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

Saliba’s frustrating start

William Saliba’s situation at Arsenal has been a concerning one. Having been brought in for £27 million in 2019, a lot was expected of the then 18-year-old. However, an injury-hit season at St-Etienne, where he returned on loan, in combination with Ligue 1’s early close left the Frenchman with little game time.

Upon his return to Arsenal, the situation grew worse. Arsenal were preoccupied with the need to move on more senior players and their pursuit of Thomas Partey and Houssem Aouar. A loan move for Saliba, who’s chance of senior playing time at the club was slim due to the lack of outgoings, never materialised.

St-Etienne even publicly criticised Arsenal for failing to complete a Deadline Day return loan move. Mikel Arteta has spoken about the regret he has for 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 get senior minutes away from Arsenal but any legitimate links are yet to be reported.

Passing concerns

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

The game was mixed for the Frenchman and gave some insight into the possible reluctance of Arteta to throw the Frenchman in at this early stage. 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 the 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 ball 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 Arteta’s team is concrete and Rob Holding would be the more likely for Saliba to look at superseding. 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 compared to the Frenchman’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 competent with their passing but adventurous, hence his liking of David Luiz. It is possible that the Spaniard’s assessment of Saliba’s passing has raised doubts as whether he is ready.

Defensive mixture

Before the match against Aston Villa, Arsenal had the best defensive record in the league. Whilst it would be fair to comment that having more men behind the ball has aided this improvement, the defensive performances of Hector Bellerin, Holding, Gabriel and Kieran Tierney have been good. The left-hand side in particular has been greatly improved under Arteta. For Saliba to break into the team, the auditions with the youth side 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.

This rash challenge in a Premier League fixture could be hugely detrimental to the side. Whether this has 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 risk them occurring in the Premier League is too high a risk at present.

However, in other areas 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 and his reading of passes were that of a player beyond his 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 needs to develop specific aspects of his game more in order to earn his first senior call-up. The money behind the purchase will always draw focus and fans will always want to see the new players play. However, it is important that Arsenal better manage Saliba’s situation and throwing him into first team football in his current state and form, could do more harm than good.

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Saliba’s frustrating start William Saliba’s situation at Arsenal has been a concerning one. Having been brought in for £27 million in 2019, a lot was expected of the then 18-year-old. However, an injury-hit season at St-Etienne, where he returned on loan, in combination with Ligue 1’s early close left the Frenchman with little game time.Football (soccer) greatest goals and highlights | 101 Great Goals – Feed

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