William Saliba – The young star Arsenal are desperate for
William Saliba has burst onto the scene of French football and as a result is being courted by the likes of Manchester United, Manchester City and Borussia Mönchengladbach.
Recent reports suggest Arsenal have agreed on personal terms with Saliba for a long-term contract (believed to be in the region of 5 years) and will now try to negotiate a fee with his club Saint-Étienne, something that has now become complicated with added interest from other clubs.
Manchester United have been very publicly in the market for a defender, too, and have had bids rejected for a few centre-backs including West Ham’s Issa Diop who United are reportedly willing to spend £45m on while also offering a player in exchange.
The same reports also suggest that West Ham have rebuffed such attempts from The Red Devils but it would make sense that if Manchester United can’t sign Diop they’d move on to Saliba as Diop only moved from Toulouse to West Ham in June 2018 for around £22m and has grown into a colossal addition into West Ham’s squad – trying to find the next big French centre-back commodity seems logical.
Arsenal, however, will be just as desperate to secure the signing of William Saliba in an attempt to shore up what was a very fragile defence for the entirety of last season. Arsenal finished the season with the most individual errors leading to goals in the Premier League and for any hope of progression, it’ll be stats like this that will need to be improved on.
Who is William Saliba?
Born in Bondy, a commune just under 11km away from the centre of Paris Saliba was coached by Kylian Mbappé’s father from the age of 6. Saliba is a relative rookie to senior football and only signed his first professional contract with Saint-Etienne in May 2018. He made his debut around 4 months later in a 3-2 victory against Toulouse and went on to make 15 appearances for Saint-Étienne throughout the 2018/19 campaign.
Saliba’s obvious inexperience would presumably mean he’d need time to adjust into Premiership football but his abilities have been so obvious and advanced that I can completely understand why he’s so heavily chased by some of Europe’s elite.
Building a partnership
Although only 18 years old Saliba stands at 6 ft 4 inches tall, this would be a change for Arsenal’s recent transfer strategy as the heavy majority of our centre-back signings have been between the heights of 6 ft and 6 ft 2 inches tall with only Mavropanos being taller than that.
Arsenal has a huge tendency to sign defenders that are heavily front footed. Lack of top-level size and power creates an inability to stand their ground and compete which forces them to read the game and take risks to win balls – something that can be partly attributed to our inconsistent reactive defending.
Mustafi, Koscielny, Sokratis and Holding are all players that are more likely to try to nip in front of an offensive player and cut out a pass rather than use their height and strength to dominate the space the ball is arriving into.
The last centre-back that Arsenal had that could do this was Per Mertesacker – he was much maligned in the early days down to his lack of mobility and tendency to move a bit like Bambi on ice, but few would disagree that the partnership with himself and Koscielny was hugely effective and even resulted in Szczesny getting a Golden Glove award.
The crux of this partnership was that they were able to accentuate each other’s strengths and cover each other’s weaknesses – Koscielny’s outstanding reading of the game and mobility covered Mertesacker’s lack of pace and Mertesacker’s power and height protected Koscielny’s lack of size and strength.
To create another fruitful partnership Arsenal need to look beyond just looking for simply good centre-backs and find a good centre-back that can fuse his strengths and weaknesses with our current crop of central defenders.
Maturity beyond his years
Saliba certainly fits the bill. For a player of such youth and inexperience, he dominates the space he inhabits. He has an impressive burst of pace over the first 5 yards and that allows him to simply stand up onrushing attacking players in the knowledge he can show them wide and have the pace to stop any attempted crosses from the byline.
Saliba is also very good at using his upper body strength to overpower players and while he will still need playing time to learn defensive protocol, especially in a league like the Premiership, he is a monster in duels.
Another thing that Saliba has garnered a reputation for is the ability to carry the ball up the pitch – much like the aforementioned Issa Diop, Saliba isn’t just content with simply defending and when space is there can carry the ball through the thirds to create dangerous counter attacks.
Out of all the teenagers in Europe’s top 5 league’s William Saliba has more interceptions per 90 than anyone and in 2019 Saint-Étienne have been able to achieve 8 clean sheets in the 12 games Saliba has featured in.
In 1277 of Ligue 1 minutes that Saliba has played this season he’s only received 1 yellow card and commits 0.6 fouls per 90 minutes he plays which show he isn’t rash in the challenge, something that Arsenal definitely need in whatever centre-back that comes in.
If they are good enough, they are old enough
Saliba is up there with the top teenage centre-backs in the entirety of Europe and if Arsenal were able to get him to the Emirates it would be a fantastic signing to go into what is becoming a team filled with hugely impressive young talent.
With Arsenal’s new philosophy of looking at younger talent reports have also suggested that we could be close to a breakthrough with Lorient to sign highly-rated French attacking midfielder Alexis Claude Maurice – this signing would go hand in hand with the signings of Matteo Guendouzi and Lucas Torreira who arrived last summer and made big impacts in their first season.
Adding to this an impressive crop of Hale End academy graduates in Reiss Nelson, Bukayo Saka, Joe Willock, Emile Smith-Rowe and Eddie Nketiah and it seems clear that Arsenal is going back to our roots with a team that should re-energise the team and fan-base with the hope we could create more top quality players.