When William Saliba joined Arsenal in the summer of 2019, he was part of an influx of new faces that included Nicolas Pepe, Kieran Tierney and David Luiz for an outlay in the region of £140m.
Having witnessed Unai Emery’s side miss out on Champions League qualification by a single point and then lose the Europa League Final — Stan Kroenke gave then Head of Football, Raul Sanllehi, money to spend to try and make that marginal improvement in the Premier League.
As such, dropping £28.5m on an 18-year-old central defender with fewer than 20 professional appearances and immediately loaning him back to his ‘former’ club seemed an unusual use of funds, but that’s exactly what Arsenal did. A deal was struck, reportedly with competition from neighbours Sp*rs, as The Gunners agreed to buy Saliba for a club-record fee paid for a teenager, and allowed Saint-Etienne to keep him for another season.
That campaign was cut short by injury and the Covid-19 pandemic which saw French football shut down in March 2020. He returned to Arsenal to train, but after some injury problems and almost 6 months without competitive football, it was deemed necessary for him to spend more time out on loan. However, Ligue 1 side Rennes backed out of a deal at the last minute, and Arsenal couldn’t complete paperwork in time for him to go back to Saint-Etienne. Subsequently, he wasn’t named in Arteta’s Europa League squad — his only realistic chance of minutes — and as a result, those months were wasted.
He joined Nice for the second half of that season, and early this summer, the club decided the 20-year-old needed another season on loan to continue his development. A deal was quickly agreed with Marseille, where he’s been impressing so far.
During the 2020-21 season, Nice ranked 5th in possession domestically, keeping the ball for an average of 55% per match – providing the perfect conditions for Saliba to showcase his ball-playing abilities. He played a starring role, making 22 starts from January — which amazingly saw him (given he’d only played half a season) shortlisted for Ligue 1’s Defender of the Year.
He was initially deployed at the centre of a back-three until Les Aiglons acquired the services of another loanee — Barcelona’s Jean-Clair Todibo. This enabled Adrian Ursea to utilise a back-four and shift Saliba over to left centre-back where he played out 73% of his minutes.
So far this season in Ligue 1, only PSG have seen more of the ball than Saliba’s current loan destination, Marseille — who keep around 63% possession per match.
His seamless integration into Jorge Sampaoli’s possession-based system has caught the eye. A string of excellent performances has helped Marseille to record 4 clean sheets in his last 6 appearances — topped off with matching Kylian Mbappe stride for stride and winning a crucial last-ditch tackle in their 0-0 draw with the league leaders.
If Saliba is to have a future with Arsenal, it won’t be as first-choice initially. Gabriel and Benjamin White are the preferred partnership, and the youngster will have to accept the challenge of playing second fiddle to positional equivalent White.
However, the minutes racked up as a left-sided central defender at Nice could yet prove beneficial. The improvement in his body positioning and passing into awkward areas are traits that could pay dividends in leapfrogging Pablo Mari.
While pigeonholing his style of play is difficult, there are some similarities to Virgil van Dijk in his performances — they’re both blessed with pace, technical ability and a calming influence on the ball. Both are right-footed, but comfortable on the left side of central defence, and both possess ball progression qualities.
The above plot visualises all (left) progressive carries and 3 clusters (right) depicting average length and direction.
Saliba ended the 2020-21 season covering a remarkable 272.7 metres in progressive distance carries per 90 — the distance a player moves the ball with their feet towards the opponent’s goal. For context, that’s more than any Ligue 1 player managed last season who accumulated more than 90 minutes.
The above beeswarm plot visualises distribution with each dot representing a player, the furthest right being the best.
Criticised in some circles for choosing Marseille over Newcastle during the summer, Saliba is thriving under a coach who shares a similar philosophy to Arteta and is posting ball progression numbers that wouldn’t have been possible playing for Steve Bruce.
Working under Sampaoli, the loanee is exhibiting his intent and licence to dribble out from the back, and when compared to all defenders who’ve accrued more than 300 minutes he ranks 77th percentile across Europe’s Top 5 in attempted dribbles and 93rd percentile in progressive carry distance.
The above beeswarm plot visualises distribution with each dot representing a player, the furthest right being the best.
