Take a walk around the Emirates on a matchday and the talk of the town often centres around how spellbindingly good William Saliba looks on a four-minute compilation some teenager whacked together on Twitter.
Credit where it’s due, someone is actually taking the time to watch Saint-Étienne travel to Metz in Ligue 1 on a Sunday afternoon for our viewing pleasure. Thing is, are they doing this to offer the Arsenal fans hope that they might finally get to see a decent centre-half play for the club? Or is it blind desperation forged out of the utter tripe they’ve grown accustomed to watching?
Whatever the outcome, Saliba will link up with his new side in the summer. And based on initial viewing, it couldn’t come any sooner.
It was a painfully drawn out transfer saga last summer. With Unai Emery facing vociferous calls from the Arsenal faithful to invest in a central defender after the multiple defensive shambles involving Shkodran Mustafi during the 2018/19 season, he actually heeded those calls.
Saint-Étienne were hellbent on keeping hold of him, only eventually submitting to the player’s and Arsenal’s wishes after months of talks and sanctioning a £27m move. A move which, unfortunately, demanded that he be loaned back to France for the coming campaign. Not ideal, but Saliba was clearly kept in high regard in north London.
His time back in Ligue 1 hasn’t gone quite as smoothly as hoped, however.
Injuries – including a metatarsal fracture – have limited Saliba to just nine appearances in all competitions this season. Yet, every time he’s taken to the pitch his impact has been considerable. All the traits that prompted Arsenal to sign in him in the first place have remained in his game despite the unfortunate setbacks.
While not a Mikel Arteta signing, Saliba’s calmness in possession – either with his back to goal or moving upfield – is an element that will have the Spaniard as excited as the fans for his long-awaited arrival.
What’s more, he has an imposing frame. Standing at over 6’3, he is already taller than any of the current centre-backs at Arteta’s disposal, but he’s got a figure that is both beneficial when the ball is in the air and equally allows him to brush off challenges with the ball at his feet. He has the physical capacity of someone in their prime, so the fact there is scope for him to bulk up further as he matures could see him improve even more in that respect.
In terms of his positioning, what’s clear from Saliba this season is he’s a ‘natural’ defender. You’d expect he will have been coached well during his youth career to have risen through the ranks so quickly, but his ability to read danger looks both instinctive and exact. In other words, he looks strong in every field.
Saint-Étienne have been reaping the rewards of his performances as well. Since the start of the 2018/19 season Les Verts have picked up 2.1 points per game with Saliba starting, compared to 1.3 without him. The French outfit also concede 1.5 goals per game without their young defender and 0.86 with him in the side. He’s not afraid to give his teammates an earful, marshalling the backline as well as encouraging the forward players to make attacking runs, and, clearly, it works.
However, note: ‘young’.
Yes, Saliba’s current form and ability is remarkable, particularly when you factor in that he hasn’t reached his 19th birthday yet.
A prospect no doubt, but such levels of confidence and composure are incredibly admirable for a player who is still in his teenage years. The Premier League will be a completely different proposition, though, and how he slots into the Gunners’ lineup will be a topic of interest.
While ideally Arsenal would have had him for their current season, the extra 12 months away in France – in hindsight – is a good thing. The current plight of the side is horrendous, and the managerial changes would have significantly hindered his development.
With Arteta now in the role and implementing his own ideas, when Saliba eventually joins it’ll be after the new head coach has had more time to stamp his authority on the squad in (hopefully) a more settled environment.
Equally, joining in the summer will permit him a full pre-season, where his integration into his new surroundings will be a far smoother affair.
When he does join, though, how and when Arteta opts to utilise him will be interesting.
Based on the players at the club and Saliba’s performances, he’s a shoo-in for the starting lineup. How Arteta goes about addressing central defence will be one of the most intriguing stories of the summer. The loan addition of Pablo Mari came from a desire to have a left-footed central defender in the back four, where David Luiz is being forced to play despite being naturally right-footed.
Saliba himself is right-footed, so dependent on how Mari fares – he is yet to kick a ball – those two could become the new partnership. That’s unlikely though, since Mari’s signing appears more likely to be a stop-gap until the summer. He could hit the ground running, but even still, further reinforcements will be needed for the faltering Mustafi and ageing Sokratis and Luiz.
Given how meticulously he was tracked by Arsenal and that his overall ability improves with each passing week, there is little to suggest Saliba won’t be thrust into the first team for the opening of the 2020/21 campaign.
Yes, of course, Ligue 1 and the Premier League are two very different kettles of fish, but put Saliba side by side with the current crop, and there is little to debate against him not being in the starting 11.
‘Farmer’s league’ or not, he looks the real deal.
For more from Ross Kennerley, follow him on Twitter!