English Premier League Transfers

The Curious Case of William Saliba

Why the Frenchman is nowhere to be seen, and how internal politics at the football club may cause Arsenal to miss out on a bright young star…

In July of 2019, Arsenal completed a massive transfer coup in signing Saint-Étienne’s wunderkind teenage center back William Saliba for a reasonable-but-not-insignificant fee of £27 million. The Gunners were competing with their North London rivals Tottenham for the signature of the young Frenchman, but while both clubs met the valuation that Saint-Étienne requested, Saliba chose Arsenal. This was a massive statement of Arsenal’s stature. Despite recent struggles, the club still had the appeal to not only land a major transfer target, but to land one of the best young prospects in world football at the time. Arsenal’s struggling defense would be saved, and part of their spine potentially for the next decade was brought in.

The player came with plenty of hype. Called the “center back Mbappé” by some, mainly due to him hailing from the same Parisian banlieue as Mbappé and even being coached by Mbappé’s dad at AS Bondy, William Saliba was considered the most promising and most coveted young center back prospect coming through at a French club since Raphaël Varane and Samuel Umtiti came through at Lens and Lyon, respectively, in the early 2010s. Saliba was signed by Saint-Étienne in 2016 and fast-tracked through their youth set up, making his professional debut only two years later. He was the brightest gem of a Saint-Étienne youth team that famously won the Coupe Gambardella, France’s premiere u-19 competition, in 2019, a win that Saliba would not even be there to see as he had already made his move to the first team. After an impressive first professional season, one where he played an important role in helping Les Verts finish fourth and narrowly miss out on Champions League qualification, he attracted transfer interest from every corner of Europe. He ended up choosing Arsenal, the club he considered the “club of his dreams”, having grown up watching Arsenal’s French contingent of Thierry Henry, Robert Pires, and Patrick Vieira be managed by the widely-respected Arsène Wenger. It seemed to be the ideal move for all involved, one that would help boost player and club to the upper echelons of European football. After a turbulent but still fairly successful loan back to Saint-Étienne for the 2019-20 season, Saliba returned to the club of his dreams ready to make a mark on the first team.

And he has still yet to make his debut, and no one really knows why.

His start at the club was difficult for other reasons, as he dealt with a death in his family in May, something that, given the circumstances and the age of the player, could not have been easy to deal with. Arteta did a commendable job protecting his player, something that the manager is supposed to do, but after that ordeal, Saliba still could not find his way into the team. He was left off of Arsenal’s Europa League roster, while Pablo Marí and Calum Chambers, both injured at the time, were included. He has yet to make an appearance in the league and has also not even made an appearance in the Carabao Cup. One of the best young center backs in Europe was seemingly frozen out of the first team, and no real explanation has been provided.

Did he come into Arsenal rusty? Sure, but that is expected considering Ligue 1 ended their 2019-20 season at the beginning of the COVID Pandemic. He also did not appear in Saint-Étienne’s Coupe de France Final loss to PSG, meaning he basically did not play a professional match since February. Even then, he put out some strong performances for the Arsenal u-23s, showing the same skill set he showed for Saint-Étienne. The talent is clearly there, so why does he not play?

The decision is even more baffling when you look at the performances of his former teammate and ex-Stephanois center back Wesley Fofana, who signed with Leicester before this season. Fofana was part of that Coupe Gambardella winning team, coming through the youth set up with his own hype and renown, but he was not Saliba. While he is clearly talented in his own right and him being overshadowed by Saliba was a bit unfair, he just was not as good of a player. On the occasions last season where Fofana and Saliba started alongside each other, Saliba was almost consistently the more impressive player. That is not a knock on Fofana, that just shows how talented Saliba is. A year on, however, Saliba cannot get a game for a struggling Arsenal team, while Fofana is a star for a Leicester team currently sitting in the top four. I would personally back the claim that Saliba was the more impressive player when both were at Saint-Étienne, so why can he not get a game for Arsenal?

Truthfully, I have no idea. I think the rust he came into the club with, as well as the injury he was nursing and the death in the family he had to deal with, did set back his development and put him behind the 8-ball, so to speak. But to this degree, where he cannot even play at all? He cannot even be named among the substitutes? It all seems a bit absurd. I get that when Arsenal’s league struggles seriously kicked in, Mikel Arteta maybe wanted to rely on more senior players to get him out of the jam. It is a rational reaction for most managers at big clubs, especially in the heavily results-driven Premier League, to be less reliant on younger players when you really need results. However, it has seemingly worked the other way for Arsenal, as their recent run of good form has come because Arteta trusted younger players, such as Emile Smith-Rowe, Bukayo Saka, and Gabriel Martinelli, to play key roles in important positions in the team. These young players showed the talent and fight that their senior counterparts were not showing. Why not continue a trend that is clearly working? You cannot tell me that Pablo Marí or Rob Holding or Shkodran Mustafi are so much better than Saliba that it is not even worth making it a competition for places or just even including Saliba in the senior team at all. Despite some minor defensive improvements under Arteta, the back four is still not all that great. You cannot seriously tell me that Saliba is not even good enough to warrant a spot on the bench.

