William Saliba started for Arsenal’s under-21’s against Gillingham in the Football League trophy on Tuesday. The Frenchman, signed from Saint-Etienne for £27 million (BBC) in the summer of 2019, is yet to feature for the senior side.
The teenager spent the whole of last season on loan at his former club, where he impressed. Gunners fans had high hopes for Saliba and expected him to play a prominent part under Mikel Arteta at Arsenal this season.
However, the Gunners boss isn’t fully convinced yet. Saliba, still only 19, lacks experience. Due to that, Arteta has been reluctant to use him in any competition so far this season.
That has annoyed a few supporters. Many feel that Saliba deserves a chance with the first-team, and the fact that he has been left out of the Europa League squad is viewed by many as a very strange move.
Why is Saliba so far away from the senior squad? Is he not good enough? Is he not ready to handle the speed and physicality of the English game?
His performance with the under-21’s on Tuesday answered a few questions.
Saliba doesn’t fit in Arteta’s system just yet
Arteta wants a ball-playing centre-half. Summer signing Gabriel Magalhaes has shown that he is brilliant with the ball at his feet, while Rob Holding has done well too. David Luiz is among the best defenders in the world with his passing, and the Brazilian is a key part of the squad as a result.
Saliba had his moments with the ball at his feet against Gillingham. The teenager had 112 touches of the ball and maintained an excellent passing accuracy of 97% in his own half, and 91% overall. (SofaScore)
However, his passing at the other side of the pitch still needs work. The Frenchman’s passing accuracy in the opposition half dropped down to 73% while he completed just 71% of his long balls and just 50% of his chipped passes. (SofaScore)
Gabriel’s passing rate in the opposition half is over 80%, while Rob Holding also impressed in that area in Arsenal’s last two Premier League games against Manchester United and Aston Villa.
Arteta’s system also requires positional discipline. Before the game against Villa, Arsenal boasted of the best defensive record in the Premier League, and their organisation without the ball was one of the biggest reasons why they have been so difficult to score against.
In the 74th minute of the game against Gillingham, Saliba was caught out of position high up the pitch. The opposition attacker, Dominic Samuel, took advantage of that and was through on goal before the Frenchman brought him down.
Saliba could well have got himself a red card for the foul as he was the last man, but the referee decided that it was only worth a yellow. That is another area where the youngster needs to improve before he can be unleashed in the Premier League, where the opponents are far less forgiving.
Arteta’s unpopular decision is the right one
All things considered, Arteta might just be right to keep him away from the senior squad at this moment in time. A loan move will do Saliba a world of good, and the January transfer window gives Arsenal a brilliant opportunity to send him away for some much-needed experience.
Saliba has all the characteristics to become a top-quality defender. Rushing him to the first-team immediately makes very little sense, and despite the frustration among fans, Arteta is doing the right thing by being keeping him away from the Premier League side.