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What Exactly is Arsenal’s Plan For William Saliba?

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Last Monday, Olympique de Marseille released a brief compilation of William Saliba‘s best moments so far while on loan at the club. That same day, Marseille’s manager Jorge Sampaoli made a statement in which he spoke about how lucky the club were to have him for the season, and declared him a “future great of French football”.

William Saliba is technically in his third season as an Arsenal player. However, the 20-year-old has yet to play a single competitive minute for the club, instead being loaned back to Saint-Etienne for the 2019-20 season before spending the second half of the 2020-21 campaign at Nice. Now, Saliba is on his third consecutive loan spell since becoming a Gunner. Now, the young Frenchman will spend the current season at Marseille, where he has already played five full matches.

The lack of chances afforded to the young Frenchman during Mikel Arteta‘s time at the helm has many supporters convinced that the manager does not rate Saliba or harbors some sort of agenda against him. This impression is not helped by Saliba’s interviews after being loaned to Nice, as well as the swiftness with which Arsenal decided to send the defender away for the year before preseason had even truly began this summer. While Arsenal have struggled defensively to begin the current campaign, Saliba seemingly has been exiled indefinitely over personal differences between him and Arteta.

However, during a recent Q&A for Football London, Chris Wheatley stated that “[t]he plan would be for him to come back to Arsenal next summer and a decision will be made on whether he’s offered a new contract or not.” This indicates that Arsenal have something in mind that is a little more sophisticated than letting a perfectly salable asset, one of the most highly rated young defenders in Europe, run down their contract and leave for free simply out of an inexplicable spite.

But then, what exactly is the plan for William Saliba?

Why Saliba isn’t playing for Arsenal

Many Arsenal fans seem convinced that Saliba is good enough to start for Arsenal in the Premier League. The continued inclusion of the likes of Rob Holding and Pablo Mari has not helped assure supporters that Arteta’s aversion to the young French defender is based on ability. However, multiple journalists and other prominent personalities among the Arsenal faithful have voiced concerns regarding Saliba’s aerial aptitude. For all his security and even silkiness when it comes to his play on the ground, whispers around the club indicated that his prowess when it came to competing in the air was worryingly lacking.

Additionally, the stats show that Saliba prefers to pick and choose when he tackles opponents and contests for the ball. According to FBref, he is in the 5th percentile for dribblers tackled and in the first percentile for dribblers contested. Instead, much of the Frenchman’s defending involves interceptions and using his large frame to usher opposition attackers away from his goal. In other words, Saliba looks exceptionally astute as a defender because he avoids high-pressure scenarios in which he can be exposed.

Unfortunately, this can also be taken to mean that Saliba has readily exploitable vulnerabilities in his game, particularly when it comes to duels. It isn’t hard to imagine the likes of Chris Wood, Michail Antonio, and Dominic Calvert-Lewin identifying this weakness and using it to bully the 20-year-old in the Premier League. In the Premier League, players have less opportunity to avoid physical contests. Against Burnley, even Ben White, who is not renowned for robust defending, had to engage in duels and won 8 out of 14 of them. It is highly likely that Arteta is concerned about Saliba’s ability to physically compete in the most intense league in professional football.

Why Saliba isn’t yet on his way out of the club

It should be obvious that Arsenal and Arteta still see the potential in Saliba. After all, he has pretty much everything else in his locker to be an elite modern center-back: a great ability to read the game and disrupt attacks by the opposition, reliable passing, security on the ball, leadership, and an imposing build. If they thought he was just another bust signing from the Emery era, why loan him out to Nice and Marseille? Why reportedly prefer for his third loan spell to be with an English club? Why not just sell him to one of his many suitors in France?

With Saliba being under contract until the end of the 2023-24 season, selling the defender likely would have netted Arsenal a decent transfer fee. Killing time until he slinks away on a free seems mightily counter-intuitive. Clearly, there is a purpose to Saliba’s continued spells away from the club. But what exactly is that purpose?

What loaning Saliba accomplishes

Almost prophetically, Arsene Wenger famously once said, “You pay for the education of young players with points. If I play a 20-year-old center-back, I know he’ll cost me points during the season and I have to stand up for that. A less talented 28-year-old would cost me less points. However, by 23 or 24 you have a player.”

Arsenal are at a critical moment in the club’s history. They are now in their fifth season outside of the Champions League. Consecutive eighth-placed finishes in the Premier League mean Arsenal won’t play in a European match during this current campaign. Their standing in the game is falling by the season, with pundits on major networks already viewing them as easy targets for criticism. The likes of Leicester, West Ham, and Aston Villa threaten to overtake the Gunners on a long-term basis. Arsenal need to make the most of the 2021-22 season. They cannot afford to drop more points than they already will simply because of the difficulty of the Premier League.

