William Saliba is a very talented young defender whose signing delighted me a lot, though it was expensive. He has the raw profile to be a massive success for Arsenal. But right now, in this moment, he is at best an OK defender. He is not yet a brilliant or assertive player.
People will point to Wesley Fofana as an example, but exceptions always exist, and so do circumstances. Only 4 defenders younger than Saliba played more than 1000 minutes in all of Europe’s top 5 leagues. Four.
Anyone who knows football will tell you that the most difficult part of being a young defender is getting consistent game minutes. It is absolutely essential to their development. Arsene Wenger famously said that playing a young player will cost you points (for a greater good down the line). How much more a young CB in the most unforgiving league?
One way or another, Saliba has been steadily acquiring minutes ever since he signed. In a non-Arsenal, player-centric view, that is absolutely great. He is basically one of the best nurtured young central defenders in Europe when you compare the minutes others at his age get.
The club has so much to do in the transfer window. One of the biggest priorities is adding more homegrown players to the senior roster. Some HG players like Bellerin, Nketiah etc are likely to leave on loan or permanently. We are stretched as it is with other non-HG additions.
That is why all of our transfer rumours have insisted on HG options taking precedence. And the more we buy non HG options like Lokonga and Nuno, the more desperate we get.
That explains Holding’s situation. Holding is a good lowblock defender but you really can’t pass with him.
However, players’ attitude in training and elsewhere is extremely important to any coach. Rob Holding has famously got a top class attitude. It shows in his improvement and utter professionalism. He may not be good enough but he is a manager’s dream otherwise. In a club with some attitude and commitment issues, you really need guys like him around for the atmosphere, unity and forward momentum. Club management is, according to Julian Nagelsmann who’s a coach himself, 70% managing people and just 30% about tactics, which is right, because at the top level, the difference in coaching knowledge is vanishingly small. If you can’t coach a thing, you can hire staff for it. It’s really not a big deal. It’s all about your chosen way of doing things, how it aligns with the club’s way and whatever else. Branding is also important to a top job.
There are trusted men and lieutenants in clubs. Even if you could get a better player, you don’t let these guys go easily. It’s not always about who can play this ball. If you have lead many people in a sensitive role, you will know what I’m talking about.
You can’t even begin to succeed when your followers don’t buy into what you are trying to do. Forget the coaching. This is why it’s hugely impressive that the entirety of Arsenal Football Club, from the executives to the players (at least the good ones) back 36-year-old Arteta.
So Holding, for the above reason and the HG issue, likely stays, at least for one more season. Replacing him would require too much specificity in scouting right now. (Also, Ben White, a quality young lad who has fantastic attitude and is already familiar with what Arteta wants).
There’s also the big issue of no European football. The 3rd choice CB behind White and Gabriel will only get scraps.
Remember that Gabriel is a physical phenom and Ben White played every single minute for Marco Bielsa. They are both extremely durable players.
There’s also the point of trust. A manager’s trust is an absolute big deal. If a manager doesn’t trust you, then your treatment will not positively correlate with the level of your talent (if you are talented). Holding is trusted to play in the biggest of games for Arsenal.
It is a bad thing, I know, as Holding is not just impressive enough for our level of ambition but don’t forget that he is actually a capable defender who has shown great improvement this season. He is an average 3rd option but he has the manager’s trust and that is important.
It simply won’t bode well for Saliba to stay behind Gabriel and White. He is unlikely, as it is, to displace either defender. So his development minutes will be affected. Don’t forget that the manager is under heavy pressure to produce results, too, plus he already plays plenty of kids in the new set up.
The best situation is for Saliba to extend his contract and go out on loan to a Premier League club where he can show that he can grab a spot for Arsenal. However, after talks, it seems the player has chosen to stay in France (makes sense personally for him). He still has 2 years left after this loan, however.
Clubs make hard choices, frequently, and at his age Saliba needs as many games as possible under his belt. You may not agree with the full extent of a decision made by the club but at least you can see some reason behind it.
All decisions in club football are projections and there are no full guarantees, so even the best decisions on paper may be a disaster while obvious, popular decisions may turn out utterly irrelevant.
You can bring up many examples of scenarios at so many clubs.
Imagine if Tottenham had sold Dele Alli for 80 million euros at the time. It would have been fairly unpopular with fans but they would have been better off in retrospect. Look at them spending close to Pepe money for Ndombele. Pepe himself was a financial travesty.
I expect William Saliba to have a very fine career, either here or somewhere else, but it is insanity, real insanity, to think that we would not survive or even thrive as a club without him. He needs to become a T3 defender in the world for 3-5 years for big regrets. Unlikely.
Admit it to yourself. You are in love with the idea of Saliba as the Saviour not Saliba the Absolutely Normal Defender.
Saliba Saviour mentality is the grasping hope that Saliba will turn into a fan fetish of a player who will be a world class talent we can enjoy for 7 years and then sell to PSG or Barcelona when he’s 28 and declining in his old age. Basically, another Saka. Basically, another Henry. Basically, another Lionel Messi. Basically, another wunderkid.
Cue the disappointment and abuse when he turns out absolutely normal, making normal errors.
Saliba is someone I expect to be capable of doing well enough in the Premier League. I rate him a lot. However, I am not going to worship his false image as some purported saviour of the club, whether he becomes a success here or elsewhere. We will be alright.
If Saliba had less hype and was bought for way cheaper but was still the same player, we would not have this fan situation. That is the truth. Blame Sanlllehi for wasting so much needed money at the time on an 18-year-old and making you all feel he’s the best thing since Van Dijk.
Please note that I’ve not made conclusions at all. All I’ve done is provide tools for you to navigate the decisions behind his loans. There still isn’t enough information on his situation to make conclusions at all.
Also note that he will be going on loan at Marseille.
Marseille are to be coached by Jorge Sampaoli, who has a roughly similar approach to Arteta. It’s not all bad. Saliba at Newcastle will not reveal much else to his football. At Sampaoli’s, we’ll see more of his capacities.