Over the years, Arsenal have been infamous for their defending or the lack of it. Right from the last few years of the Arsene Wenger era after they lost Alex Song to the current era under Mikel Arteta, they always seem to have this soft underbelly. But with passing time, old problems often get sorted out. In William Saliba, Arsenal might already have their solution.
To acquire the Frenchman, Arsenal to fend off strong interest from Tottenham to sign Saliba from St. Etienne. While some thought he’d go straight into Unai Emery’s first-team, he was sent back on loan at ASSE as the Gunners signed David Luiz on a cut-price deal instead.
But as things stand, many Arsenal fans would know where the club’s main issues lie. Pierre Emerick-Aubameyang continues to score vital and rescuing goals, but the side is struggling for a top-four finish and is already out of the Europa League. If not for an inconsistent and struggling backline, things could have been much different.
While Arteta’s arrival has seen Shkodran Mustafi improve to a large extent, David Luiz’s signing hasn’t gone down well. Callum Chambers, Kieran Tierney and Rob Holding continue to face injury issues, while Sokratis is only a stop-gap before someone better comes along. And in Saliba, they could have someone who lifts the team and the defence to another level.
The move to Arsenal had come at the back of a season which saw Saliba make 16 Ligue 1 appearances for St. Etienne. He wasn’t a regular, but his ability to act like a complete centra defender had set him apart, leading to multiple clubs wanting him.
The campaign had seen Saliba win 2.3 tackles per 90 minutes, while being dribbled past only 0.6 times per 90 minutes. He had an impressive tackling percentage, also boasting of two interceptions per 90 minutes.
This has season has seen Saliba make only 12 appearances as his season was plagued by two separate injuries. But earlier in the campaign, St. Etienne hadn’t lost a single game when Saliba had played. Their campaign did hit the rails later on, but Saliba has shown big signs of promise already.
One quality that Saliba has will benefit Arsenal under Arteta and that is his tendency to bring the ball out. He has very good technical ability, which makes him very competent on the ball. Saliba has a passing accuracy in his own half of 91.2 percent, with his passing accuracy in the opposition’s half standing at 80.4 percent. More so, a big 36 percent of his passes are forward, showing how good he is at playing out from the back.
Considering how Luiz has been a useful player to help Arsenal construct play from the back, Saliba will play a similar role. His comparisons with Raphael Varane show exactly the sort of player he is- someone who is fast, strong in the tackle and exceptional on the ball.
Most of all, he isn’t a stop-gap option like Luiz or Sokratis were. He’s young like Chambers and Holding but more established for first-team football than they were. Injuries are a concern that Arsenal would have to go past, but Saliba has shown that even with injuries he can be a reliable central defender.
He might take his time to settle in completely, but he has the perfect skill set to make a big impact at Arsenal.