William Saliba Player Analysis – One of the best young defenders in Europe

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.


My conclusion

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.



Tags William Saliba


  1. Yes he will be back next season and not only can he play CB, but also could be back up to Tomi at fullback. But let’s keep some perspective, one decent tackle doesn’t mean he’s a great player. I’ve watched him a few times and whilst being similar to White, has been at fault for at least two opponents goals.

    1. Declan, not being argumentative here, but I cannot name one single CB who has not made a couple of mistakes at this time of the season.

      Excellent article, giving us all the information needed to judge both the player and the article itself.

      Saliba, in my opinion, could become part of a back three (Saliba-Gabriel-White) that will be our backbone, along with Ramsdale, and will dominate the PL.
      That’s how highly I rate these four players… for what it’s worth!!!!

  2. Never doubt his defending, ball-playing and short-passing abilities, but can he dribble and make accurate long passes consistently like White?

    If he is willing to sit on Arsenal’s bench next season, we might see those attributes in some games. He could leave to be a first-choice CB elsewhere though

    1. Gai,
      If you have enough time to watch Saliba you will wonder why Arteta don’t like him much. He has enormous quality and beyond his passing, just like Tommy you can hadly play pass him in Centre back and he his good aerialy. You need to watch how he kept Messi and Mbabe quiet in their game against PSG.

      1. I heard he played very well in the last two seasons. However, no matter how good a player is, no coaches can work with him if he is very arrogant and a bad influence to his teammates

  3. To be honest he possesses everything a ball playing CB needs to have excellent tackles when he needs to, cause he doesn’t really jump into tackles, and he needs to work more on his aerial presence at the back.

  4. Most gooners always use the excuse that it is only the french league and he may flop in the EPL

    I don’t seem to get the logic, because we signed Gabriel from France and his producing for us, Guendouzi came from France and performed well.. infact so many solid defensive minded players come from the French league

    Why is William’s obvious qualities always written off immediately with the excuse that his playing in the low french league?

  5. I think there’s enough evidence to give him a decent shot….by shot i don’t mean rotting on the bench for months before getting a 10 minute run out where he may make an error.

    Let’s be honest here…..we’ve given waaaaaay worse players continuous game time even when not performing

    1. PJ-SA, YES WE HAVE AND MANY OF THEM TOO OVER THE YEARS WHO ARE FAR, FAR, FAR, WORSE THAN SALIBA. Bellerin, Xhaka , Almunia , all of whom were regulars for at least three seasons, or more, while all being useless.
      Not to even mention the many clown CB’s that WENGER COLLECTED AND PLAYED OVER THE YEARS.

      Many others too who were miles worse than Saliba, even though he is “only” playing inFrance, which some pathetic fans seem to think is a substandard league! But it is not!

  6. What a pleasure to read such an informative and thoughtful article.Not having seen Saliba other than in brief highlight programmes ,I am pleased to learn he is doing very well with Marseilles.if as the writer suggests ,he returns to Arsenal next season it does raise some interesting questions as to how he would fit into the Arsenal back four system, which I feel Arteta is likely to stick with, rather than switch to a back three, to accommodate another CB ,regardless of his quality.If Saliba is as good as the writer suggests, there may be a case for playing the talented and versatile Ben White as a dedicated defensive midfielder where he played occasionally for Brighton.He certainly has the pace and defensive nous to fill that role which would enable Partey and Lokonga to operate as B to B midfielders in a 4-3-3 system similar to that employed by Man City and Liverpool.Food for thought?

    1. Grandad
      I agree about trying White out as a DM. He has shown the last couple games his passing and technique, as well as reading the game and defending.

      This would allow Partey to play further upfield and we could press as a team deeper in their third.

      Personally I would like to see the move with Saliba pairing up with Gabriel and White as the anchor in front. It would also allow Tavares to get forward which he excels in the attack.

