Arsenal's Defence 21/22: The Case for William Saliba
By Sumaiya Vawda
Arsenal's most used central defensive quartet for this season consists of Rob Holding, David Luiz, Gabriel and Pablo Mari. The upcoming summer presents a contractual departure from Luiz and a potential sale of in-form Dinos Mavropanos. Uncertainty also surrounds Calum Chambers, but his versatility has breathed new life into a stuttering career.
Gone will be the need to use both hands to count centre-backs in the squad. Naturally, the defensive options will have to be refurbished. Young, high-potential, ball-playing, homegrown are the descriptors of a modern defensive golden ticket. Someone who ticks all of the boxes? William Saliba. Saliba arrived at Arsenal to the beat of Post Malone's Wow- his time as a Gunner has been anything but admirable. Saliba's readiness, Arteta's treatment and the blundering of his loan move have been well documented. His prominent role at Nice, however, offers the chance to look forward. Amongst Ligue 1 defenders, Saliba ranks in the top 20 for pass completion, duel success, recoveries per 90, shot blocks per 90 and clearances per 90 (per CBS's James Benge). In his 14 starts at Nice, the Frenchman has shown a penchant for progressive passing and driving out from defence.
He is an engaging defender, displaying a good perception of his defensive distances in an inexperienced back-line. Saliba profiles a statistically complementary skill set to Arsenal's Gabriel, with the caveat of differing opposition level and team style of play. The left-footer wins 0.68 tackles per 90, where Saliba wins 0.5. William Saliba has not been dribbled past once this season (in 1,170 minutes) and places in the 96th percentile for successful pressure %, although he only attempts 4.57 pressures per game. Gabriel displays greater strength at shot-blocking, while Saliba is effective at intercepting (1.79 per 90) and clearances. Neither player profiles as aerially dominant- an aspect coaching can improve. Although the sample size is not large, the boy from Bondy presents elite progressive carry numbers. Both of the young defenders possess the speed and body dynamic of a contemporary defender required to play on the front foot and cover large spaces.
A natural balance may be found between Gabriel playing a more conservative role and Saliba shouldering the progressive passing duties.
Here he averages 4.19 per 90, where David Luiz completes 3.45. The 20-year old further mirrors Luiz's long passing statistics, although his acumen is likely not yet on the same level (Note: all statistics are via FBref). Gabriel has adjusted well to life in North London, despite a few performance creases which need ironing. Similarly, game-time would aid Saliba's adaptation, hopefully heightening the intensity currently lacking in his play. Reports have linked Arsenal with Ibrahima Konaté and Club Brugge's Odilon Kossounou. Both are young right-footers but sit on disparate pricing shelves. Konaté is the equally talented but perhaps less discussed partner to Leipzig's Dayot Upamecano, who secured a Munich berth for £38 million. Interestingly, Konaté profiles similarly to Saliba's St. Etienne defensive partner, Wesley Fofana, who has seamlessly slipped into fox skin in the Premier League. Konaté is imperious aerially, but his pass completion is underwhelming. This may be due, in part, to progressive intent. He is undoubtedly a premium talent but comes with a niggling injury record, completing under twelve 90's this season. Additionally, it seems Liverpool have set their sights on the player. Thus, it's difficult to see how the club comes up with any significant outlay for him.
It's been rumoured that Arsenal solicited two former players' help in their bid to attract Kossounou. His star has rapidly risen as an all-action defender and is appraised at £8.5 million (plus add-ons) by reports. The Ivorian is statistically strong in the tackle, well-positioned for interceptions and keeps pace with Champions League attackers. He presents a cheaper if less polished alternative.
Another name seemingly in the hat for the Gunners is Dan-Axel Zagadou. The 21-year old offers cover at left-back but does not make sense as a centre-back since Gabriel and Mari adeptly hold that side. Zagadou recently underwent season-ending surgery. Moreover, Dortmund would not be incentivised to sell if the astronomical bids proposed for Erling Haaland do materialise. Arsenal invested in the region of £27 million on Saliba following an entire season starting in Ligue 1 as a 17-year old. That in itself is rather impressive. He was voted Nice's player of the month for January, and not long ago was he touted to be in the mould of world-leading centre-backs.
While he has featured heavily on the left, he can slot in as a right-sided option along with Rob Holding. Additionally, Saliba still falls on the under-21 squad list and will qualify as homegrown at the end of the season in which he turns 21. If Arteta does not view him in the flattering light that most scouts seemingly do, the manager must be prepared to re-shape his tools for optimal use. Investing in prodigious young talents is simply smart; squandering it would be a shame. Saliba should be in pole position to stake a spot in the defensive unit. Once that is asserted, the club may make auxiliary picks (like the exciting Kossounou) to plump Arteta's cavalry based on outgoings.