Ask any Arsenal fan about William Saliba, and you’ll get a variety of opinions. The center back is an Arsenal player, technically speaking, and now a French international. However, an air of mystery surrounds his time at Arsenal and it’s unclear whether he has a future at the club.
The Gunners signed the young defender, who only turned 21 in March, in 2019. He had only played 16 league games for Saint-ientienne, but he had shown enough in that time for both Arsenal and Tottenham to offer the best part of £ 30m for him.
Saliba opted for Arsenal. Despite the high fee, the deal saw an agreement for him to spend a year on loan at Saint-ientienne. He got regular minutes there before returning to Arsenal in the summer. A lot had changed at the club, with Unai Emery replaced by Mikel Arteta.
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However, Arteta was not keen to use Saliba early on in the season and he was not included in Arsenal’s competitive squads for the first half of the season. He spent the second of the season on loan to Nice, again doing well in Ligue 1, and followed that up in the summer of 2021 with a loan move to Marseille. At the end of the 2021/22 season Saliba was crowned Ligue 1 Young Player of the Year. He’s set to reach three years since signing for Arsenal without having played for the club.
Why does Mikel Arteta like William Saliba?
When Saliba first returned to Arsenal, fans assumed he would be integrated into the team and form part of Arteta’s squad for the 2020/21 season. That did not happen. While he did feature in pre-season, he was only an unused substitute in the Community Shield. He did not feature in the first few games of the season and when the time came to register Arsenal’s competitive squads, Saliba was not included. Speculation took hold.
Some suggested he simply was not ready, that Arteta was not impressed with his inexperience. Others put forward the idea it was a personal problem. The Arsenal manager is known to be a stickler for high professional standards and it was possible the young defender hadn’t met them. Others argued that Saliba might have an undisclosed ongoing injury concern, or something more personal. Saliba’s mother passed away during the first wave of Covid-19.
Whatever the reason, the Frenchman spent the first half of the season turning out for Arsenal’s under-23 side. He did not even feature in the League Cup. A loan to a Championship side looked to be in the works, but he returned to France instead. His loan to Nice was followed the season after by a loan to Marseille, with Arsenal seemingly happy for him to play in Ligue 1, rather than experience English football.
Arteta has been pressed on the Saliba situation on multiple occasions, but he’s never given much away. He has a taciturn manner with the press, communicating what he wants in a direct manner, but saying little else aside from that. With Saliba, he has said that he regrets the situation, and has repeatedly discussed his hopes for a good outcome. In truth, there’s little to read into Arteta’s comments on the player.
It’s a difficult situation to gauge from the outside. When Arteta is unhappy with a player’s behavior, he does not hide it. Whether a youngster such as Matteo Guendouzi – Saliba’s team mate at Marseille – or the club captain, as was the case with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, he has no problem explaining why players who have not met his expectations of professionalism have found themselves on the outside looking in. That being the case, the continued silence on Saliba only adds to the mystery.
Saliba’s loan at Marseille
While the discussion has taken place, and continues to take place, at Arsenal, Saliba has got on with his career. He plays regularly for Marseille and is doing well, doing enough to earn his debut for France against Ivory Coast in March. Outside of the mysterious context of his Arsenal career to date, it’s been a good loan and he’s playing at a club whose level is more akin to Arsenal.
Jorge Sampaoli’s Marseille are much more expansive than the Nice or Saint-ientienne sides he played in, with the defender gaining experience in a side that looks to take the game to the opposition. It’s good preparation for a potential career at Arsenal and his recent crowning of Ligue 1 Young Player of the Year will surely make Arteta sit up and take notice. However, he expected to only have two years left on his Arsenal contract when his loan at Marseille finishes, and he will be reaching the point in his deal where Arsenal need to make a decision on renewing his contract, or selling him while they can still get good money for him.
Saliba has been cool on a potential return to north London. Without ruling it out, he seems content to wait and see how things develop. Having now tasted regular football, he’s made it clear that he’s not looking to trade that for a seat on the bench at Arsenal. With his good performances at Marseille turning heads, it’s been speculated that the south French club might look to sign the defender permanently. It’s not clear how much Arsenal would want for Saliba. It might be the case that he’s seen as part of the club’s future, and they won’t be entertaining offers. However, Arsenal might also be happy to recoup as much as they can of their initial investment in the player and move on from the saga.
Saliba is a composed, cultured center back. He’s very good on the ball, and can pass short, or long, with a completion rate of 93.7 percent so far this season. With more than five passes into the final third per game, Saliba is great at getting the ball forward, an ideal trait for an Arteta defender. He’s also comfortable on the ball under pressure, and is capable of switching play when required.
More than just a passer, Saliba is comfortable carrying the ball out of defense and into midfield. It’s not unusual to see him try a dribble in most games, and his dribble success of 73 percent is fairly good for a center back. He’s more than happy to carry the ball forward when space opens up, and in possession his first thought is always to move his team up the pitch and support the attack.
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As a defender, he’s generally calm and composed. He’s not overly aggressive, and does not find himself in the book particularly often. He concedes less than a foul a game. Although not an overly proactive defender, he’s good at reading situations and coming away from duels with the ball. He’s dribbled past only once in every three games, on average.
The biggest question mark over Saliba is likely his ability in the air. His percentage of aerial duels won is 59.8 percent, which is less than impressive, especially when talking about a center back who stands at more than 6 foot 3. Saliba could be more proactive in dealing with situations where the ball is in the air. All that being said, the same criticism was leveled at Ben White when he joined Arsenal and such talk quickly stopped.
This weakness aside, Saliba looks tailor-made for a Mikel Arteta team. With Arsenal almost certain to be in some form of European competition next season, another regular center back might be a necessity, and Saliba looks the perfect solution to the problem. Whether Arsenal agree is another matter.
(Stats from FBRef.com)