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William Saliba

Saint-Étienne to Arsenal, £27m

Arsenal’s defence has improved since Mikel Arteta took charge, but their problems at that end of the pitch remain all too concerningly apparent. For the team to wrestle their way back into English football’s elite, significant changes are needed at the back – be that changes in personnel or Arteta’s out-of-possession set-up at his new club.

Most onlookers would argue that their first-choice centre-backs are not up to the standard a club like Arsenal require, and in William Saliba, the French teenager signed from Ligue 1 side Saint-Étienne in July 2019 and then loaned back for 2019/20, Arteta will hope to have a player who can eventually reach that standard. The manager has been quick to temper expectations, but he will be as aware as anyone of Saliba’s potential. “I know how high the expectations are on him for next year but we have to bear in mind the age that he is at and what he has done in the past” Arteta said. “I will make sure that we create the right environment for him so that he can keep growing as a player.”

Tactical analysis
At more than 6ft 3in, Saliba is built to be a centre-back. But while his size is clearly useful for a 19-year-old breaking through at the top end of European football, he stands out more for his reading of the game, and actually needs to offer an improved aerial presence.

Saliba is a proactive defender who likes to step out of defence and steal the ball from a forward (below) rather than stand off and try to shepherd play back the way it came. He is clever in the way he positions himself to use his body to manoeuvre opponents away from play in order to steal the ball. He is the only player to make more than 10 appearances in Ligue 1 in 2019/20 who ranks in the top 10 centre-backs for both tackles and interceptions made per game, averaging a combined total of 3.5.

In a very general sense, centre-backs tend to be one of two types of defender – those that actively try to defend and those who hold off and wait for play to reach them. Saliba fits into the first of those categories, but what is so impressive about him is how infrequently he gets those attempts to win the ball wrong. Having struggled with injuries in the first half of the campaign, he made a starting berth in the Saint-Étienne team his own in the new year and, while making 40 tackles and interceptions in his 12 appearances, he committed only two fouls. Unfortunately, one of those two fouls conceded a penalty against Rennes in the Coupe de France semi final, though Saint-Étienne came from behind to win  and progress to the final.

Though he doesn’t commit many fouls, Saliba can be overzealous in how he approaches opponents in sprinting right up until he makes contact and leaving himself open to a tricky winger skipping past him. In the faster-paced Premier League, he will need to learn to be more savvy in choosing his moments to try and win the ball.

Given his sizeable frame, Saliba does not dominate in the air as much as might be expected – or perhaps as much as he should. Too often he gets himself into a position to win a header but mistimes his leap and ends up making an ineffective contact, and he has been found wanting in both attacking and defensive situations. He is often a target at attacking set-pieces, but too regularly fails to make a proper connection with his header, and so provides less of a threat on goal than he could. Defensively, he too frequently stands too square on to the ball at crosses, making it easier for attackers to escape his attention and make a run on his blindside.

When blocking shots, Saliba tends to step forward and use the outside of the foot that is nearest the ball. The positive to this is that he is able to maintain his balance and has the weight of his body behind the shot to absorb the force, usually leading to a successful block; the downside is that he sometimes turns his head as his opponent shapes to shoot, and is susceptible to a dummy shot that allows the attacker to move past him.

Role at Saint-Étienne
One of Saliba’s greatest strengths is the fact that he is already comfortable playing on the left side of central defence despite being right-footed. He is calm and confident on the ball, and plays a key role in his side’s attempts to play out from the back.

When Saint-Étienne goalkeeper Stéphane Ruffier has possession, the full-backs move high and wide to create space in the middle, and Saliba is adept at receiving a pass from Ruffier near his own goal and quickly finding a pass into the ball-playing central midfielders Yohan Cabaye and Yann M’Vila. He is bold with his passes, and often finds a teammate beyond the opposition midfield line with a quick, vertical, line-breaking pass (above). He trusts his teammates to control and protect the ball and then progress play, putting power on the pass to ensure it reaches its target. This provides the foundations of many of Saint-Étienne’s attacks, and is not dissimilar to how David Luiz plays out from defence for Arsenal.

Saint-Étienne conceded too many goals in 2019/20 – they have been opened up too frequently, and their central defenders have been exposed on far too many occasions. Saliba does not panic in these situations, though, and he adopts the correct body shape to guide his opponent away from goal (above) while back-pedalling at pace. He is rarely beaten when one-on-one and is also adept at turning and chasing an opponent down if they get half a yard ahead of him, using his body to move between player and ball or to guide the opponent towards the touchline and away from danger. He relishes one-on-one battles, and makes the most of his upper-body strength to push attackers off the ball.

Arteta will hope that Saliba is not exposed so regularly at Arsenal, but it may be reassuring that the Frenchman can hold his own in a foot race. There is plenty of potential for the Spaniard to work with when Saliba joins his new team.

William Saliba

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