Furthermore, only 9 defenders across those Big 5 Leagues have attempted more passes per 90 than Saliba (79.9) so far this season. From those attempts, the Frenchman is playing progressive passes around 6-7 times per 90 (84th percentile) — completed passes that move the ball 25% closer to the centre of the goal — with an accuracy rate of 76%.
The chart above shows the Expected Threat (xT) per 90 that a player adds from their passes and carries in open play. Only the positive xT is taken into account, as there are some actions (most backwards and sideways passes) that reduce a team’s chances of scoring.
Saliba ranks 5th domestically as the most threatening ball progressor plying his trade in central defence. A combination of incisive passing into the opposition half and carries from deep has seen him clock up plenty of ‘threat’ for Marseille — a metric that quantifies the ball being moved into dangerous positions.
It’s worth noting that a lot of what makes defenders good isn’t measured statistically. If they’re out of position, they’re not present for an event to happen and if they’re well-positioned, no event transpires because there’s no space for an opponent to exploit.
All the same, Saliba’s statistical profile shows a somewhat risk-averse defender who only engages when the situation favours him. He ranks 87th percentile for true tackle win rate (tackles+challenges lost+fouls) and 87th percentile in successful pressures, meaning when he does commit, he wins the ball.
That said, improvements are still required when facing dribblers (44% success rate) as his reluctance to get stuck in often results in him being successfully navigated, and despite the impressive 6ft 4in frame, he doesn’t engage in (25th percentile) or win (57% success rate) nearly enough aerial duels.
To sum up, William Saliba’s protracted start to life at Arsenal has been well documented, but from a career development perspective he’s absolutely fine. If you can succeed in the pressure-cooker environment that is Marseille, you have a good chance of succeeding anywhere. He’s not only succeeding, but acquiring consistent and essential game time.
It’s early days, but the young defender is currently Sampaoli’s most-used player (12 90s) — the only Premier League defender of similar age who’s banking anywhere near those minutes is Southampton’s Tino Livramento, who plays at fullback. No central defender of a similar age is getting anywhere near those kind of minutes. At the same ages, Ben White and Gabriel were preparing for loans with Newport, Peterborough, and Leeds; and Troyes and Dinamo Zagreb respectively, and it’s easy to see how they have benefitted from those.
The arrival of £50m White led many to believe Saliba’s time at Arsenal was over before it began. However, recent reports state The Gunners are monitoring his progress and are happy with his progression. Sam Dean in the Telegraph reported that the player has a simple plan: “come back to Arsenal and prove himself at last”, as well as taking steps to improve his English over the coming months to aid that process.
It remains to be seen exactly what will happen next summer but – so far based on his playing time – the loan moves have been successful and allowed him gain important experience to help him make his mark at Premier League level.
Follow me on Twitter @jonollington
the solution is simple…move White up to partner with Partey
I keep thinking the same, White’s so comfortable playing at DM and we wouldn’t lose any with that kind of spine. Having said that, Chambers did well there for a whole season at Fulham and has never been tried there for us.
He apparently did very well, maybe their best player. On a terrible, terrible, relegated team.
This is certainly one solution. Another could be playing three at the back in certain games or to simply rotate the CB’s as fatigue and injuries will certainly play a role
Agreed, especially if we qualify for europe preferably champions league 😁. Should this happen, there will be enough games to go around for 3 quality center backs. Not buying into the idea of moving white to midfield unless its to cover for injuries.
Exactly. Laporte barely played for City last season as Stones started with Dias. Now it’s the other way around. I haven’t even mentioned Ake.. The best teams have squad depth
The issue with that is that is that now either Saliba or Tomiyasu has nowhere to play.
Tomiyasu is not a wingback.
Whether those two fighting it out is a good thing or a bad thing depends on how they deal with the situation.
I’ve got nothing against Tomi who has been excellent for us so far, but I can also see White playing as a right back in Arteta’s system. He tried to have Bellerin come infield and play more as midfielder in attacks, but it didn’t work. Think White has the attributes to play that role much better as he’s more comfortable in central areas and better at those kinds of interceptions to win the ball back and stop counters.
This is a complete guess. Does White have any experience at RB?