Him not even being named in the Europa League squad might be the most absurd part of this whole story. Saliba played in the Europa League last season for Saint-Étienne, and while he only made two appearances, missing the rest of Les Verts‘ time in the competition due to injury, he played well. If he was good enough to play in this competition for his former club, why is he not good enough to play in this competition for Arsenal? Despite struggles in the league, Arsenal had a very charitable Europa League group, being drawn against Rapid Vienna, Molde, and Dundalk. With a group that easy in a competition where most big sides field younger and reserve players in the Group Stage to deal with fixture congestion, why in the world do you not even consider playing Saliba? Arsenal (rightly) gave chances to youngsters in the Group Stage, including the likes of Smith-Rowe, Folarin Balogun, and Miguel Azeez, and the utilization of six substitutes in European competition gives Saliba even more of a chance to feature, even if only for 20-30 minutes. Yet, he was not even included in the squad for the Group Stage. It is incredibly baffling. Sure, pressure in the league might force Arteta to field more senior players, but you cannot seriously tell me Saliba is not good enough to feature against Dundalk or Molde.

Which leads me to think there is more going on behind the scenes. The first sign that something was wrong was a comment Saliba left on an Instagram post from fellow Frenchman and Arsenal loanee Mattéo Guendouzi, where Saliba referred to Guendouzi as a player that was “locked up like me.” This came up at a time where reports were surfacing alleging that Arteta was beginning to lose the dressing room, with rifts developing between the manager and players. Guendouzi was definitely at odds with Arteta last season (Arteta probably being justified in his displeasure with the Frenchman’s behavior), so if Saliba’s relationship with his manager is anything like that, then there may be no way out for him. There were a few videos posted by Arsenal’s social media and YouTube team, particularly in a challenge video against Alexandre Lacazette on YouTube, where the youngster references his lack of playing time in a conversation that felt fairly awkward and uncomfortable for the viewer. While it was a simple joke on the surface, the under-layers of frustration were palpable. Later that month, Saliba was not named in the Arsenal team that lost 4-1 to Manchester City in the Carabao Cup, with Mustafi starting the match. An article by Chris Wheatley at football.london later in December alleges that neither Arteta nor club technical director Edu Gaspar have told the Frenchman why he is not featuring, leaving Saliba’s team exploring moves away from the club. This has led us to where we are today, with Arsenal actively exploring loan moves away for the youngster in the January window. This feels like anything but an ordinary situation.

While the signs are there that something is wrong, I am not sure what set it off and I am not sure how it gets resolved. I do believe that this is larger than just an issue between player and manager, however. I believe this rocky relationship started when Arsenal did not allow Saliba to play in Saint-Étienne’s Coupe de France Final last season. The final was Saint-Étienne’s first since 2013 and their first Coupe de France Final appearance since 1982. For all intents and purposes, this was going to be the biggest match in which Les Verts have played in Saliba’s lifetime. The manic celebrations at full time of their semifinal win over Rennes, which Saliba was in the thick of, showed how much this final meant for the club. It was a match that Saliba was desperate to play in, and Arsenal told him that he cannot play. While Saliba put on a brave face for the cameras and gave a pretty well-rehearsed, media-trained statement about not being able to play, it was clear that he was disappointed. Saliba is a passionate player, it is not hard to tell his emotions, and he desperately wanted to play in the final and was very frustrated that he was not able to. The dispute between Arsenal and Saint-Étienne that led to this decision had a lot of factors, but, at least from my outsider perspective, it seemed that Arsenal did not let him play to avoid paying a few thousand Euros to ASSÉ as part of an additional loan fee, which, if true, is incredibly absurd for a club of the size of Arsenal. A chump change loan fee is a pretty fair compensation to avoid hurting your relationship with a player that could be a future star for your club. It feels like Saliba arrived at Arsenal not fully trusting the club, and the relationship only deteriorated further from there.

This potential loan in January feels much different from that last loan. It even feels different from the loan back to Saint-Étienne that Saliba almost got back in October, a move that fell through on deadline day due to administrative issues. I get the feeling that if Saliba leaves on loan next month, he will likely not return to Arsenal. I have no idea where it comes from, but it does genuinely feel like there is a sense of distrust between Arteta and Saliba, and I do feel that this relationship extends beyond the manager to Edu and the club in general. It does feel like Saliba wants out permanently, and this loan feels like an effort for Arsenal to try and get the player to play well so they can sell him in the summer and get some of their money back rather than to actually develop him into a future Arsenal center back. I could be wrong about this, and the club he signs for on loan will tell us quite a bit regarding how Arsenal are viewing the purpose of his loan, but it does really feel like this is the end for Saliba at Arsenal.

And that is a shame, because I really like Saliba as a player and was certain he would be a hit at Arsenal. I know I am a Lyon fan, and I do still hate Saint-Étienne as every Lyon fan should, but I cannot hide how blown away I was by Saliba when he came through with Les Verts. Even as an 18/19 year old kid, he seemingly had all of the tools and traits needed to grow into and become a world-class modern center back. He is great on the ball while having a composure that not many teenage players have. His defensive intelligence is also seemingly beyond that of a typical teenager breaking into professional football, able to read the game well, understand where he needs to be positionally at all times, and able to time his challenges to the exact moment. His physicality as a defender is impressive, being 6’4″ and fairly strong and quick, but he never seemed over-reliant on his physicality, as many young defenders are. In short, from my observations, the hype is warranted. He is a brilliant player that has everything needed to become a world-class center back. The much-used British phrase “Rolls Royce player” seemed to fit him perfectly. I thoroughly believed that he would be a lock for the French National Team by World Cup 2022 or Euro 2024. The move to Arsenal clearly has not worked out, and at this point, especially if I am correct about the relationship between the player and the club, a move away would be the best for the player. Arsenal may end up regretting how they handled this situation, as, if Saliba goes on to star for another club, the blame will fall directly on Arteta and Edu. Arsenal’s loss will be someone else’s gain.

As the old saying goes, you don’t know what you have until it’s gone.

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