In-depth Analysis of the curious case of William Saliba and his future at Arsenal

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.

Teething problems

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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  1. Excellent article. Good news that Saliba travels with the team on pre-season tour. Maybe, given his versatility in dribbling and forward passing, he could even have a future at Arsenal in defensive midfield?

    1. BREAKING NEWS: Arsenal are working on a deal to sign Zinchenko from Man City, so I think we’ll see one of our CMs leave soon

      1. We look lik a headless chicken right now.. Seem to be jumping from one player to the next.
        It is spinning me head right now and giving a headache.
        Might also turn into a headless chicken myself if this persists 😊

        1. Arsenal seem to be looking for the best deal. In my opinion, Zinchenko is the best option to cover for Tierney and Xhaka

  2. Interesting and informative article Yusuf.As someone who has never seen Saliba play a full competitive match, I very much look forward to assessing him this season.I have heard conflicting reports on his ability,and it will be very interesting to see how he performs in the cauldron of the EPL.

    1. I just feel like many of us might end up very disappointed if he does not perform to the hype we have built around him..
      This is the EPL and not the French League.

      I really never understood why Arteta did not give Saliba a chance last season but instead sent him out on loan in France. Should have loaned him to a PL club or kept him around the first team..

      But it is what it was, he is the manager and his own decision will determine his fate..

      Happy to see Saliba back at the club. 😊

      1. I think the decision to loan him out was pretty straightforward for Arteta. He was no doubt under pressure to deliver results or get shown the door, plus the club had just splashed out 50 million on Ben White. You’re not going to sit him. Gabriel was probably our best defender so he was always going to play.

        Meanwhile there was no European football and Saliba (who let’s remember was just 20) needed game time to mature and they surely wanted to put him in an environment where he was not only certain to get minutes, but also be comfortable. In the end, that was clearly the result. Seems like a very successful loan spell.

    2. Thank you!

      Similar to you I haven’t been able to watch Saliba as regularly as I would have liked, really excited to see how he cracks on this season


  3. Great article laying out the type of player Saliba has shown himself to be.

    The great news for Arsenal is the 2 most important people have already given their opinions.

    Arteta has stated that Saliba has to return and will play for our club.

    Saliba has said he is ready to return to Arsenal and show the club and supporters what he can deliver.

    Everything else is noise, rumor, and nonsense, unless you actually think 2 people have lied or purposefully misled the public.

    Hopefully after getting playing time, Saliba settles and can extend his contract with the club.

    I think he is a generational talent at CB, one we got early before his value and price skyrocket.

    Time will tell, but true competition will determine our best CB pairing.

    1. 👍Totally agree, Durand. Sven “Diamond Eye” Mislantat scouted William Saliba. There is no way Saliba, as a French international is not good enough to be a first team player at Arsenal. If Arteta wants to try fitting White and Saliba in the same eleven, either could be trialed as DM.

  4. I agree with those above
    Plus the writer’s style is commendable- informative and well composed

    1. This is the best piece of writing I’ve seen so far on this site….very composed and informative….keep up the good 👍

  5. Saliba has 2 years left on his contract. How do you convince him to extend when he hasn’t kicked a ball for us yet? The reality is get him to sign a new contract or sell him for big money. In 12 months time he will be worth considerably less. We can’t have players getting down to the final year of their contract any more.

  6. He gets that CB slot right away and Ben gets to compete with Tomy at RB, if you ask me. Both can play in a back 3.

  7. Excellent article from Yusuf, packed with detailed reasons for his personal view about SALIBA. I much hope he will write frequently ,if this piece is a good example of his intellect, which it plainly seems to be.

    My own view about SALIBA is less informed than Yusufs and so I propose to wait to see how he performs in our shirt.

    But I am certainly very hopeful and sense tells me that no player of so young an age who has made a debut for his national side – and world champions too, lets not overlook – can fail to be quite some player already.

    That being said, I also much enjoy reading optimistic articles, when I judge , as I do with Yusuf, the writer to be a man of fine intellect, AND who has the ability with words to make it exciting to read. Well written Yusuf!

    1. Thank you for your kind words Jon!

      I am of the same opinion of you that it’s best to wait and see how he will perform. Will I think he will struggle to break up the White/Gabriel partnership in the short term, it’s an exciting position for Arsenal to be in and one I can’t wait to see how will develop!


      1. Yusuf, I look forward to your next article. And I reckon very many GOONERS WILL AGREE TOO!

  8. Saliba said he is going to stay and fight for his place. Arteta said that Saliba is part of his plans and will be part of the sqaud..

    That’s all that matters at the moment.. I think that The DOOM and GLOOM manufacturers (Merchants) should just let this Saliba / Arteta bromance blossom gracefully..

  9. A good piece, interesting read.

    A couple of points worth making:

    (1) “… that they believe was not ready for first team football for the past three years”

    It’s not really 3 years in the true sense due to covid and contracts. As I’ve pointed out before, there has only been ONE true decision point in Saliba’s time at Arsenal.

    The first year was a contractual loan-back to St Etienne. When he arrived the next year for pre-season, it was decided that he’d benefit from another year on loan, that was teh decision point. Covid then hit, so it didn’t happen then, so… it took place the next year (i.e. last season).

    And since it seems to have been a resounding success in developing the player, who can argue that the decision was wrong? We’ll never know how it would have turned out if he’d stayed and tried to play in the first team squad, but he probably wouldn’t be a better player for it.

