It took a while for William Saliba to win over Mikel Arteta but there’s no hiding the love the Spaniard now has for his centre-back.
A first-choice pick since he broke into the Arsenal first team last year, the France international has brought a calmness and authority to the backline that belies his tender years.
While Saliba still has room for improvement, his importance to the Gunners was underlined in the closing stages of last season when he picked up an injury and the team surrendered a handsome advantage at the top of the table in his absence.
“It’s clear with me [fully fit], Arsenal could have been champions, but injuries are a part of football,” he told Telefoot (via GFFN).
“Last year, I had a good season. Unfortunately, I got injured during the year and at the final sprint. It’s a new season with new ambitions and I hope that we can do even better.”
That’s certainly the target for Mikel Arteta who had warm words for Saliba ahead of Arsenal’s Champions League clash with Lens.
“When you look how he’s developing, his role in the team, the level and consistency he’s shown in the last year or so, it’s remarkable,” said the manager.
“I don’t think you will find a lot of centre-backs doing what he’s doing.”
After signing a new four-year contract in July, Saliba now has the chance to become a modern Arsenal great. Arteta says his teammates have played a vital role in nurturing the youngster’s talent.
“Credit to the players around him as well, the way they are guiding him, protecting him, inspiring him and then with the qualities he has, the presence, the physicality and composure to be a leader in the back line for a big club like us, it’s a huge compliment.”
Saliba was due to face the media yesterday evening but a press conference at the Stade Bollaert-Delelis had to be cancelled after Arsenal’s plane was left stranded on the tarmac at Luton Airport for five hours.
Instead, the 22-year-old dialled in a few lines about playing on home soil.
“We have to arrive first but tomorrow is another day and we will give our best against Lens,” he told ESPN.
“It is really good feeling. My second game in the Champions League with Arsenal. I can’t wait to play in France, so it is a good feeling.”
Lens drew with Sevilla on matchday one but come into the match buoyed by consecutive victories in Ligue 1 after a slow start to the new campaign.
“This competition – we are here and we deserve to be here,” said head coach Franck Haise about the test awaiting his players.
“Yes, we are outsiders compared with Arsenal so we are not going to compare ourselves.
“The technical level, the collective skill and what has been created by coach Arteta makes me think that Arsenal are superior in the group.
“Certainly it is a big challenge. The experience, the quality, the past and the present of Arsenal – [but] we met teams like that in Ligue 1, like Paris St Germain, and we have got results.”