The curious case of William Saliba by Yusuf Malik
Three loan spells, changing shirt numbers, an international debut and zero first team appearances. It’s safe to say when William Saliba swapped the streets of Saint-Étienne for North London, few would have predicted the move would have gone the way it has.
Declared as “a future great of french football” by his former manager, Saliba was predicted to be a regular in an Arsenal defence that was suffering from a lack of quality and continuity following the loss of both Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny. The reality is that in the time Saliba has spent out on loan, Ben White and Gabriel’s mixture of technical and tenacious qualities have built a formidable partnership, whereas Saliba has made his first appearance for the France national team earlier than his Arsenal debut, a truly perplexing situation for the young Frenchman.
It’s easy to point the finger at Mikel Arteta for Saliba’s failings so far at Arsenal. Although showing his qualities as a coach, the Arsenal manager has had question marks raised over his unconforming style of man-management that has already seen the departure of talented players like Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Mesut Ozil and more recently in Matteo Guendouzi. Although all unique situations, it’s easy to see that when Arteta doesn’t like a player, there’s very little chance of them having a future at Arsenal. However, when taking a closer look, Saliba’s issues started well before the Spaniard ever stepped foot into the Arsenal dugout.
Saliba’s signing is confusing in itself as there’s a lack of clarity in who even signed him in the first place. For a club as stringent as Arsenal in the transfer window, to splash out £27 million on a generally unproven 17-year old is unprecedented and more so perplexing when attempting to identify who the decision maker was in the deal.
At the time of William Saliba’s signing, Arsenal were going through a recruitment redevelopment. Sven Mislintat was hired as the head of recruitment, Unai Emery stepped through the door as the new head coach and Raul Sanllehi came in as Head of Football Operations. Each man with their own unique ideology to transfers, all looking for their seat at the table following the power vacuum left by Arsene Wenger’s departure. Many of Arsenal’s young players around that period like Matteo Guendouzi and Lucas Torreira were signed under Mislintat’s data-focused direction, however the same cannot be said over Saliba, where there’s still uncertainty over who gave the final say on his transfer, and whether or not he was even wanted in the first place by head coach Unai Emery.
The uncertainty has lingered around Saliba’s time at Arsenal and although his tenure has far out-lived the three previously mentioned, Arteta and Edu have inherited a player from a previous regime that they believe was not ready for first team football for the past three years.
Now that’s not to say that Saliba doesn’t have a future at Arsenal. It’s evident that in Mohamed Elneny and Eddie Nketiah that players can complete career ‘remontadas’ in North London when their attitudes and tactical profiles are favoured by Arteta, even if they look close to the exit door, or Eddie’s case, already halfway out the door. There’s no indication so far that Arteta has any dislike towards Saliba or his attitude and when looking at his tactical profile, he seems to be a perfect match for a manager that has a preference for front-footed, progressive defending, something Saliba excels in. After making 50+ appearances in his only season at Marseille, the Frenchman looks to have matured and 2022/23 could well be the season of Saliba. If he is to be given his chance, what qualities would he bring to the Emirates?
What Saliba can offer Arsenal
At first glance, Saliba’s height and stature standout. At 6’4 and with an athletic profile to match Virgil Van Dijk, it is easy to acknowledge the physical qualities that Saliba will bring to the Arsenal backline. Rob Holding has shown his dependability when called upon to play in a low block defence, but struggled when asked to be more aggressive and front footed, showcased from his brief appearance against Son Heung-Min in the North London Derby. Saliba’s tactical profile should be better suited to playing in a high line defence. Visible in his recent duel with Kylian Mbappe, the former Saint-Etienne talent has excellent recovery pace and anticipation that makes him formidable in the one-on-one situations that he may well find himself in Arteta’s high line. Whereas a lack of height and size has been offered as a criticism of Manchester United-bound Lisandro Martinez, no such complaints can be made about “The Rock of Marseille.”
Clearly Saliba is blessed in defensive quality and will only improve with experience and age, however it’s his qualities on the ball that really make the French international stand out in comparison to his peers.
To sum up Saliba’s on the ball ability in one word, it would be Progression, Progression, Progression. The young defender is a progressive monster with the ball at his feet and should be more than well suited for a team as heavily coached at playing out from the back as the North-London outfit are.
Saliba, who started his career as a midfielder, has excellent passing and dribbling for a centre-back and his technical ability should open up new dimensions in Arsenal’s build up play. With the acquisition of Fabio Vieria, already accommodating Martin Odegaard, and Emile Smith-Rowe, it’s obvious how these creative players will benefit from a centre back who can pick them out with a range of impressive passes.
According to FBRef, when playing for Marseille, Saliba recorded 4.48 progressive passes per 90 and 6.36 progressive carries per 90, figures which are in the top 91 and top 97 percentile respectively, meaning only 9% of defenders in the top five leagues were more successful at progressive passing and only 3% of defenders were more successful in their carries. Saliba also recorded 0.69 dribbles per 90, putting him in the top 98 percentile of defenders showing he has the courage to take the ball forward from a deep position, and the quality and success rate to match.
To put that into context, Arsenal already have an excellent centre half in Ben White who truly excels in ball progression, however White only recorded 2.81 progressive passes and 3.13 progressive carries, similarly, The former Brighton man who is often seen marauding forward with the ball recorded 0.22 dribbles per 90, three times less on average than Saliba. Of course the strength of the respected leagues they play in need to be considered and Saliba playing in a back three for Marseille does provide him protection to be more proactive on the ball than he may be provided in an Arteta preferred back four, The stats are still indicative of how good Saliba is and what he can bring to The Gunners.
Although there may be some drop off when he moves to the Premier League, there’s no reason why Saliba shouldn’t be able to maintain a high level of ball playing ability once fully acclimated to England.
What happens next?
He may have just been awarded Ligue 1 Young Player of the Year, but Saliba will have a battle on his hand breaking up the favoured partnership of Ben White and Gabriel in the short-term. The two were both hand picked by Arteta and have qualities which are suited to one another. More than likely Saliba will find games in the Europa League and cup competitions and will offer cover for White, who may end up playing right back more regularly if Takehiro Tomiyasu’s injury struggles persist.
If Saliba continues his upward trajectory and impresses in his cup and Europa league appearances, there’s a chance Saliba may find himself first choice defender for The Gunners. After the volatile nature of ‘Willo’s’ start at Arsenal, he seems content to finally prove his worth in N5. Although we’re yet to see how it will pan out, what is certain however is that The Gunners going into next season with three top class centre backs, all under 25, on their books is no hindrance to their Champions League hopes.
Yusuf Malik. Twitter: YMalik77
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