Mikel Arteta says he wasn’t sure how William Saliba would cope when he was reintegrated into the Arsenal first team following his loan spell with Marseille and revealed he deliberately didn’t speak to the 21-year-old for a week at the start of pre-season while he tested his progress and mindset.
The Spaniard needn’t have worried. Within two training sessions, he realised the defender, who’d won Ligue 1’s Young Player of the Year award while away, could add something to his team and wasn’t harbouring any grudges about his previous lack of opportunities.
Saliba had initially joined the Gunners for £27 million from Saint-Etienne during Unai Emery’s tenure and was immediately loaned back to his boyhood club for the Covid-hit 2019/20 season.
Arsenal later denied the player a chance to play in the delayed Coupe de France final, failed to organise a second loan for the start of the 2020/21 season and left him in the reserves for several months until he went to Nice in January 2020 for six months.
When a season-long arrangement with Marseille was agreed in July 2021, it felt like the centre-back might never play for the Gunners but Arteta says the club’s patience has been rewarded with a “beautiful relationship”.
“The first question was how the player is going to reintegrate into our dynamic after being out for so long,” said Arteta.
“Is there some frustration there, something personal between, for example, between me and the player because he could not understand that?
“Or his environment, his expectations coming back or the amount that we paid for him, his age, is it the same to do it in France as it is to do it in this League for Arsenal because you don’t have 21-year-old defenders at the top level in England?
He added: “For the first week I didn’t speak to him. I just wanted to see – naturally, without me really interfering in his thoughts – how he was. Because then you can understand the real him and after that I spoke to him.
“His attitude, the way he came in and said: ‘I’m going to prove that I’m very good and I deserve to be here.’
“Without any looking back or being shy, he was doing it the right way and giving the right reasons to think that he was going to be really good for us.
“He had an immediate impact. The first two training sessions that we looked at home we went: ‘There’s huge potential here’.
“He took out every question mark that we could have with him and gave us all the reasons to play him. And I think he’s been exceptional since that day.”
Arteta also joked about the pressure from fans to play Saliba whose performances in France had, at times, gone viral. When he finally made his debut during the pre-season tour of the States, every touch was cheered from the terraces.
“I was 100 per cent sure that I was going to have a lot of pressure externally to give him the opportunity – that was for sure,” said the manager.
“And obviously I was really willing to find out what we found out in pre-season. Then it was the perfect storm and a beautiful relationship started to build there.
“I have to be fair with myself, I have to put players that I feel can do the role, especially in that role in defence.
“But I was hoping it was the right decision and the decision we took – against probably a lot of opinions – to send him another year on loan, paid off.
“And that it was the right timing now to bring him back. But I have questions that I could be totally wrong as well.”