Arsenal and Arteta are clearly taking a considerate approach to ease William Saliba into life in North London, with the Frenchman’s only appearance so far being in our pre-season friendly against MK Dons, in which he didn’t fail to impress. If expectations weren’t already high enough, his assured display on the right-side in an unfamiliar back-three formation only added to this.
There’s little doubt surrounding the 19-year old’s ability, especially within the Arsenal fanbase, who all hold him in high regard and therefore have been left confused as to why the youngster hasn’t been given any opportunities in the Carabao Cup matches against Leicester and Liverpool. Mikel Arteta was asked about the situation in last nights press conference in which he gave some clarity with his answer:
“For many reasons, that wasn’t the transition year that he needed because he had a lot of injuries, some personal injuries and also with COVID and the French league getting cancelled, he didn’t have that year.”
With the 2019/20 campaign being far from ideal for Saliba in terms of gaining experience and playing regularly for St Etienne, as he only managed 17 appearances in all competitions due to a multitude of different reasons, reports state that Arsenal are willing to allow him to go out on loan again in order to enhance his development. French club, Rennes, have expressed the most interest in taking him for the 2020/21 season and are apparently in talks with the Gunners to get a deal across the line before Monday’s deadline.
What does Saliba bring to the Arsenal backline?
The 19-year old has all the ingredients to become one of the best centre-backs in the world, standing at 6’3 he is able to dominate opposition attackers in the air, which is shown by his impressive 70.6% aerial duel win percentage. Over the years, we have lacked a centre-back who we can depend on to read aerial situations effectively whether it be heading away from set-pieces, stopping strikers from linking the play up through flick-ons or cutting out long passes over the top of the defence.
The fact that he is so assured in this aspect of his game already, bodes very well for the future, as over time when he gains further experience and his positional awareness is more accomplished it will continue to help him thrive in situations such as these ones. Not only this, but it should also provide Arsenal with extra threat from attacking set-piece scenarios, something which we should now have in abundance with the additions of him and Gabriel.
Another attribute which stands out in Saliba’s game is his ability to win the ball back from the opposition without committing fouls, this was evident throughout the last campaign as he only picked up one caution in his 17 appearances along with a 0.53 fouls per game stat, which was one of the best in Europe. In addition to this, another encouraging statistic is the fact that he didn’t commit a single foul from an attempted tackle last season, only adding to the idea that his style of play perfectly fits the mould of a modern day centre-back. This is a stark contrast compared to the defenders we currently have, who tend to be vey rash, however it seems Saliba is more of a calculated defender in the sense he doesn’t always have to dive in to win back possession.
Furthermore, it proves the youngsters knowledge and understanding of his position because at times he knows that it can be beneficial for the team to allow the opposition to keep a hold of the ball, while forcing them back, instead of trying to make the tackle and conceding a foul in dangerous areas. In modern football, the task of defending is becoming more difficult, due to players actively looking for fouls and initiating contact in certain areas of the pitch therefore it could be seen as the most promising part of his vast skill-set to be aware of this, developing an effective playing style without giving away too many fouls, hence how he is able to put up numbers such as 1.71 successful tackles per game.
This also gives us an insight into his mentality, as defenders nowadays tend to be impatient when it comes to putting tackles in, however Saliba’s level-headed approach allows him to remain calm when defending 1v1 – letting his physical attributes such as his pace and power takeover when his opponent try’s to get around him.
The Frenchman’s immense talent doesn’t stop there, as he is equally productive in possession, often kick-starting attacks through his capacity to break the lines or find a teammate with an over the top through ball. This is crucial for the way Arteta wants his side to play, as at times our defence find themselves in difficult situations playing out from the back, therefore it’s imperative that our centre-backs are comfortable with the ball at their feet.
Even at his age, he has managed to hone an impressively well-rounded passing range, leading to an 87.3% pass completion rate – giving the players around him the confidence to trust him to navigate out of tight areas against oppositions high-pressing tactics. As a result, games away at top 6 teams when they press us almost into our own area, should become easier to negate due to him being capable of finding a route out whether it be through finding a midfielder to feet or hitting an accurate long ball over the top for one of the attackers to run onto.
Not only this, but Saliba has another weapon in his passing arsenal, which is the ability to pick out an attacking run through pin-point long passes. As we have seen recently, in Arsenal’s match against Liverpool, Van Dijk was able to undo our whole press very effectively by finding a teammate with one precise long ball – taking multiple players out of the game to allow the player receiving the ball with an abundance of time in order to pick their next pass. This will give us another dimension in attack along with the flexibility to adapt mid-game depending on our opponents tactics, for example if they are aware of the long ball from Saliba they will drop off giving us the opportunity to play out from the back and build from deep or if they press high we can use this to our advantage by beating the press, playing more direct with long balls to our quick wingers.
Would Saliba benefit from a loan spell?
Having only played 37 games at first team level, he hasn’t exactly got a rich vein of experience, therefore fans need to be patient when it comes to the 19-year old. Coupled with the fact that his senior career has been littered with injuries so far, it’s not surprising to see the nurtured approach Arteta is taking. The Premier League can also prove to be a difficult transition for young players, especially in terms of the pace of the games, as the intensity is certainly higher than others in Europes top 5 leagues.
There is definitely an argument in favour of sending Saliba out for another loan spell, as Arteta pointed out his season at St Etienne was majorly disrupted, missing out on vital game-time to build his experience. Without this, it could be argued that it wouldn’t be fair to throw him straight into the first team and at the age of 19 there is no rush, consequently the prospect of a full season playing first team football certainly wouldn’t do him any harm. Furthermore, he is at such a fragile stage in his career in terms of his confidence thus if he’s unable to fulfil the almost unattainable expectations some fans seem to have, it could tamper with his dominant demeanour on the pitch.
Unless we get a flurry of injuries in centre-back or Arteta drastically changes his mind, it may take Saliba this full season to start playing on a regular basis at Arsenal and if this is the case, wouldn’t he benefit more from playing week in week out in the French League?
Despite this, Saliba could still work his way into Arteta’s plans this season, with Arsenal’s favourable Europa League draw an excellent opportunity to get some minutes under his belt coupled with us still being in the Carabao and FA Cup, in theory the chances to play should be there for the Frenchman. These fixtures could prove essential for his adaptation and development in order for him to be completely settled ahead of next season, in which he will then be ready to create an impact for the team.
Personally, I believe Saliba should be integrated into the squad gradually, much like Arteta is doing at this present moment. There will come a point when the Europa League fixtures start coming in thick and fast, but hopefully by then he would have had enough time to build an adequate understanding of how we operate, therefore should be trusted to play alongside an experienced player such as David Luiz. Also for defenders, a lot can be said for training every day against top quality attackers such as Aubameyang while also learning from Luiz’s vast repertoire of experience, which could prove to be just as important as playing every week at his age.
Any feedback would be much appreciated and let me know in the comments whether you believe Saliba should go on loan for the 2020/21 season!
I’m a 20 year-old Arsenal fanatic and aspiring Sports Journalist, who will be studying how to write about the Beautiful Game at Solent University from September in an attempt to make my dream into a reality.
Since the age of 8 I have played academy football, but unfortunately it didn’t quite work out – therefore I decided to pursue the next best career for me.
I am aiming to write honest and interesting articles about the club I love, and to share my opinion (one from the younger generation of Arsenal supporters) with as many other fans as possible!