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William Saliba and the ‘transition year’ that Arteta wants

By Vinay Shankar (Tactical Analyst)

An incredibly exciting prospect that came with a hefty price tag but a signing that was expected to be a regular fixture in the long term. The problem with that: we as fans don’t have the patience to allow for a teenager to settle down in a new country and importantly, feel comfortable. Meanwhile, aside from the Villa game and attacking woes, this has been one of the most resilient defensive units in Arsenal’s recent history on the pitch, which will limit team selection in these positions.

Two aspects need to be taken into account while looking at the Frenchman’s situation- the mental and the physical. It would be incredibly irresponsible to speculate on the impact of personal tragedies on anybody, let alone a teenager who just moved to an unfamiliar country. The proposed loan move to Saint Etienne, which later fell through, suggests that both parties feel the need for the player to be close to home for the time being. While it may not have panned out, it would be unsurprising to see the sentiment remain in the next window.

In the physical fitness area, a clearer picture starts to emerge and this is very much down to the repercussions of the pandemic. After a stellar breakthrough season in 2018-19, the most important thing for young players is to find that consistency and reach the level of performance achieved the year before. This is true for any rookie player, not just in football but in any sport. Some players tend to find the step-up from the youth game tough but once they do, they find the level to stay there whereas others find the step-up relatively easier but have to struggle to find the consistency later on.

In Saliba’s case, injuries and a curtailed season meant he could make just 15 appearances and the lack of continuity meant he couldn’t get the consistency he needed to eventually ease into the Arsenal team. A curtailed season also meant he couldn’t have a proper pre-season whereas all the other leagues restarting meant his conditioning wouldn’t be at the level that Arsenal’s players were at. Because of a short gap between seasons, the players wouldn’t have lost too much condition and this is where Saliba appears to have lost out because there wasn’t a proper pre-season for him to reach the level of his teammates. Just pure misfortune for the player, but these are weird times, so no party is at fault here.

Another obvious comparison that would come up is, wouldn’t Gabriel have faced the same problem? But Gabriel has been playing consistent football (league and UCL) for the last 18 months and crucially, had a proper pre-season with Lille, including friendlies in the July-August period to get match fitness, allowing him to be at the required condition when he joined Arsenal. Another case for comparison would be Leicester’s Wesley Fofana, a player in a similar age and profile to Saliba, but seems to have made the transition quickly. However, the key difference is that the player moved only in October, having played quite a few games in Ligue 1 and thus wasn’t lacking in condition. Added to that, Leicester only had 1 fit centre-back when he joined, so the doors just opened up much more quickly and this may not have happened if everyone was fit.

This is why Arteta feels that the player needs the ‘transition year’. A consistent run of games under his belt, ideally close to home, would not only allow the player to reach the required level but importantly, remain in a safe space mentally. Arteta is someone who moved to the Barcelona academy as a kid, then to PSG as a teenager, and then Scotland as well early on so he would be someone who can guide the player through this transition.

The collapse of the loan move, injury setbacks to the likes of Mari among other things has left everyone red-faced about the player’s inclusion in the Europa but the luck’s just not there right now and it’s been that kind of a year. Perhaps an upside to this is that the player has been able to train with the first-team every day which wouldn’t have happened otherwise. The likes of Mustafi and Sokratis leaving in the summer, along with some consistent game time, and hopefully, a proper pre-season in 2021 should allow the player to make the transition and become a regular for years to come but crucially, all parties need to be clear about the situation to get the best out of the player.

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