I looked into that a while back. He played there a few times last season. His crossing stats were quite poor from memory when compared with Chambers. If Saliba gets given a decent opportunity I see him surpassing White soon enough. I doubt he’ll be content playing the odd cup game next season (that should have happened last season). Will be interesting to see how this is managed.
It is not a complete guess, given
1) that he has played there in the past (as was noted when we bought him and some people here weren’t even quite sure whether it was as a center or full back): https://arseblog.com/2021/07/new-signing-profile-ben-white/
2) That he exhibits several of the qualities one would want in a full back (surging forward runs, diagonal passes, decent speed, etc) and particular ones Arteta seems to favor.
It works in theory but Partey needs a mobile box2box player rather than a ball playing CB moved further up the pitch.
Partey IS the mobile b2b nidfielder
Partey IS the mobile b2b midfielder.
Saliba sounds poor in the air. He needs to improve on that if he is to be a first team regular else we’ll be conceding too many, no matter how progressive all his other stats. Also improve tackling.
Is this the new “Play Vermaelen in midfield?” slogan
Simple solution…move ben white forward to partner him with Partey (or alone)
It’s very cavernous in these comment sections…
It’s very cavernous in these comment sections…
There’s an echo.
It will be very interesting to see what happens next season. My hope is he extends his contract and fights for a position in the team. He will play in our European games, in the PL if the manager wants to use a back three for certain games and the cups. A back three with Saliba, Gabriel and White would be ferocious and would allow KT or Nuno to attack and could add another attacker to the right side like MO.
To play a back three would be to move away from the solidity we are building in the middle. It would mean removing one of our attacking four. All we can do it hope we make Europe (preferably champions league) and hope Saliba is happy playing behind Gabby and White and getting enough games in a more busy schedule. If he’s not then he won’t sign and we have to sell him. The Saliba predicament in all by our own doing – the ball is squarely in his court for the next step.
Having 3 ball playing, mobile, strong CBs is good, a step in the right direction. These are not problems, can’t wait to have saliba in the team competing for a starting place. He seems properly solid.
I like it.
White/Gabriel/Saliba the 2021 version of Adams/Keown/Bould.
It’s great if he can be convinced to sign a new contract. But if he can’t then we have to sell him.
We have to do everything we can do settle him here. Generational talent I think a large part of the reason I’m still finding it hard to warm to Arteta as manager is that we don’t know what his intentions are for him. Does he genuinely think a 3rd loan spell is best for his development, or are there simply irreconcilable differences between the two? I feel the general vibe suggests the latter, but what do I know. Saliba does have every right to be angry with Arteta and Edu, they messed him around badly at what apparently was a… Read more »
I think the reputation of the (consistently bad) decisionmakers was tarnished much more than Kos’s was
With just 2 years left on his deal it is going to be difficult to keep Saliba. It would be horrible to see him become a top defender somewhere else.
The real opportunity of playing time was never taken when we carried on wasting games with Mustafi’s antics.
Just a correction there. Arteta did not include Saliba in Europa League or Premier League squads (or give him any time in the Carabao Cup) when Mustafi was in the squads, not going to sign a new contract, and injured until December. Saliba is highly rated in France, and he’s playing very well at the moment. I believe he has the highest ceiling of our central defenders. Here’s hoping we can find a way to integrate him into the team that involves adequate game time. If not, I don’t think he’ll stick around, especially given the game time he’s getting… Read more »
the solution is simple…move White to replace Gunnersaurus
Excellent article, really interesting as always!
I’ve always wondered what Saliba’s big raking diagonal passes are like – the type that David Luiz is so famous for and White is capable of. These types of passes seem important for breaking into an Arteta-led team. The above stats suggest he has the range and accuracy but will be interested to see how well and what style he hits them in the future (whether they’re lofted high/driven low, etc).
Thanks for this, and for introducing me to ‘bee-swarm’ plots. On that, I’m curious: if each dot is a player, how is it that there was never a case that two players occupied the same position on the plot? Is that just coincidence? It was either 1, 3, or more.
Nice observation. Yes, it’s only odd numbers in the plots at each set data range. Something fishy going…
Seems like just an artifact of the chart type. To be symmetric around the center line, there has to be an odd number of dots.
