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Could William Saliba play for Arsenal this season?

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The on-loan centerback might make his Arsenal debut sooner than expected.

AS Saint-Etienne v Girondins de Bordeaux - Ligue 1 Photo by Romain Biard/Icon Sport via Getty Images

Arsenal may get some unexpected relief from their centerback crisis. There is an outside chance that they will be able to register returning-from-loan William Saliba. The Gunners bought Saliba over the summer, but as part of the purchase agreement, immediately loaned him back to Saint-Etienne. Ligue 1 cancelled it’s remaining season in late April.

Per FIFA, Saliba cannot be registered for Arsenal before July 1st. After that, things get murky.

As part of Project Restart, the Premier League decided that players returning from loans will not be able to play for their parent clubs to maintain the “competitive integrity” of the season, whatever that means, except in “exceptional circumstances.” That phrase was left intentionally vague, and clubs have been encouraged to use U23 players to fill out their now-expanded roster space.

With Pablo Mari out for the season, David Luiz’s upcoming two-match suspension and contract expiration on June 30th, Sokratis only hoping to return to full training sometime in the next two weeks, and Calum Chambers still rehabbing from his torn ACL, Arsenal have two available senior centerbacks right now — Shkodran Mustafi and Rob Holding.

The Gunners have 19-year old centerbacks Zech Medley and Mark McGuinness with the U23s who could be added to the senior roster. The third listed centerback, Daniel Ballard, is injured. 19-year old U23 captain Harry Clarke has also played CB this season.

Arsenal could also have a senior player fill-in at centerback. According to Transfermarkt, Kieran Tierney made 7 appearances at CB with Celtic. Granit Xhaka, who has deputized at centerback in the past, isn’t expected back in full training for two weeks.

Whether all that constitutes “exceptional circumstances” is anybody’s guess. It feels like it should, but I wouldn’t get my hopes up that we will be seeing William Saliba playing in an Arsenal shirt in July.

I’m also not sure how much of an impact Saliba would have even if he were registered. He’d be a body at the position, for sure. But as we’ve seen, the injury-rate seems higher with the quick resumption of play. He had a good season that earned him a spot on the 100-player not-that-shortlist for Golden Boy, but he was limited to 15 appearances by various nagging injuries. He also probably hasn’t been in organized training since Ligue 1 was suspended in March.

If Arsenal are able to register him, he’s going to need time to regain something approaching match fitness. There’s value to getting him some Premier League experience, but at what cost? Is it really the best idea to risk a guy you hope is going to be the centerback of the future for a few appearances in this wacky run-in? I’ll defer to the club’s judgment, but they need to weigh the short-term versus long-term benefits carefully.

I hate to be a wet blanket — discretion might be the better part of valor where William Saliba is concerned.