Arsenal’s new hope in defence
On a chilly Wednesday night in South-Eastern France, William Saliba starts in a three-man defence to the left of the experienced Loic Perrin for his third start since returning to the team following a fracture to his metatarsal. Saint Etienne face Marseille, a team in very good form. Saliba stands tall at 6’4 and is aggressive but careful in the tackle, managing to show composure and confidence even when faced with the trickiest of opponents. However, what perhaps is the most impressive thing about Saliba is what he can do when the ball is at his feet.
Within just a few minutes of the game’s kick-off, Saliba is already showing his skills. He pings balls forward to his teammates, each finding their man in pockets of space. Saliba is comfortably the youngest player on the pitch (19 in March), yet his teammates trust him as if he were a veteran. One time he receives the ball in a tight spot on the edge of his own penalty area.
Whereas most would hoof the ball away with an ‘if in doubt, get it out’ mentality, Saliba is different. Instead, he opts to open his body and dribble forward, gaining 20-30 yards chased by a pack of Marseille defenders, before cutting back and laying off for a teammate.
It’s moments like this that define William Saliba, and demonstrate exactly what would implore a club like Arsenal to spend €30m on an 18-year-old with (at the time) 19 senior appearances. The confidence and talent displayed by Saliba is not matched by many defenders his age in Europe, and in the same way Gabriel Martinelli and Matteo Guendouzi have, Saliba has a very good chance of impacting the team from the word go at Arsenal.
Conveniently, he very much seems like a defender Mikel Arteta will enjoy working with. Arteta is teaching Arsenal to play out from the back effectively currently, and having someone as comfortable on the ball as Saliba is will only fit the theme. If Arteta can get the best out of Saliba and help make the transition from French football to English as smooth as possible, Saliba could be a defining factor for Arsenal next season, and for many, many years ahead.
Saint Etienne lost the game but that will not matter to the Arsenal fans watching from England. What they would have seen was a mature performance from a player who plays like he is an expert of the game. They will have seen Saliba silence the right side of Marseille’s attack, and create chances for his teammates with his staggering passing skills.
They will have seen a defender who brings excitement and expectation with him from France, but one who absolutely has every single tool needed to be a future world-beater for Arsenal. Until then, the fans will have to make do with watching his last games in France before he makes the trip in June and starts a new journey in red and white.