But sometimes there are no dots along that same centre line, and when that happens, there aren’t examples of two players. This is weird.
Personally I think Arsenal/Arteta did the right thing with Saliba. They kept a young player away from all the toxicity at the club when Arteta took over. Low morale, ageing players on high wages, underperformance in all areas and just a general negative atmosphere around the club at the time. That is no place for a talented, up and coming player (especially from abroad) to try and thrive. They did him a huge favour (despite his young eager self not realising it at the time) and kept a young and very promising star away from the club, away from the… Read more »
Hard disagree on this one. I think this is bordering on revisionism. I don’t think toxicity was ever of any importance in those decisions. If it were: (1) Saliba wouldn’t have been sent to a Nice side that were spiralling and just sacked their manager. Likewise, Willock and Maitland-Niles wouldn’t have been sent to relegation threatened teams. (2) Emile and Bukayo would not have seen as much gametime as they did last season. ESR went from “benchwarmer coming back from injury” to starting 10 straight league games when it became clear he was key to winning the games that saved… Read more »
Oh please, you are just itching to write ‘Arteta knows’, which is far from the case.
Arteta knows. 😉
I just have an opinion which I’m.entitled to.
You clearly disagree.
No issues with that at all.
At least I expressed mine.
What does ‘your’ comment achive or demonstrate?
Warm virtual hugs xxx
As well as Marseille, worth noting he’s also racking up clean sheets for France Under 21’s, where he’s also the captain. Since his debut in September this year, it’s 4 matches played, 4 clean sheets.
They had the audacity to rest him on the bench against the Faroe Islands and sloppily drew 1-1.
eddie nketiah is the all time top scorer for england under 21s. does that mean we should be playing him every week?
No one said his performances for France U21’s are worth playing him every week at Arsenal, the fella here just says that what he’s doing there is worth noting to, and it is, if anything for the sake of getting the full picture of his quality and level of game.
Sure, i’d love to see more of eddie.
A couple of things are becoming clear. Arsenal clearly screwed up in handling one of the loans but, overall, the strategy in handling Saliba’s development has been correct. Both the pandemic and his normal reactions to personal loss have obscured this basic fact. He is still super young for a central defender, as Ollington points out, and he would have been sitting on the bench if he had stayed at Arsenal. Playing for Marseille is high pressure, like England–but the opposition is nowhere near as good, so he is much less likely to be exposed.
I agree. Saliba had a nightmare game in the UCL against Lazio, so he does have the odd blunder in him. He’s improving while getting valuable game experience and Arsenal should reap the rewards when he becomes more experienced. He’ll be fantastic for us, and I believe he should be here next season and get plenty of minutes.
interesting to see these numbers. they are not hugely impressive tbh. i doubt if he would be a first choice for arsenal given how well white and gabriel are gelling. we need to get some answers on what exactly sanllehi got up to that summer with the crazy money we paid for saliba and pepe.
What’s not to like about those numbers? He’s the 5th most “progressive” CB in France along with excellent defensive numbers. The only “weak” areas are fouls (clearly likes getting stuck in – nothing wrong with that) and number of aerial duels (probably because teams don’t target him in the air because he’s a monster).
Exactly. Personally I’d rather have Gabriel n Saliba due to their physical strengths. White can be back up or play in the right back position
You should watch White play in the Premier League this season. He’s really good.
I kinda did and I am not saying he is bad. But my humble opinion is that Saliba is better. Or at least that e will be better and that Saliba has a higher ceiling.
You can also have a look on the comparison matrix if sqwaka.
Saliba is better at many categories like passes, aerial duels and take ons.
His numbers do look good on that. I suppose there’s a couple of things that you could temper that with:
I seem to recall seeing that Mavropanos’ numbers looked better than those of any of the other Arsenal defenders last season. Alas, I don’t think he’s ever going to get a chance to prove his worth.
I agree with point 1 and 2. However that doesn’t mean that any non EPL player is by default worst than any EPL player.
Also regarding the Dinos comment, actually I think defence wise Mavropanos is better than Luiz Mustafi Kolasinac and Chambers. But for various reasons last year Arteta chose to give them minutes instead of Saliba, Dinos and Big Papa.