  7. I disagree when the article praises Arteta for being patient, blah blah blah. If Arteta was actually concerned about his development, then what was Saliba doing in our under 23s last season for SIX MONTHS? So if the club should loan out Saka, gets another expensive winger who (expectedly) plays well, and Saka also plays well on loan, then we can say that Arteta and the club are being patient with Saka right? The new signings have played very well so far and I commend them while hoping and believing that they will become better as time goes on. But that does not excuse Arteta and the club for cruelly mismanaging Saliba. Moreover, I’m of the believe that Saliba may not want to play for arsenal(Arteta) as their relationship might just have been destroyed

    1. Saliba was asked to play with the u23s to prove himself at a lower level before making the ultimate leap into the Premier League. He wasn’t all that impressive I must say. There was a red card or two in there, and not that I watched any of the games but there must have been something the coaches had seen in order to make the mid-season decision to send him on loan. This is not a criticism of Saliba. He was only 18 years of age at the time(!!!!) which is the equivalent of an infant in the current list of Premier League Centre Backs. Had he made the same mistakes as he did in the U23s in the Premier League his confidence and development would have taken a hit from fans and journalists writing him off and the constant abuse(potentially racist) that he would get.

      1. An 18 year old Saka was playing in the premier league and he developed. A 19 year old Guendouzi was playing in the premier league and he developed. A 19 year old Fofana was playing in the premier league and he developed. How old was Mbappe when he led France to glory? There are many others my brother and I don’t want to go on and on. Meanwhile, how qualified was Arteta when he was given the arsenal job? I understand you’re trying to see the good side and I highly commend that. But to be honest, Arteta messed up big time

        1. Firstly, different players peak at different stages in their career and players in certain positions are likely to have break out season at a far younger age than those in other positions. Secondly, Mbappe is a phenomenal player that belongs to a class of players who only appear every few decades. It is simply unfair to compare a 18/19 year old Centre Back to any 18/19 year old forward, let alone comparing them to someone like Mbappe. Thirdly, pointing out the fact that an inexperienced manager in Mikel Arteta “messed up big time” by not giving an inexperienced player a starting role at Arsenal does not help your case and you end up contradicting yourself.

  8. Saliba developed through playing time at other clubs or under 23’s……..I think if Saliba remained at Arsenal we wouldn’t have got B White….maybe I’m wrong……………in multiple competitions players need to be rotated….there won’t be any need to change formation if Saliba is at Arsenal……..but if Saliba was at Arsenal this season he wouldn’t be playing week in week out………!

    1. You can’t be so sure about that.

      Declan said, Saliba made a mistake in 2 games he watches as if White was saint against Crystal palace and Brentford.

      Someone mentioned Saliba doesn’t perform in the Under 23 but forget to mention what state Saliba is at that time. How do you think he would feel when he wasn’t registered for EPL or Europa and wasn’t even use for our Carabao cup?
      This is a concern and nobody can tell me Saliba doesn’t deserve a chance even if he’s a 17years old CB ahead of Mustafi in Carabao cup.

      Everybody are now praising White and Gabriel partnership as if it has never happened before at Arsenal. We need to play a whole full season with them been consistent before anyone can claim nobody can display them.

      Gabriel had a brilliant start to his Arsenal career just like he is now.

      White is never on Mustafi’s form when he first arrive to Arsenal from a different league. Mustafi was undefeated till he went for his first injury and not a surprise we got beaten immediately Mustafi had injury. But what came out from his career?

      Arsenal fans are just too soft and can easily be carried away by short period success.
      Emery went 21 unbeaten and I can see some people thinking we’re in good hands. What has changed to that period?
      Emery was about attack then and Arteta was about Defensive, but none is playing a convincing games.
      It will take a good consistent performance for me to buy into what Arteta is selling.

      If we’re playing like this when we’re not even in Europe, I wonder how we’re going to play when players has fatigue from Europe.

      And to my boy Emile… Keep shinning.
      Have always wanted you, Saka, Hutchinson, Patino, K. Hart, Ballard and maybe Balogun, Salah and Hein in the senior team and I hope one day, my dream come through.

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