Arsenal have let go so many in the January transfer window that they are now short of players in various positions. Currently, the club has only three senior centre-backs – White, Gabriel and Holding – and just two strikers. The club hope to somehow secure top-four in the Premier League with this depleted squad. The time has come for Mikel Arteta to integrate William Saliba, who is on loan to Olympique Marseille, into the Arsenal squad.
When Arteta arrived back in December 2019, the Arsenal defence consisted of Sokratis, David Luiz, Shkodran Mustafi, Calum Chambers, Hector Bellerin and Sead Kolasinac. Just over two years, all of them have been replaced, with Chambers and Kolasinac shipped out this January. Only Kieran Tierney is a starter among the defenders who were there when the Spaniard arrived.
The transformation started as soon as Arteta arrived at Emirates from Manchester City. Pablo Mari and Cedric Soares were brought in during his first transfer window in January. Gabriel Magalhaes arrived from Lille in the summer of 2020.
However, last summer, this shake-up was taken to the next level. The board further signed Ben White, Takehiro Tomiyasu and Nuno Tavares, alongside goalkeeper Aaron Ramsdale. White, Tomiyasu and Ramsdale instantly made their mark in the squad and immediately became first-choice players, with Tavares an able cover for Tierney.
Overall, seven senior defenders have arrived at the North London club since Arteta took charge. This is a large number when compared to just four midfield and zero forward signings since the Spaniard’s appointment. Arsenal have, though, formed a very settled defence in Tomiyasu, White, Gabriel and Tierney, all of them 24 or younger. The manager is confident that this back-four can serve the club for years to come. He said:
“The potential [to do that] is there.
“It’s because of the qualities they have individually, how they can complement each other with those qualities and, obviously, because of the age group.
“If we manage them well and they are willing to sustain that, they have a really bright future.”
Arsenal have let in just 25 goals in 22 Premier League games, out of which nine goals came in their first three league games – against Brentford, Chelsea and Manchester City. Tomiyasu had not arrived yet, Gabriel was injured, White was out due to COVID and Leno was still the first-choice keeper. Since the new back-four played together for the first time, they have conceded just 16 goals in 19 league games, with 11 clean sheets.
Summer plans for the Gunners include buying a backup option for Tomiyasu – Djed Spence of Middlesbrough a reported target – and bringing back William Saliba from loan and using him efficiently. The former Saint Etienne defender, who arrived at Arsenal for around £27 million in July 2019, is yet to appear in a competitive game for Arsenal.
After signing for the Gunners, the French defender was sent back on loan to Saint Etienne for the 2019-20 season. Failing to break into the Arsenal first-team, William Saliba was then off to Nice for the second half of the 20-21 season. He is currently with Marseille, producing brilliant performances under manager Jorge Sampaoli.
William Saliba has featured in 23 Ligue 1 matches so far this season and has impressive stats that prove his worth in playing for Arsenal. The 20-year-old defender is good on the ball and has averaged 82.8 passes per 90 minutes, much higher than White (52.8), Gabriel (57.5) and Holding (52.2).
He has a passing accuracy of 93.5 per cent and his possession loss rate is just 8%, both stats are better than all the three current centre-backs under Arteta. His average of 1.2 interceptions per game is only bettered by White (1.4). He also wins possession 7.1 times per 90 minutes, which is much higher than White (5.2), Gabriel (4.1) or Holding (4.9).
William Saliba has a total ball carry progress distance of 3,097 metres in Ligue 1 this season, more than any other player 💪🇫🇷 pic.twitter.com/jLPdRIenFf
— LiveScore (@livescore) February 13, 2022
Even though the Frenchman is playing in Ligue 1 and not the Premier League, these stats are highly impressive for such a young central defender. The North London club are keeping a close eye on their player in Marseille. Loan manager Ben Knapper and technical director Edu have even flown down to France many times to watch him play live. Although some French outlets have reported that William Saliba could be signed by Marseille permanently, Arsenal seem to have no such plan.
Some fans expressed displeasure on how Arteta and the club failed to integrate Saliba into the squad. They are perplexed as to why the defender is yet to appear for the club in a competitive match, who was bought for such a high fee three years ago. But the club believes their approach was right and it enabled him to play regularly in a less physical league than the Premier League
There is no doubt that the young defender has made his mark under Sampaoli, with praises from Montpellier forward Stephy Mavididi, a former Arsenal player. Mavididi said during a recent interview with LiveScore:
“That guy’s a player.”
“He’s hands down one of the best defenders in the league.”
“I think he’ll walk back into the Arsenal team next season. He’s strong, good on the ball, he reads the game well. He’s one of the best centre-backs I’ve faced.”
“Everyone can talk about Marquinhos, Thiago Silva, Jerome Boateng, but he’s up there. He’s the one that surprised me the most.”
“I’m an Arsenal fan, too, and playing against Saliba I thought, ‘We’ve got a very decent defender here.'”
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The most important thing for Arsenal this summer is to convince William Saliba of him being an important part of Mikel Arteta’s setup. It is quite natural for him and his representatives to have uncertainties regarding the manager’s plan after three back-to-back loans.
Talks during the summer are reported to include negotiations for a new contract. The club can convince him to stay by pointing towards their shortcomings in defence and making him compete with White and Gabriel for a place in the starting eleven. There is clear space for him in the squad but it will be his duty to establish himself in the first-team. His arrival will certainly be a boost for Arsenal and their aim to secure Champions League regularly.
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