Tactical Insight: William Saliba – The evidence as to why Mikel Arteta is not yet ready to throw the Frenchman into the Arsenal first team

BOREHAMWOOD, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 30: William Saliba of Arsenal during the Premier League 2 match between Arsenal and Liverpool at Meadow Park on October 30, 2020 in Borehamwood, England. (Photo by David Price/Arsenal FC via Getty Images)

Saliba’s frustrating start

William Saliba’s situation at Arsenal, and the accompanying problems he has faced, have brought concern to much of the club’s fan base.

Having been bought for £27 million in 2019, a lot was expected of the then 18-year-old, with calls having even spread for him to start ahead of the 2020/21 campaign. However, an injury-hit season at St-Etienne, where he had returned on loan, combined with Ligue 1’s early finish, left the Frenchman with little game time, and a lack of preparedness for the new season.

Therefore, rumours that the club may look to send Saliba out on loan proved unsurprising. However, for reasons which are yet unclear, a loan move never materialised.

St-Etienne even publicly criticised Arsenal for failing to green light a Deadline Day loan return. Mikel Arteta has already spoken about the regret he has regarding Saliba’s situation.

“I feel really bad for William Saliba,” Arteta said. “Because we had so many central defenders, we decided to leave him out of the squad which was really hurtful for me to do.”

“I was hoping that Pablo would be back in two weeks but he had a setback and then we don’t have Pablo and we don’t have William when he’s fit and available to play, but when you make those decisions, you can’t always think about every possible outcome.”

With January approaching, Saliba may yet be afforded senior minutes away from Arsenal this season, but any legitimate links are yet to be reported.

Passing concerns

In the meantime, Saliba has been playing with the Gunners’ under-21 and under-23 squads in both league and cup competitions. Tuesday evening, Arsenal’s under-21 side travelled to Gillingham for a cup clash, and Saliba partnered the returning Calum Chambers at centre-half. The Englishman had missed more than 300 days of football with an ACL injury.

The game proved a mixed bag for the Frenchman, and gave some insight into Mikel Arteta’s reluctance to throw Saliba in at the deep end at this early stage. It should be noted that playing youth football may have impacted upon Saliba’s previous style. With such a steep price-tag and expectations on his young shoulders, the stopper’s mentality towards the game, and in turn his decision making, could have been affected.

Surrounded by young burgeoning talent with little to no senior experience, Saliba’s game looked akin to that of a player attempting to prove himself as a cut above the rest. This led to more adventurous passing in an attempt to make things happen. Such openings may not be afforded to the Frenchman when playing for the senior side.

Beginning with his distribution, according to Wyscout, Saliba had a 92% pass completion rate – 10% higher than his partner Chambers.

He was also forward thinking in his play, completing 82% of 39 forward passes during the match. However, when playing the ball into the final third, he was less successful. Saliba was often tempted to try the difficult pass over the top when safer options presented themselves, and in turn lost possession.

Saliba attempts a lofted ball into the final third when safer options were available and the possession is lost.

Saliba attempts a lofted ball into the final third when safer options were available and the possession is lost.

A second example of when other safer passing options were available, Saliba opted for the long pass but possession ended up being lost again.

A second example of when other safer passing options were available, Saliba opted for the long pass but possession ended up being lost again.

Gabriel’s position in Mikel Arteta’s team is concrete, with Rob Holding the more likely for Saliba to attempt to supersede. However, passing-wise, Holding has shone under Arteta. In the last two Premier League games, Holding had a 97% and 93% completion rate, and his pass completion into the final third against Aston Villa and Manchester United was more than doubly accurate when compared to Saliba’s display at Gillingham.

Saliba's passing into the final third (left) in comparison with Holding's against Manchester United (right) shows the clear difference. Holding is typically attempting to feed Hector Bellerin on the right-hand side with progressive passes. Whereas Saliba is trying long balls over the top which more often do not find their target.

Saliba’s passing into the final third against Gillingham (left) in comparison with Holding’s against Manchester United (right). Holding is typically attempting to feed Hector Bellerin on the right-hand side with progressive accurate passes. Whereas Saliba is trying long balls over the top which fail to reach the target.

Arteta requires his centre-halves to be both competent and adventurous with their passing, hence his liking of David Luiz. It is possible that the Spaniard’s assessment of Saliba’s passing has raised doubts as to whether he is ready.

Defensive mixture

Before their meeting with Aston Villa, Arsenal boasted the best defensive record in the Premier league. Whilst it would of course only be fair to note that having more men behind the ball has aided this improvement, the defensive performances of Hector Bellerin, Holding, Gabriel and Kieran Tierney have been solid. The left-hand side in particular has greatly improved under Arteta.

For Saliba to break into the team, his auditions at youth level would need to be flawless and, as of yet, they have not been.

In the 74th minute against Gillingham, Saliba’s high positioning was exposed with a ball in behind for Dominic Samuel. The Gills’ forward got ahead of Saliba, and the Frenchman brought him down as the final man. The referee, fortunately for Saliba, issued a yellow card. In reality, were VAR in play, it would have been deemed as a last man challenge, denying a clear goalscoring opportunity, and Saliba would have been shown a straight red card.

Saliba is caught high and the Gillingham striker Samuel exploits the space between Saliba and Chambers.

Saliba is caught high and the Gillingham striker Samuel exploits the space between the two centre-halves.

In an attempt to win the ball, Saliba fouls Samuel and brings him down just outside the box.

In an attempt to win the ball, Saliba fouls Samuel and brings him down just outside the box.

Such a rash challenge in a Premier League fixture could prove hugely detrimental for Arsenal. Whether such instances have been consistent in training is, as of yet, unclear, but this incident does show some of the raw tendencies many young defenders have. With further coaching, this will improve, but to chance them occurring in the Premier League is too high a risk at present.

In other areas on Tuesday, though, Saliba was solid. Aerially, the Frenchman dealt excellently with crosses and attempted long through passes with his height and game management. His composure in tight spaces on the ball was also good, with his reading of passes befitting of a player beyond the youngster’s years.

When cutting inside, Saliba reads the Gillingham player's intentions and positions himself correctly.

When cutting inside, Saliba reads the Gillingham player’s intentions and positions himself correctly.

When the pass is made, Saliba is able to intercept the ball, recovering possession and breaking down the attack.

When the pass is made, Saliba is able to intercept the ball, recovering possession and breaking down the attack.

There are certainly signs that Arsenal’s investment was well-placed, and it may be that Saliba simply needs to develop specific aspects of his game more in order to earn his first senior call-up for the Gunners.

The money behind his purchase will of course always draw focus, and fans will always want to see new players play. However, it is important that Arsenal manage Saliba’s situation to the player’s benefit, and throwing him into first-team football in his current state and form, could do more harm than good.

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This article was edited by Conor Laird.

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