Yep, it would have been nice to see a bit more of Mavro. I also don’t know why his potential transfer value is so low.
RE: my points above, I was just playing devil’s advocate, tbh. I like Saliba and have moaned about him not getting a chance, so I’m trying to be a bit more reasonable in my analysis than I have been previously.
Great work @Kostas!! Both are really good defenders. Despite the downvotes I get the reality is it is totally up to Saliba whether he wants to have a future at Arsenal, we gave up our part in that decision sitting him on the bench for 6months and then prioritising White over him this year. It would be awesome to have a 3CB rotation between Gabriel, White and Saliba, but we will need Euro football (preferably ECL) and Saliba must be accepting of that otherwise we essentially have to sell him or risk losing him at cut-price in a year or… Read more »
Buy another right-back, more of an offensive minded one like Lamptey for example, bring Saliba and Ballard back from their loans and integrate them into the first team, and numbers wise we can afford to get rid off Soares, Chambers, Mari and Holding basically even if as we’re all hoping/expecting we’re playing in Europe next season, with Tomiyasu also more than able to cover in at centre-back if necessary. And not only are we good numbers wise in that scenario, but just look at the quality and age of that defense there with 3 top class centre-backs in White, Gabriel… Read more »
Add to that Bellerin whom, to put it softly, no one will be missing much once he leaves permanently next summer, and Kolasinac who is already free to leave and will be gone for sure by then, and a solid number 2 instead of Leno, someone like Matty Ryan for example who obviously loves the club and will have games to play if/when we are once again a European club, and we’ve got ourselves a lean and mean back 5 there with quality and depth for years to come.
Nice, positive post.
Another quality defender added to our squad for next season is excellent news, especially in a truncated campaign that’s split into two thanks to the FIFA bonanza in Qatar and then the addition of european football and even more extra games, plenty of matches to negotiate, rotation and opportunities to rest players. It’s never as simple as a choice between one or the other as we’ll need all of our players over that mammoth season next year.
Interesting post by Blogs regarding the amount of advertising we suffer on some of the posts we click on and what are regarded quite rightly as click bait. It’s almost impossible to escape all of it and I’ve also experienced what he described when looking to see how Azeez was getting on in Portsmouth and scrolled through an absolute shed load of BS whilst trying to read anything worthwhile. It’s all part and parcel of trying to glean something that’s worth reading usually on NewsNow. It’s got a lot worse in recent years so all you can do is be… Read more »
That’s the truth! I’ve got about 85% of NewsNow ‘Arsenal sites’ hidden.
If I click through and hit a site echoes fodder or pops up junk?
Great article, thanks Jon!
Shame he probably hates The Arsenal, and who can blame him. Worst case scenario sell him to PSG for 80m.
I agree with you. Everybody seems to get excited about potential partnerships with Gabriel and White, but the truth is that he simply doesn’t want to play for us. This is why he is on loan now, not because he was not ready.
Yes, I have total Gnabry sensations about this one. A suspect attitude as a youngster, ballsed up loan, feeling of being unappreciated by the club. Big European teams will not have missed his performances nor the rumours surrounding his relationship with Arsenal. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if they’re already telling him to sit tight until 12 months left on his deal then they’ll pick him up for a song, ala Gnabry. I wouldn’t get too excited imagining him in the team if I were you.
Saliba must have told you that!
If we get back into Europe next season we will definitely need 3 good CBs. If not we will probably need the money from selling a good CB.
Interesting stats and I’m glad his loan is working out for him! Having 3 top class CBs is a must for a club like Arsenal. Gabriel Magalhaes and Benjamin White can’t play every minute of every match. Having 3 options to rotate between gives us options and different types of partnerships depending on tactical needs.
Indeed, and the fact that Saliba can play either side of central defence is excellent. Though Saliba’s recruitment and initial time with Arsenal was a bit funny, it might all come together screamingly well for the club; I can’t think of another club with more than 1 young central defender with as much as upside as these guys have, and we’ve got all three!!!
Always wondered about those who wanted to put the fate of our central defense on an untested, untried 19 year old. Thankfully the management are more informed, and apparently made better decisions. This loan move hopefully will season him further.