Who is William Saliba, and what can Arsenal fans expect from him when he arrives next season?
Phil Costa @_PhilCosta reports.
Last summer, Arsenal centred their recruitment around experience in hope of bringing back Champions League football to Emirates Stadium. Twelve months on, with a depleted budget, inflated contracts and more trips to Belarus on the schedule – that brief has since changed.
18-year-old Gabriel Martinelli was brought in from Ituano, while the club pursue deals for Celtic favourite Kieran Tierney and Crystal Palace’s Wilfried Zaha. Arguably their most interesting piece of business, however, has been the signing of Saint-Etienne defender William Saliba.
He was loaned back to Les Verts as part of the initial deal, but who is the Frenchman, is he the answer to the long-standing problems in defence and why is he costing the best part of €30m?
Under Jean-Louis Gasset, Saint-Etienne would often deploy a 4-2-3-1 formation that relied heavily on creating through central areas. However, that changed in January after a run of two wins from nine games, with the integration of a fluid back three and subsequent first-team introduction of Saliba.
This resulted in a shift in style, funneling most of their forward play through wide areas and more importantly, stretching the pitch. But while this allows you to exploit space in behind, that vulnerability can then be reciprocated. Which made the decision to start a 17-year-old defender with no senior experience even more bizarre.
But the seamless nature of his transition (and clever change of system) resulted in ASSE securing Europa League qualification after winning eight of their last nine Ligue 1 matches. Place Saliba under the microscope and his impact becomes even more impressive.
In what has been a welcome shift of late, the 18-year-old is another exciting talent moving away from the outdated expectations of what a centre back should be. Comfortable when receiving the ball from his goalkeeper or defensive partners, he will usually look to initiate attacks and even better, play through the lines of a high press or solid defensive structure. 54% of his 664 passes last term were played forward, while his 2.3 progressive passes per 90 minutes saw him behind only Loic Perrin (3.1) in Les Verts’ backline.
The Frenchman has also shown a willingness to carry the ball if passing lanes are blocked, before finding a midfielder or full-back who can then progress play further. His considerable frame can make him look unorthodox in possession, but he is always in control and uses his body well to evade onrushing strikers. He also boasts accomplished footwork in tight areas and uses clever touches to recycle possession instead of simply hacking clear – traits which would typically suit playing for Arsenal.
More importantly, alongside his assured technical ability, Saliba is very much a defender at heart. For such a young player with less than 20 first-team appearances to his name, the way he operates is very natural. He is a fine reader of in-game situations, anticipates passes well and in a similar fashion to former Gunners captain Per Mertesacker, possesses a knack of finding himself in the right position.
Further highlighting this point, the Bondy-born starlet made more interceptions per 90 (2.4) than any other teenager in Europe’s top five leagues last season. He is a clean defender, using patience to win the ball instead of relying on sheer force and aggression, which can be costly should your timings be wrong.
In contrast, his physicality can also underwhelm at times. For somebody blessed with such a powerful build, he can be hesitant in direct duels – particularly aerially – after winning just 16 of the 34 he competed for last term. However, this could simply be an adjustment phase for the teenager who dominated at youth level, often playing one or two years above his age group. Senior football is a different type of competition and learning how to handle yourself against grown men requires experience – which is why the loan back makes perfect sense.
“He is a natural,” Gasset explained in April after securing Saliba to a long-term deal.
“William has good people around him, experienced people around him, but he was never scared and I love this quality. Every challenge we gave, every question we asked, he had the answers.”
And providing answers is what makes Saliba so promising. Playing as a wide centre back or right back, you are forced to cover plenty of ground and often find yourself isolated against quick, tricky wingers. But one performance from his breakthrough campaign stands out – against Allan Saint-Maximin of Nice.
Saint-Maximin was second in Europe for completed dribbles (143) last season and received absolutely no joy from the teenager. Not only were his tackles timed to perfection, but his recovery speed and strength when challenged were also hugely encouraging. Unai Emery spoke about his players becoming ‘chameleons’ and being able to adapt to uncomfortable situations – situations in which the teenager came through with flying colours.
Both on a simpler and more analytical scale, Saliba ticks plenty of boxes. He is physically impressive, capable in possession and already plays with a confidence found in defenders far more experienced. Many fans have questioned his immediate return to the Stade Geoffroy-Guichard next season but asking a teenager (with less than 1,500 senior minutes under his belt) to improve this fragile side is a huge ask.
Sokratis is solid if unspectacular, Laurent Koscielny wants out and Shkodran Mustafi would somehow find a way to blame others at Sunday league level. Arguments for adding another defensive option are entirely valid, but allowing the Frenchman to develop naturally – away from pressure and expectation – will benefit him and the club long-term.
The harsh reality is that Arsenal are in a mess of their own making. Without investment from KSE, scouting must become more intelligent and faith should be placed in young players as a cost-effective way to bridge the gap. Comparisons to Raphael Varane are already overblown and parts of his game will undoubtedly need refining. But after the frustration of losing Sven Mislintat – and with him a clear transfer strategy – Saliba is without doubt a signing to be excited by.