William Saliba’s “time” at Arsenal has been tumultuous. Even though he’s yet to make an official senior appearance for the Gunners (he’s only played in friendlies), he’s been the centerpiece of much of The Discourse surrounding the club.
To boil it down, there seemed to be some disconnect / disagreement in the fall about his readiness and role for this season. Saliba, as players do, wanted more of a chance to earn a first team place. Mikel Arteta felt he wasn’t ready. He didn’t make a first team appearance and only played twice for the U23’s. He was loaned to Nice in January and played well, earning several MOTM honors and getting named to the Ligue 1 team of the week multiple times.
Per multiple reports, Saliba will have a chance to force his way into the Arsenal first team this preseason and will not be sold despite interest from Nice and Bayer Leverkusen. With David Luiz leaving the club, the first-choice right centerback slot is open. Rob Holding is the front runner to be there on the first team sheet next season, but he isn’t a difference-maker at the position. He’s a solid defender who doesn’t make many mistakes, who is not likely to cost Arsenal many points, but he’s also not likely to win them many either.
The biggest issue with Holding is that his long passing leaves a lot to be desired. Mikel Arteta’s system works much better with centerbacks who threaten to stretch the defense with an accurate ball over the top and can ping a switch across the field to bring the fullbacks into the play. Saliba’s passing statistics in Ligue 1 compare favorably across the Big 5 leagues and are much better than Holding’s passing stats. You can factor in whatever perceived differences in quality between France and England suits you when interpreting those numbers.
Right now, Saliba has a higher ceiling both next season and overall than Holding, but he also has a lower floor. You always know what you’re going to get from Holding — somewhere between a 5 and a 7 out of 10 performance. My feeling is should Saliba earn a spot in the rotation, he’s going to put in some 4’s but also some 8’s, much in the same way that Gabriel did this season.
I’d like to see Saliba have a season like Gabriel did this year in terms of selection: play about half the matches, get a stretch of consecutive starts, and work his way into to squad and up to Premier League speed. The problem is with Arsenal out of Europe, there will be fewer matches this season and fewer high-leverage situations to blood a young centerback.
In many ways, Saliba’s situation encapsulates the state of affairs at Arsenal. The club needs to remake the roster and build for the future by playing / developing younger guys like Saliba, while also winning now. Those two goals are often positioned in opposition to each other — Arsenal have to be worse on the pitch in the short term to get better for the medium to long term.
But that’s a false dichotomy, and Arsenal, of all clubs, should understand that. Bukayo Saka, a 19-year old, was probably the best player at the club this season. Making 20-year old Emile Smith Rowe a regular on the team sheet jump-started the attack and turned the season around. Age has little to do with it. If the young players are the best players, play them. And it’s not a position thing, either. Wesley Fofana, Saliba’s 20-year old centerback partner at Saint-Étienne who moved to Leicester last summer, was fantastic for the Foxes before an injury ended his season early.
Arsenal bought William Saliba to be the club’s centerback of the future. That future may be now. Mikel Arteta would do well to give the Frenchman a long, hard look this preseason, and it looks as if that is exactly what is going to happen.