Picking up from where he left off after an outstanding debut season in the Premier League last term, Arsenal’s William Saliba has emerged as one of the best defenders in the country.
An ever present for the Gunners in the Premier League so far this season, Saliba is the cornerstone of the joint-best defence in the division at present – with Arsenal’s tally of 10 goals against only equalled by Liverpool.
At just 22 years old, there is still plenty developing to do for the supremely talented Frenchman, who plays in a position in which players usually hit their peak in their late 20s and early 30s.
We take a deep dive into Saliba’s career trajectory to date and rapid progress at Arsenal in the latest edition of In Focus…
Although it seems as though Saliba has fitted into the Premier League seamlessly since making his Arsenal debut at the start of last season, the defender was forced to bide his time for a first team breakthrough at the Emirates.
Signed for a substantial fee of around £27m from Saint-Etienne in 2019 before being instantly loaned back to the club where he made his professional debut, Saliba would later be sent out on loan to his homeland twice more at Nice and Marseille respectively.
This delay in being afforded a chance at Arsenal was a source of frustration for the young centre-back, who after signing for Nice on loan in February 2021 told the French media:
“He [Arteta] judged me on two and a half matches. I was waiting for him to give me a chance, but football is like that.”
Rather than remain disheartened by his situation, Saliba went home and worked hard on his craft, enjoying productive loan spells in Ligue 1.
During this period Saliba became physically and mentally stronger, instilling a sense of resilience which can only serve him well for the remainder of his career.
Earning Nice’s Player of the Month in January 2021 just a matter of weeks after signing on loan until the end of the season, Saliba made 20 top flight appearances for the club.
His development went up a notch at Marseille the following season, 2021/22, with Saliba awarded Ligue 1’s Young Player of the Year and named in the Team of the Year, with the French giants finishing second in the league and reaching the Europa Conference League semi-finals.
By the summer of 2022, following three separate loan spells away from the club, Saliba was desperate to finally make the breakthrough at his parent club, telling French TV programme Telefoot:
“I belong to Arsenal, I still have two years left on my contract. I have played zero matches and I still want to show them my true face and have the chance to play for these fans and this great club.”
Under increasing pressure from an Arsenal fanbase desperate to see their young defensive prospect given an opportunity at the Emirates, it did not take long for Mikel Arteta to be convinced it was time for Saliba to be unleashed:
In pre-season he took out every question mark that we could have with him and gave us all the reasons to play him. He’s been exceptional ever since.
- Mikel Arteta, March 2023
Saliba made 36 Ligue 1 appearances on loan at Marseille during the 2021/22 season.
To say Saliba’s maiden season as a first team player at Arsenal was a revelation would be an understatement, although he did already have a fully-fledged army of Gunners supporters championing him as a future star on social media.
Nonetheless, the way the Frenchman was able to hit the ground running in the Premier League was striking, with the Saint Etienne academy graduate named Player of the Match on his Arsenal debut in a 2-0 win for the Gunners at Crystal Palace.
From that point until mid-march when Saliba suffered a season-ending back injury in a Europa League match against Sporting Lisbon, the classy Frenchman barely put a foot wrong as Arsenal unexpectedly led Manchester City in the Premier League title race.
Up until Saliba’s injury, Arsenal had dropped points in just five of their first 27 Premier League matches – two draws and three defeats – and were eight points clear of City in the table with 11 matches remaining.
Rocked by the loss of Saliba, with Rob Holding deputising in his absence, Arsenal would end the season poorly, dropping points in six of their closing 11 matches – including a 4-1 dismantling at the Etihad – to hand Pep Guardiola’s side their third consecutive Premier League title.
Saliba had formed a solid partnership with Gabriel at centre-back, with the Frenchman very much the leader of the backline despite being four years the Brazilian's junior, and the lack of understanding without him was conspicuous at the end of the season with Arsenal conceding 18 goals in their last 11 games.
Who knows what would have unfolded had Saliba remained fit for Arsenal’s end of season run in, with Gunners forward Gabriel Jesus highlighting the defender’s absence as pivotal:
“When Saliba got injured, it was complicated. Look at the stats, we concede a lot less with him."
