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William Saliba’s ‘transition year’

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Mikel Arteta played down expectations for the young French centerback this season.

Arsenal Training Session Photo by Stuart MacFarlane/Arsenal FC via Getty Images

William Saliba has still yet to play a competitive match for Arsenal. But he’s generated a whole mess of “buzz” since the Gunners purchased him from St. Etienne and immediately loaned him back to Ligue 1. It’s understandable — Saliba is widely rated as one of the top U-21 centerbacks in Europe. He, along with Gabriel Magalhaes, are the “centerbacks of the future” in North London.

When Saliba started Arsenal’s final friendly of the offseason against MK Dons, people took that as a sign that he would be involved in the first team this year. That hasn’t been the case. People thought Saliba might get a run-out in the Carabao Cup against either Leicester or Liverpool. He didn’t. And he wasn’t even on the bench at Anfield.

So what’s up with that? Mikel Arteta was basically asked that question (in a slightly more articulate manner) after the Liverpool match.

He had a year last year where Arsenal loaned him to St Etienne and that was a transition year for him.

For many reasons, that wasn’t the transition year that he needed because he had a lot of injuries, some personal injuries and also with COVID and the French league getting cancelled, he didn’t have that year.

He needs that year of transition and we are trying to make the right decisions for him to give him the best transitional year for him to have the player we want in our future.

So last season was supposed to be the year in which Saliba made the jump from a youth player to senior player, and for the reasons Arteta gave, that didn’t happen. Arsenal want to bring him along slowly, which makes sense, especially for a top prospect with an injury history. Defenders generally take longer to develop and hit their peak at a few years older than attackers, so the Gunners have plenty of time with the 19-year old. There’s little reason to expose him.

A rumor surfaced yesterday that Stade Rennais were interested in signing Saliba on loan for this season. Arsenal have a logjam at centerback, and Saliba is well down the depth chart. If going back out on loan means that Saliba gets regular, first team minutes, I’d be fine with it. But there’s also something to be said for remaining at Arsenal this year. It would allow Arteta and the club to closely monitor and guide his development.

Mikel Arteta harped on “transition” when talking about William Saliba yesterday, but he could also have picked “patience” as his focal point. Arsenal need to be patient with their young prospect. Odds are he’ll turn out to be a very good player in a few years. Just probably not this year.

Buying Saliba last summer was a long-term investment by the club. Yes, Arsenal need results and returns in the short term, but having a balanced portfolio is important. How many times have we seen a U.S. team “go for broke” in free agency and at the trade deadline only to come up short and spend years recovering from the failed push?

The path Arsenal are taking with Saliba is a case-in-point example of why they’re running a football club and we’re not. Supporters don’t do well with taking the long view. We’re not a patient bunch. I trust Mikel Arteta, and if he says it’s a “transitional year” that will set Saliba and Arsenal up for the future, I’m on board with the plan.