    (2) “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”.

    I’m not convinced that this is MA’s “preferred” option. I think he’s played that way becuse of the players available to him in the time he’s been manager. Now he’s bringing in his own players we seem to be seeing a different approach.

    I pointed out a while ago that MA was collecting a fair few CBs and players who can play WB, suggesting a 3 at the back formation was more likely next season.

    Then… he seemed to play a 532 (or 352 depending how you look at it) with 3 CBs/2WBs in Germany with a lot of success once the main men were on the field.

    This makes sense with the two men who are good LB/RB being injured so often. Instead of buying in backup for them, why not use the wealth of WB talent available (including those two)?

    1. 👍 So many keep forgetting that the first season loan back at St Etienne, was a contractual condition of the transfer to Arsenal.

  10. MA has handled Saliba really badly in my opinion. He’s done very well in France but should have been with us 2 years ago. His contract ends in 2024 and he seems to have no intention on extending his contract because of us not playing him. Hopefully he will stay though. If not hope we can recover the 27 million we paid for him

    1. MA obviously had a reason for not including Saliba in his plans for last season whether it was players attitude or he simply thought he wasn’t ready for prem league football now we will see as he’s going to get the opportunity in pre season to impress let’s hope he takes his chance no doubt looks a talent but got to prove it!

    2. So would it have been better to keep Saliba at Arsenal playing 4th choice centre back behind Holding? Even Mari had to go, Saliba may have been behind him too?

      Now Saliba has pushed himself ahead of Holding and possibly ahead of White and Gabriel. That would not have happened if he had stayed

      Arteta was totally correct.

      1. A very thoughtful article with valid points raised. I’m looking forward to seeing Saliba next season. He’s definitely an addition to the squad. I would hazard to suggest that if he didn’t already belong to us he would cost us in the region of 50-60 million to buy, being young player of the year and a France international.

  11. To reply to a few of your points:

    On Saliba not being ready for first team football, I was quoting comments made by Edu has said last summer that Saliba wasn’t quite ready. :

    While I agree with you that we may well play a back three (Arteta’s preferred formation during our FA Cup winning run) I do think that from what we’ve seen so far tactically and in terms of recruitment he is favouring a similar system to Pep’s Man City. I also think Arteta prefers to have players who can cover various positions that’s why we end up with many CBs (he prefers two Left footed and two right footed) rather than him wanting to play a back three, also in my opinion we saw a shift to a 4-3-3 which I think has always been the long-term goal – But we’re yet to see how things will end up!

    Thank you for all the feedback!


    1. I think recruitment suggests NOT a back 4…

      – No cover for either FB as yet.
      – Lots of CBs and WBs.
      – Playing 5-3-2 in Germany.

      I don’t think he’s accumulating CBs because he wants a management problem of having 4-6 people vying for 2 positions and constantly complaining to him. Even Martinez (if he’d arrived) would have been more CB than LB.

      I do agree that the end game may be a 4-3-3 though. Time will tell. And it’s certainly true that he seems to prefer versatile players who can cover many roles – this is not so easy in a rigid 4 at the back formation since you need to have top specialists in each defensive role because one mistake can kill you whereas in as 532 there’s someone close by who can help the team recover.

      1. I think the fact that Arteta is looking at Ruell Walters says it all. The fact that Bellerin is back in the fold says so much. Personally I think the best RB is Tomiyasu, the best LB is Tierney. The 2nd best RB is White, the 2nd best LB is Tomiyasu. The 3rd best RB is Maitland-Niles, the 3rd best LB is Maitland-Niles. The 4th best RB is Bellerin, the 4th Best LB is Tavares.

        1. It’s a rumour and I’d have to say… it doesn’t say much to me.

          Bellerin is on pre-season tour which doesn’t mean very much either. There are currently no offers for him that are close to Arsenal’s (reasonable) valuation.

          And talking about LB/RB seems to completely miss the point of what I wrote, especially since most of the alternatives to the main men in your list are people who are already playing somewhere else – apart from Maitland, who’s not exactly in favour and may also be sold.

  12. Saliba has been treated very shabbily by Arsenal. We keep loaning him out, and he keeps winning plaudits and awards, then we loan him out again. The guy has been more than patient with us and he couldn’t be blamed if he had decided to never come near Arsenal again, but apparently, he wants to play for us.

  13. Get a grip, how anyone can compare the French league to the premier League is totally wrong. Let’s wait and see what will happen.

  14. Totally overate Ben White in any assessment. The guy was never noticed at Brighton nor have they regressed since he left them. It will be difficult for Saliba because Tomyasu is essentially also a centre half who offers nothing going forward but I get the feeling that once Saliba gets an opportunity it will be difficult for either White or Gabriel to reclaim their spot. Then again Saliba could be sold and go on to better things elsewhere.

  15. As a french, I got to see Saliba play in the French league the last few years. In France, we classify him as a future “taulier” ie a gatekeeper meaning a boss. After 3 years in the league, he got called on the french national team and you can expect him to be called regularly… as far as he gets to play in his team.

    So that tells me that although he is ready to give it a go at Arsenal, he will leave as soon he sees that he does not a regular starter.

    Personally, I think he is better than white and I still can’t wrap around my head why we bought White for 50 million and not give him a chance instead.

    but looking at the sheer number of players Arteta burned through since he took over, this kind of decision totally makes sense.

  16. Great article 👍👍
    Will be fascinating to see how Saliba does this season for his first season in England.

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