A complete defender, it was not only Saliba’s reading of the game and recovery pace which has caught the eye in North London, but his composure and ability to play out from the back too.
The 22-year-old’s performances in the 2022/23 campaign were so impressive that he was named in the Premier League Team of the Season alongside Man City duo Ruben Dias and John Stones and Newcastle’s Kieran Trippier in defence, with a lucrative new four-year contract at the Emirates his reward in the summer.
With Saliba back to fitness ahead of the latest Premier League season, Arsenal’s defensive stubbornness has returned, with the defender now unquestionably one of Arteta’s most indispensable players.
The France international has started the 2023/24 campaign in outstanding form, as the number one defender in the division for one-v-one defending having successfully tackled 87.5% of dribblers facing him, and completed the second most passes in the league with 942, behind only Brighton skipper Lewis Dunk.
Currently just one point behind City at the top of the Premier League table, safely through to the knockout rounds of the Champions League and with the FA Cup to look forward to, Arsenal supporters will be praying their star defender will remain fit and healthy to help inspire them to much-craved silverware this season.
I want to win everything here at Arsenal – and to put the club back on the very top. I want to win every title.
- William Saliba, February 2023
Arsenal last won the Premier League title back in the Invincibles season of 2003/04.
Premier League (2022/23 - )
|Avg. Goals conceded per match
To Win Outright - 4/1
To Win Outright Without Man City - 5/4
To Finish in Top 2 -
To Win Outright - 8/1
To Reach Final - 3/1
To Win Outright - 8/1
To Win a Major Trophy - 7/4
Despite emerging as one of an impressive Arsenal side’s most important players, and in turn one of the Premier League’s top defenders, Saliba has surprisingly remained on the fringes of France’s international setup under Didier Deschamps.
Making his senior debut for France in a friendly against the Ivory Coast in March 2022, whilst still on loan at Marseille, Saliba was included in Deschamps’ final 26-man squad for the Qatar World Cup in November.
The talented young defender would play a bit part role for Les Bleus in the tournament, however, receiving just 27 minutes of action off the bench in a group stage dead rubber against Tunisia, with France eventually finishing as runners-up in the competition to Argentina after losing the final on penalties.
Man Utd’s Raphael Varane, Bayern Munich’s Dayot Upamecano and Liverpool’s Ibrahima Konate were all preferred at centre-back despite Saliba’s outstanding club form, with French boss Deschamps clearly not yet totally convinced he could trust the Arsenal star.
Although largely due to injury, Saliba is still yet to establish himself as a first choice defender in Deschamps’ plans, starting just one competitive match for Les Bleus since the World Cup, in what was a heavily rotated side in a meaningless Euros qualifier against Greece.
Like in all positions within a stacked French squad, competition for places at centre-back is fierce, with the likes of Konate, Upamecano, Benjamin Pavard and Lucas Hernandez all battling to play, but with Varane having retired from international duty earlier this year, you would expect there to be a role for a player of the proven class of Saliba to step into.
French boss Deschamps feels Saliba has struggled with the pressure of not being a guaranteed starter for his country as he is with Arsenal given his comparative lack of game time to date, telling the French media:
“He [Saliba] isn't in the same psychological situation with his club. When he has playing time with us, he must say to himself: 'I have to perform well', because there are others behind him."
Time is running out until the Euros kick off in Germany next summer, with Saliba still largely untested at international level, and Deschamps is a manager who very much favours continuity in his selections.
Joint-favourites to win the tournament alongside England, an already formidable French outfit – who dished out a record 14-0 drubbing of Gibraltar in a Euros Qualifier in the most recent international break – could yet go up a notch should one of the Premier League’s outstanding defenders in Saliba establish himself in the side.
France will be aiming for their first Euros crown since Euro 2000 in Belgium and the Netherlands when they head to Germany next summer.
Saliba is a really good player. When I look at him, he reminds me of a player I used to play against - Rio Ferdinand. If you look at how Saliba plays, and how Rio did when he was young, they have the same style.
- Ex-Arsenal and France defender William Gallas, August 2022