Few Arsenal players have been spoken about as much as William Saliba has over the last two years, which is remarkable for a player who has yet to even feature in a competitive match for the Gunners. Many found the Frenchman’s exile peculiar – the ability was clearly there to play at a high level. Now, though, Saliba has seemingly earned Mikel Arteta’s trust.
Last season saw Saliba enjoyed a successful loan spell at Marseille, helping the Ligue 1 club back into the Champions League. His performances were enough to catch the eye of Didier Deschamps who has recently drafted the 21-year-old into the French national team. Saliba stands a good chance of being included in their 2022 World Cup squad.
He could also be an important player for Arsenal this season. Arteta has used Saliba throughout pre-season with the Frenchman particularly impressive in a 4-0 victory over Chelsea in Orlando. The Gunners boss has remained coy on why he decided to loan out Saliba last season, but Arteta appears convinced by what he has seen over the summer.
“He looked ready to me today,” Arteta replied when asked if Saliba could handle the demands of the Premier League this season. “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.”
Saliba’s potential has been clear for some time. He burst through as a teenager at Saint Etienne and persuaded Arsenal to pay a transfer fee of £27m for him in July 2019. Arsenal faced stiff competition for the young defender, most notably from Tottenham Hotspur, but their pitch was the strongest one.
At that point, it seemed likely Saliba would be fast-tracked into the Gunners’ first team. However, the young Frenchman was omitted from Arsenal’s Premier League squad in his first season there and was loaned out to Nice midway through his second. Another loan to Marseille suggested Saliba might never get an opportunity for his parent club.
Something has changed, though. Saliba is being prepared for a season in the Premier League. He has been used as one half of a centre back pairing in a back four and also as part of a back three with Gabriel Magalhaes and Ben White on either side of him. At no point has the 21-year-old appeared out of his depth.
Maybe this was the plan all along. It’s possible Arsenal wanted to make sure Saliba’s development would continue and viewed loan deals in Ligue 1, a division he already knew after breaking through at Saint Etienne, as the ideal place for him to gain regular minutes. This could have been the process Arsenal had in mind when they signed the young defender in the first place.
However, the noises out of the Emirates Stadium over the last two years regarding Saliba and his place at Arsenal was that Arteta needed to see more from the Frenchman. He wanted the central defender to demonstrate greater maturity. This summer might have given the Spaniard what he wanted.
Pre-season has been good for Arsenal with Arteta doing more to put his stamp on his team. Gabriel Jesus has hit the ground running with seven goals in four matches for his new team while Oleksandr Zinchenko should offer the Gunners greater versatility and cover in a number of positions. Saliba, a player signed three years ago, could also feel like a new addition.