What Does The Future Hold For William Saliba?
William Saliba has been an Arsenal player for 19 months now, but has yet to play a single minute for the first team. So, what does the future hold for the highly talented teenager?
Saliba was brought to the Emirates from Saint-Étienne in July 2019 by Unai Emery, for a fee of £27m. Many fans were overjoyed, believing Arsenal finally had a long term solution to their defensive woes. The youngster was loaned straight back to the French side for a ‘transition’ season, to further his development and reach Arsenal’s standards. Having only made 19 first team appearances in his breakthrough season as a 17 year-old, this move made a lot of sense; Saliba could stay in familiar surroundings whilst racking up some much needed senior experience.
However, a mixture of COVID-19 and personal issues meant that Saliba did not have the ‘transition’ year required to make the step up to the Premier League – or at least that’s how Arteta saw it. Ligue 1, where Saliba was loaned for the 19/20 season, was halted in March 2020, and subsequently cancelled due to the global pandemic. As a result, Saliba had only managed to tot up 12 league appearances – 4 less than in his breakthrough campaign. Likewise, there were several reports that Saliba had sadly lost both parents within a short space of time, and was struggling to cope emotionally. But to prove his readiness to his new coach, Saliba, nicknamed ‘Wilo’, reported to London Colney before pre-season training to put in some extra graft – but his efforts were in vain.
The Gunners had signed another highly rated centre-back from Ligue 1 in September 2020, Gabriel Magalhães. Arsenal fans were dreaming of a Gabriel x Saliba partnership, but Arteta had other ideas. Whilst Gabriel went straight into our starting line up (and majorly impressed, picking up our first three player of the month awards this campaign), Saliba could still not get near the first team. I have been a major fan of Arteta since he took the helm at the club, but I think his management of the Saliba situation has been relatively poor. Our new number 4 was bottom of the pecking order, with the likes of David Luiz and Shkodran Mustafi – who publicly announced he would not be signing a new contract – taking minutes away from our ‘future’ centre-back. The youngster was even omitted from the Europa League squad, where he could have gained some experience against weaker opponents, like Dundalk or Rapid Vienna. And despite not being in Arteta’s first team plans, Saliba was sent to play with the U23’s instead of out on loan – why?
After a difficult 4 months of no senior minutes, Saliba was finally loaned to OGC Nice in January. The 19 year-old slotted straight into Nice’s backline, already making 10 league appearances and racking up approximately 900 first team minutes. The youngster has undoubtedly impressed in France, picking up the club’s January player of the month award after a strong start to his loan spell. But even more impressively, as reported by Squawka, no opposition player has successfully dribbled past Wilo since his arrival on the South-East coast of France (10 league games) – including Moise Kean, Wissam Ben Yedder and Kylian Mbappé. This strong showing poses the question – why was Saliba left to ‘rot’ in our U23’s?
Saliba has recently spoken out on his tough start to life in North London. Speaking at his official Nice unveiling, Saliba said; “…we had the first friendly matches where I lacked rhythm and was a bit insufficient physically. The coach immediately told me that I was not ready. I would have at least liked to have a chance to rediscover my rhythm. But this is football, it’s like that.” The teenager also claimed that Arteta “judged me on two-and-a-half matches.” These comments weren’t believed to be malicious or a direct criticism of Arteta, but they are unlikely to go down well with the Spaniard – Saliba only has to look at Mattéo Guendouzi as an example of what happens to players out of favour with our coach.
So, will Saliba finally make his Arsenal breakthrough next campaign? Or will there be more struggles on the horizon? The Frenchman will have to compete with Gabriel, Rob Holding, Calum Chambers, Pablo Marí, David Luiz (who is expected to sign a new deal) and the returning Dinos Mavropanos for a place in the starting line-up.
If the 19 year-old carries on in his current vein of form, it would be hard to see who plays in front of him. Speaking after his departure to Nice, technical director Edu described Saliba as a player with “a huge amount of talent and potential.” Simiarly, Arteta said the teenager will be a ‘big part’ of the club’s future. Hopefully we won’t have to wait much longer to see him in red and white.
Without a doubt, we have one of the finest young talents in world football on our books – hopefully Saliba can prove his qualities to Arteta, and come back in the summer, ready to make a name for himself in North London.