In William Saliba, Arsenal fans should be getting excited. The 19-year-old has been on the watchlist of the London club since 2018 and, in July 2019, they got their man. The condition of this £27 million bargain, the Frenchman was loaned back to Saint-Étienne for the 2019/20 season.
In March, football succumbed to the global problems. And so, despite some leagues continuing to play, the French Ligue 1 was swiftly abandoned. PSG were crowned champions, and surrounding clubs were left with more questions than answers.
Saint-Étienne narrowly survived relegation, as points per game kept them safe. And with this, William Saliba returned to Arsenal.
Arsenal’s Defensive Issues
Arsenal have had some spectacular defenders through the years. Names like Tony Adams and Sol Campbell immediately spring to mind. And more recently the centre back pairing of Laurent Koscielny and Per Mertesacker have ensured the Gunners have been solid at the back. Recently though, the lack of structure has shown, as the side looked less and less secure.
In the final three seasons under manager Arsene Wenger, £159.3 million was spent on attacking players. Compare this to the £63.69 million spend bolstering the defence, and the divide becomes clear.
New manager Unai Emery tried to bring in a style of passing out from the back, which had gained so much success in recent years from managers Pep Guardiola and Jürgen Klopp.
But he never had the players to do it. He brought in Sokratis and Stephan Lichtsteiner, neither of whom exactly fit the ‘young, modern footballer’ role. And the incumbent weren’t much better. 51 goals conceded last season, only 2 clubs in the top 10 had worse.
Emery was sacked soon after, but not before giving Arsenal fans a farewell gift – a young defender by the name of William Saliba.
At the time, Emery said “We’re delighted William is joining us. Many teams wanted him but he decided he wanted to come to us and be part of our future. He will stay in France next season for more experience and then we look forward to him joining our group.”
William Saliba Stats – Arsenal’s Future?
Saliba spent the 2019/2020 season in France. Despite only playing 12 games in the season, he was arguably a stand out star in an otherwise struggling squad.
“Among all the players in Europe’s top five leagues to have played at least 900 minutes this term, only two have a better ‘pure tackle success rate’ than Saliba.
‘Pure tackle success rate’ measures how effective a player is by dividing total tackles by a sum of total tackles + challenges lost + fouls conceded when attempting a tackle. Putting this all together, Saliba’s pure tackle success comes in at 79.17%”
Impressive, although somewhat complicated. It shows that he committed the 3rd least amount of fouls, and lost challenges compared to tackles made in Europe’s top 5 leagues.
In a more clear cut statistic, Saliba was the only outfield player to have played at least 900 minutes in Europe’s top five leagues without committing a foul from an attempted tackle.
Going forward, the Frenchman averaged 45.1 passes/game. This is slightly lower than the current Arsenal average. But he is more efficient, with an 88% pass accuracy.
On top of this, the 19-year-old showed signs of individual brilliance this season in just 12 games he had these stats:
- 35 clearances
- 30 aerial duels won
- 21 interceptions
- 19 tackles
- 6 take-ons completed
William Saliba Play Style – What Arsenal Lack
These stats must come as music to Arsenal fans ears when compared to the heavy-handed approach of players like Shkodran Mustafi, David Luiz, and Sokratis. Sleek, effective, and intelligent, the Frenchman epitomises the idea of a good defender.
As Paolo Maldini once said “If I have to make a tackle then I have already made a mistake.”
In William Saliba, Arsenal have a defender that thinks one step ahead. He gets inside the mind of the attacker, and goes for their next move, instead of the ball.
Saliba is quick and strong, and reminds you of a certain Dutch defender taking the league by storm. Too strong to outmuscle, and too fast to outpace, Premier League attackers will have a challenge on their hands.
The Room for Growth
One of the biggest compliments to give Saliba is that it is easy to forget he is still a teenager. Composed and mature, he plays with more intelligence than some who have been in the game for 10+ years.
Coming to the Premier League, though, will be a big step up for the youngster. The game is fast and intense and the players play with a pace that just isn’t the same in the French League.
The reason Virgil van Dijk is so successful is because he has mastered the art of going shoulder to shoulder with the opposition attackers, and coming out on top. Pace and strength yes, but the intelligence to stay on his feet an not make the foul is why he is so great.
Saliba can do that in France. It will be interesting to see if this translates to the English game, where players have developed a knack of going to ground at the slightest touch and getting away with it.
He has a mean streak, something that has been lacking in the Arsenal defence for a while. As a young man, let’s hope Mikel Arteta can develop him into a Premier League defender.
Arsenal’s Defensive Future
It feels so long ago that the Premier League was being contested. And even longer ago when young defender Rob Holding showed the type of displays that got Arsenal fans raving.
The Englishman showed a huge amount of skill and maturity. A terrible knee injury ended his season back in December, but hopefully once play resumes next season, he will be back to his best.
Combine him with Saliba, and the young centre-back pairing could be something special.
There are rumours that they are looking to buy Saliba’s Saint-Étienne defensive partner, Wesley Fofana.
This shows that, unlike his predecessors, maybe Arteta is looking to strengthen the back. In Aubameyang, Pepe, and Özil they have world class players. In Martinelli, Nketiah and Nelson they have the youth. The defence is close, but not quite there.
We previously wrote that Arsenal are looking at signings such as Dayot Upamecano, and Thomas Partey. Big names, although no formal news has been confirmed. But even the sign of defensive players being linked is a promising one.
Arsenal fans, are you excited about Saliba? Will he be the one to fix the defensive struggles?