This puts Arteta and the club in a difficult position regarding Saliba. The young defender needs game time in order to further develop. However, obliging him in the English top flight would cost Arsenal precious points that they need to accrue if they are to return to relevance. As Wenger said, deploying a 20-year-old center-back in the Premier League practically requires a sacrifice of results along the way. And what would Arsenal have gained if Saliba gains a full season of experience in the starting lineup but the club finish once more out of the European places?

Wesley Fofana, a former teammate of Saliba’s at Saint-Etienne who is roughly three months older than the Arsenal man, joined Leicester last season. His immediate inclusion in the team’s back line saw the Foxes concede 50 goals in that campaign. This increase in defensive vulnerability contributed to Brendan Rodgers’ men finishing a single point outside of the top four at the end of the 2020-21 season. It isn’t hard to imagine a full season of Saliba, who was only rated a slightly better prospect than Fofana, afflicting Arsenal in a similar manner.

So how does a club ensure that a young player gets the minutes they need to progress while also guaranteeing that no devastating sacrifice is made in order to develop their prospects? Obviously, by loaning that player out. Instead of taking the hit that would come with starting Saliba in the Premier League, Arsenal have opted to allow the French center-back to learn his trade at clubs of a lower stature, who have lower stakes to play for. Over the last couple of seasons, Saliba has played more minutes than the vast majority of defenders his age.

Loaning Saliba out in consecutive seasons allows him to gain the experience he needs to become the future great of French football that Sampaoli thinks he can be. But the path to accumulating that experience involves making mistakes. Arsenal do not currently have the luxury of being able to afford the number of mistakes a 20-year-old center-back would make in the most competitive league in the world. They need to get back into European competition quickly, and there are enough obstacles, both externally and within the club, that will need to be overcome.

The plan for Saliba

Simply put, the plan is to give Saliba the minutes he needs to develop into a defender that Arsenal can comfortably rely on as they attempt to ascend back into the upper echelons of English and European football. However, this also needs to be executed in a way that won’t cost Arsenal in the short term; hence, the loans out to Ligue 1 clubs. Saliba is presumably monitored throughout his loans to determine how he is progressing. At the end of each loan, Saliba is reassessed. Clearly, the club have not concluded that he is ready to contribute to the first team and have sent him back on loan twice under Arteta.

It seems that a large portion, if not a majority, of the fanbase believe that Arteta is exiling Saliba out of some kind of inexplicable vendetta. This likely stems from how poorly the end of Matteo Guendouzi’s Arsenal career went over with many Gooners. But again, if this were true, loaning Saliba out for a third time seems wholly unnecessary. A permanent sale would have likely been achievable this summer. To subject a young player to an extended purgatory is cruel beyond measure, and without concrete evidence that this is the manager’s intention, such an accusation amounts to little more than a conspiracy theory.

It is important to remember that the simplest explanation is often the correct one. It could be the case that Arsenal overspent on a player who showed promise and excelled in a league that is no longer considered one of the top five in Europe, but has not turned out to be ready for the best league in the world. It is entirely possible that, either due to regression or a previous overestimation of his ability, Saliba is still not good enough to be a featured player in Arsenal’s first team. This would be entirely fine, by the way. If you look around the Premier League, you will be hard-pressed to find successful center-back pairings that include a player of Saliba’s age. The Premier League is just too grueling for that to conceivably succeed.

Arsenal will reportedly decide this summer whether to offer Saliba a contract extension, and therefore, whether he is ready to finally join the first team. He has been apparently taking the French league by storm, as he did with Nice and Saint-Etienne. But if he’s not ready, he’s not ready. And with only two years remaining on his deal by that time, the club will likely look to recoup whatever funds they can for him. Even if they do decide to extend him, it isn’t far-fetched to wonder if Saliba would want to stay. He does not appear to have been originally privy to Arsenal’s plans for him, and the events of the last couple seasons indicate that he is more comfortable in France.

Whatever the case, Arsenal made the decisions that were best for them. With too much on the line, they refused to entrust a backbreaking level of responsibility to a player just out of his teenage years until they were absolutely sure he was ready. They signed players with a few more years of experience to immediately shoulder that burden. If Saliba is indeed destined for the pantheon of football as so many have made him out to be, he will eventually rip a starting place from the clutches of Ben White or Gabriel. But to give him that spot simply because folks online think he’s good would constitute horrific irresponsibility at the worst possible time. The plan is, and always was, to make Saliba earn it.

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