The William Saliba Insight
William Saliba is one of the best young centre-backs in world football. The 19 year-old Frenchman is currently on loan at Ligue 1 side Saint-Étienne after being signed for a fee of £27m by Arsenal. The hefty price tag may seem crazy for someone who was so young at the time and had such little experience, but when you look into the little details – it becomes clearer.
Ranked 6th in B/R Football’s top 10 teenagers in world football list, and 10th in Football Talent Scout’s top 50 teenager’s list, it becomes clear that Saliba comes with a certain pedigree.
Saliba is a part of the emergence of young center backs from France with super complete skill-sets. Since he will compete with some of the best talents in the world, it would require him to perform and maintain a high level to earn consistent call-ups to the French national team in the future.
Saliba has always been a proper competitor from a young age and competition for places will only make him even better.
While he picked up an injury this season which mean’t he missed a few months, we still got a taste of the player by witnessing his 16 starts in all competitions. Immediately, the one thing that was clear was why we paid such a high price for the player – This was even echoed by Claude Puel who believed that Saint-Étienne lost their ‘best defender’ on the cheap. But what makes him so good? Let’s have a more detailed look.
Even though using stats for defenders isn’t ideal – At 19, Saliba has certain outstanding capabilities which are backed up by data.
Averaging 2.36 tackles per 90 minutes, Saliba is the only outfield player in Europe to have played more than 900 minutes and not committed a single foul from his attempted challenges. He also ranks highly in interceptions, where he gets 1.91 per 90 minutes in the department.
The Frenchman’s passing also stands out. He has an 88% passing accuracy in the league, and a 92% passing accuracy in European competitions. Saliba also averages 3 passes per game into the final third, something that would greatly encourage Mikel Arteta.
“He is very confident in defending, he is not afraid to defend one against one and most of the time he wins the duels, which is the best quality as a defender, You need some security, you need some presence and he has that. For him, staying in the French League after signing for Arsenal was the best decision he could make because he knew he was going to change to a bigger club, but he knew he had to improve his performances. It was like a test, he had to step up his game during this season and the last game I watched of him was amazing. I analysed him as an Arsenal fan and he did very well.”– Former Arsenal defender Bacary Sagna speaking to Goal.com
William Saliba’s physical presence is no joke. He stands imposing at 192cm and has great speed for someone who is so tall and bulky. He often uses his strength to shove opposing forwards off the ball.
In the image provided, Saliba puts his physicality to good use. Rennes attacker M’baye Niang is looking to use his explosive pace to cause the Saint Ettiene defense problems. However, Saliba uses his speed and strength to out-muscle the Rennes attacker. He does this with ease and recycles the play in a very cool manner.
The then 17 year-old shows how good his physicality is on the pitch. It also us gives a glance on how composed he is when on the ball and being pressured.
Saliba hardly ever dives into unnecessary tackles and is an excellent decision maker for his age. As mentioned before, Saliba is the only player in Europe this season who has played more than 900 minutes without committing a single foul, which shows his intelligence in his decision making when tackling and using his physicality.
Saliba epitomes calmness when on the ball. It’s a trait which makes him stand out when compared to other young defensive talents. The 19 year old also shows intelligence off the ball, with his smart positional choices and looks collected and smooth on the ball.
In the picture above, William Saliba, positioned as a LCB in a back three, is pressured to the corner flag of his own goal due to a weak pass from goalkeeper Stephane Ruffier. Monaco striker Wissam Ben Yedder is the player pressurising the young defender.
On the face of it, the best option looks like passing it towards No.14. However, that would be a wrong thing to do, because there are 3 (2 shown in image) opposition players ready to pressure the Saint-Étienne midfielder, which could lead to a goal scoring opportunity for Monaco.
Wissam Ben Yedder opts to go all out for the ball, which would work against most defenders. But not against Saliba – The young french-man manages to dribble past the Ligue 1 top scorer using a silky skill in a seemingly nonchalant manner, which led to the striker tripping over himself.
The 19 year old beats the striker and dribbles into the open space before playing a long pass to a Saint Ettiene attacker.
The image shown above led to arguably the best moment in Saint Ettiene’s underwhelming 2019/20 season. The score was Saint Ettiene 1-1 Rennes in the semi final of the cup competition. It was the last moment of the game and the ball was at Saliba’s feet. He demonstrates his amazing ball carying ability, before playing a crucial pass to his teammate, Dennis Bouanga.
The good dribbling and crucial pass led to Bouanga assisting the ball to attacking midfielder Boudebouz, who smashes the ball into the bottom right corner, which ensured that Saint Ettiene were heading to the final. All started by the composure shown by the then 18 year old defender.
Saliba’s composure is one of the key reasons he is compared to the likes of Raphael Varane and Virgil van Dijk, who are arguably the two best central defenders in the world at the moment.
Early on in the season, Saliba suffered a metatarsal fracture injury, which prevented him from playing for 77 days. In the first half of Ligue 1 season, Saliba only started 4 games – playing a total of 361 minutes out of a possible 900. The injury was also a massive blow for Saint-Étienne, who were fighting a relegation battle.
He finally returned to league action on the 2nd of February, after more than 1 month on the sidelines. Eventually, he played 720 minutes before the season was stopped. The role Saliba played for Saint-Étienne is crucial – The French side suffer without him. Even at 19, the young defender holds a big role in a big Ligue 1 side.
The Athletic reported recently that Saliba had problems with his hip, but he is still young and we back him to shake off these niggles.
Saliba has shown his qualities – Physicality, composure, and confidence. He maintains many traits which most young defenders don’t possess, making him stand out as one of the best young defenders in the world.
Arsenal have struggled with defensive problems in the past. But with Arteta’s emergence and his tactical nous to organize a defense, Saliba will come in and give the Arsenal defense an element of calmness.
The Premier League won’t be like anything the teenager has experienced before, so the Arsenal faithful have to be patient with how much time it takes him to adapt, whether it is a few days, weeks, or months.
One thing for sure is that Arsenal fans should be excited. He’s one of the best young talents in world football and for an abundance of reasons, could become a world class defender in the near future.