The curious case of William Saliba at Arsenal

William Saliba is considered one of the most promising defenders in world football. Thus, when he was signed by the club, Arsenal fans were rightfully excited about the possibility of him leading their backline for the next decade.

However, things haven’t quite panned out that way. David Ornstein, who is usually among the best sources for Arsenal transfer news, is reporting that Saliba is likely to go on a season-long loan to Olympique Marseille. Bought by Arsenal in 2019 for about 30million, he has never stepped out onto the field for Arsenal.

Having broken through at Saint Etienne in the 18/19 season, a lot of big clubs were scouting the promising youngster. The Gunners beat everyone to his signature, tying him to a 5-year contract with the clause that he would be immediately loaned back to Saint Etienne for the next season.

Now that was understandable given Saliba was still quite raw and had only one season of senior football under his belt. Despite struggling with injuries, he was excellent in the 19/20 season in Ligue 1. He He made 40 tackles and interceptions in his 12 appearances and committed only two fouls.

Leicester City v Newcastle United - Premier League
Leicester City v Newcastle United – Premier League

He formed a good centre-back partnership with another youngster, Wesley Fofana. Fofana was rewarded for his great season with a big move, joining Leicester City.

Next season, Saliba did not get any game time at Arsenal, instead having to play for the U23s for the first part of the season before being sent on loan back to Ligue 1, this time to Nice.

Once again Saliba stood out as his arrival revitalized what had been a struggling Nice defense until that point. He stood out playing alongside yet another young French CB in Jean Clair Todibo, and the two of them had a huge role to play in Nice finishing 9th. This time around, he was expected to play a role in the Arsenal setup, but it looks like he’s going out on loan again.

AFC Wimbledon v Arsenal U21 - Papa John
AFC Wimbledon v Arsenal U21 – Papa John’s Trophy

William Saliba has done enough to get a break at Arsenal

There are multiple things that make it very curious. Firstly, in both of his loan spells, Saliba has excelled and shown that he deserves to be a part of the Arsenal squad. He has repeatedly shown that he’s good enough to get a chance.

The argument in favor of another loan spell is that Arsenal want Saliba to progress at his own pace, removed from the scathing English press and Arsenal’s vocal fanbase.

But if that is the case then Arsenal need to find a better destination for him as he has already shown he can do it in Ligue 1, hence this loan will not provide him with a new challenge.

Another argument is that it’s too big a risk to have a 20-year-old CB starting for a club like Arsenal. But that’s simply not true. If you are good enough, you are old enough. For example, Wesley Fofana, Saliba’s CB partner at Saint Etienne, is about the same age as him but he was straightaway put in the Foxes’ starting XI and it would be fair to say that he was among the top 5 players in his position in the Premier League this season.

Leicester narrowly missed out on Champions League qualification, finishing 5th, 3 places and 5 points above Arsenal. And it’s not like the Gunners’ CB options are brimming with quality as well. They were relying on the likes of the now departed David Luiz, Rob Holding and Pablo Mari for large parts of the season, arguably none of whom are upgrades on Saliba.

Arsenal v West Bromwich Albion - Premier League
Arsenal v West Bromwich Albion – Premier League

What makes Arteta’s reluctance towards Saliba more perplexing is the fact that he’s not shy about trusting youngsters. Academy graduates Bukayo Saka and Emile Smith Rowe aged 19 and 20, respectively, were Arsenal’s best players this season.

Their recent transfers to the likes of Gabriel and Kieran Tierney have emphasized this youth-centric approach as well. Even in this window, the players they have been linked with are Nuno Tavares (21), Albert Sambi-Lokonga (21), Ben White (23) and Manuel Locatelli (23).

The thing about Saliba is that no one is saying that he must play every minute of every game but that he must at least stay in the squad and get a chance to fight for a place in the lineup and show the world what he’s capable of.

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