Arsenal signed William Saliba from Saint-Etienne in 2019. The Gunners paid a handsome £27 million at that point for the highly-rated Frenchman. Three years after the signing, the Frenchman is yet to earn his first professional cap for the north London side.
The 21-year-old centre-back was immediately sent back to Saint-Etienne on loan for the 2019-20 season. The youngster registered 17 appearances across all competitions (stats via transfermarkt) and rejoined Arteta’s ranks for the 2020-21 season.
William Saliba, however, had a disastrous start to his career at Arsenal. In his first 6 months, the ASSE youth product failed to register even one minute of playing time. Instead, he was relegated to the U-23 team where he made just 6 appearances.
The French defender was sent out on loan back to France. Just 19 years old at that point, he joined OGC Nice on a six-month loan spell. The move reaped dividends, as Saliba registered 20 Ligue 1 appearances and even scored his first professional goal (stats via Transfermarkt).
With the signing of Ben White, the Gunners added to their roster of Gabriel, Pablo Mari and Rob Holding, another centre-back for the 2021-22 season. Saliba was once again sent out on loan; under Jorge Sampaoli at Olympique Marseille.
The Frenchman enjoyed the best spell of his career under the former Sevilla boss, registering 52 appearances across all competitions (stats via transfermarkt). Saliba was largely used as a centre-back in a back-4, or as the exterior in a back-3. He even played right-back on one occasion.
Saliba Impresses Arteta in Pre-season
Back with Arsenal ahead of the 2022/23 season, William Saliba has been churning out impressive performances in the pre-season. After the 4-0 thumping of Chelsea, the centre-back drew special praise from manager Mikel Arteta:
“I am really pleased to see the way he is playing, the way he has adapted to the team, the maturity that he’s shown at 21 years old; carry on doing it,”
“We will keep developing him, he has a huge potential, he is already a top player and we have to make him even better.”
The Spaniard also responded to whether Saliba was ready for first-team action:
“He looked ready to me today.”
Saliba vs Chelsea – Another outstanding performance pic.twitter.com/bmJGKrohnN
— Haych (@AFCHaych) July 24, 2022
Arteta largely used Ben White and Gabriel in central defence last season. Rob Holding served as an able deputy, while Takehiro Tomiyasu is also there to cover the position well when needed. The inclusion of the 21-year-old into the mix poses some questions on how the team may set up next season.
The North London side have remained adamant that they intend to retain their starlet, but other clubs have come knocking this transfer window. FC Barcelona are rumoured to be amongst the interested candidates. Fabrizio Romano has confirmed that Arsenal have intended to keep the Frenchman, and are not negotiating a transfer.
If the Gunners are to retain the defender, it is quite possible that he will expect regular playing time throughout the season. So, how could Arteta accommodate the talented defender in his plans?
1. The Chelsea Backline
Against Chelsea, Arteta named a backline of Oleksandr Zinchenko, Gabriel, Saliba, and Ben White. White operated as a right-back allowing Saliba to partner with Gabriel at the heart of the defence.
In possession, Arsenal could take up a back-3 shape. Zinchenko was allowed to progress higher up while White tucked in as the third defender.
The system worked brilliantly as Arsenal were able to pick apart Chelsea’s press, and comfortably contain the opposition forwards too.
2. Changes In Central Defence?
The only downside to the line-up above would be the exclusion of Takehiro Tomiyasu. The Japanese has been a revelation for Arsenal since signing from Bologna last season. From the right-back position, Tomiyasu offers more variety and versatility than White. He can hold width better, and also tucks into the midfield often. When fit, it is hard to justify that Tomiyasu should not be a starter.
Alternatively, the Arsenak manager could look to pair Ben White with William Saliba in central defence. The 21-year-old worked well on the left side of a back-four at Nice, and at times at Marseille too.
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With their qualification to the Europa League, and a World Cup mid-season, the players will play significantly more games this season. To keep players fresh and avoid injuries, it is important that Arteta rotates his players regularly so that they are available for the second leg of the season.
William Saliba does not have to have a clearly defined role at Arsenal right now as the season hasn’t even started yet. The Frenchman can be experimented with in central defence and maybe even as a right-back until Arteta finds a perfect combination. Regular rotations and player selection based on the form will be a huge factor in Arsenal’s success this season.
How could Saliba fit into the Arsenal XI next season? Let us know in the comments.
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