in Saliba’s development being hindered until the winter, with only 2 u21’s cup appearances to his name. For a 19 year old, it is essential to be playing regular football, no matter the level the games are at.

A further loan to Ligue 1?

That is why it is so essential that Saliba’s move to Nice materialises in the coming days. To return to his home country may be a big helping hand for the teenager right now, and hopefully he can help guide the French club to a better second-half of the season.

Some Arsenal fans are frustrated at the move, as they desperately want to see him feature for their side as soon as possible. The club understands that this is the right move for both his career and his personal life, and journalists have reassured fans that he is still well-and-truly in their future plans.

Arsenal fans were over the moon with Saliba’s arrival

I have no doubts that William Saliba is a guaranteed starter at Arsenal for years to come. He will form part of their young back 4, currently featuring the aforementioned Gabriel, as well as Kieran Tierney and Hector Bellerin; the 4 of them boast an average age of 22.5, and possess the qualities to form a formidable backline for years to come.

Patience is key for Arsenal fans right now. With time, Saliba will arrive, and I couldn’t be more sure that he will be a massive hit.

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