Player Analysis: William Saliba… by Mohamed Rafi
One does not need to have followed the Ligue 1 so far this season to know that William Saliba has been one of the best players in the French league this season. The 20-year-old Arsenal man has been in exceptional form on loan at Marseille. Having watched him since his loan spell at Nice, I can guarantee that he has taken his already consistent displays to a whole new level. It wasn’t too long ago when videos of his last-ditch tackle on Kylian Mbappe in “Le Classique” against PSG were circulating all over the internet. In my honest opinion, Mikel Arteta received a lot of unfair criticism over the decision to send him on loan. In fact, the loan spells have helped and continue to him sharpen his raw ability and cut out sloppy moments from his game. Letting a player as young and talented as him develop away from the spotlight of the Premier League was a step in the right direction. It is worth noting that there are not many 19 or 20-year-old Centre Backs that start regularly in the Premier league, especially not in the big clubs.
The “Mbappe of Centre-Backs” has accumulated an impressive 8 clean sheets in 11 games across both Ligue 1 and the Europa League. He has been playing as a Right sided CB under Jorge Sampaoli this season. It has been well over two years since he has signed for Arsenal, and we are yet to see him in an Arsenal shirt playing in a competitive game. So, there may be a few questions that still persist. What type of a player have we got in our hands? How will he fit into this new look Arsenal side? Is he as impenetrable as many make him out to be? Is he ready to play in the Premier League?
To break it down, let me start with his physical profile. He is a 6’3” Centre Back blessed with strong physical features and is definitely not a defender you would expect to see get bullied during duels on the ground. Although he is pacey on recovery, his positioning, calming influence and technique on the ball means that he does not find himself in tricky situations that often. His aerial dominance, however, was and continues to be an area in which he has been criticized, owing to his tendency to pick and choose his battles in the air and not sweep up balls played into the box well enough from set pieces and wide areas. According to Fbref.com, he ranks in the 25th percentile for aerial duels per game among defenders in the top 5 leagues, and only wins as little as 57% of his aerial duels. Apart from that, he also does not favour a situation where he is forced to put in a tackle and that might be an aspect of his game he still needs to improve especially when coming up against elite dribblers in the premier league.
This article would not be complete without analysing the most admirable aspect of the Frenchman’s game, his passing ability. The most fundamental trait of every player in the starting 11 of Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal is their refined technical qualities and guile on the ball. William Saliba is already superbly equipped to be one of the best ball-playing CBs in the Premier League and would thrive in a team that looks to impose itself through possession and press-resistant build up play. Marseille under Jorge Sampaoli play a high possession, fluid style of football and have had 66% possession on average this season. Saliba has been integral to such high control of the ball due to his elite passing. In Europe’s top 5 leagues, he ranks in the 97th percentile for passes per 90 (77.5 passes), 96th percentile in pass completion (an impressive 93% success rate), 92nd percentile for progressive passes (4.5 per 90) and 95th and 92nd percentile for progressive carries and dribbles completed respectively.
These are ridiculous numbers, some of which eclipse those of exciting young Centre Backs like Jules Kounde (Sevilla) and Ronald Araujo (Barcelona) and even some world class defenders like Ruben Dias and Raphael Varane. It is to be noted, however, that difference in quality of leagues can play some role and comparison is completely subjective.
I have no doubt that Saliba will play for Arsenal next season but I do not see him being a starter initially – barring any exceptional circumstances (Injuries, formation change, etc.). He is one of the best young defenders in Europe and we are incredibly lucky to be able to add him to the exciting young core that we have assembled. But his striking similarities to Ben White in terms of playing style and Gabriel’s incredible form in the Left CB position means that he can be a perfect 3rd choice Centre Back who can easily fill in for either one of Gabriel or White in their absence. I see no reason to rush him into the Premier League, and credit where it’s due to Arteta and his coaching staff for being patient with Saliba’s development and for paying no heed to the pressure from the media and the fans. I’m sure we are getting a player with elite potential, and I hope, having been a childhood gooner, Saliba gets to accomplish his dream of succeeding at Arsenal.