Arsenal hoped that they had signed a world class centre-back of the future when they agreed a deal potentially worth up to £27m for William Saliba in the summer of 2019.
He was only 18 at the time, but he had already made the breakthrough in Ligue 1 with Saint-Etienne, somewhat mimicking the career path of Raphael Varane, whose emergence as a teenager at Lens in 2011 led to a swift transfer to Real Madrid...and look how that turned out.
But 18 months on from the Gunners landing Saliba’s coveted signature, he looks more likely to leave this month than thrive in the long-term as an Arsenal player.
Reports in France have suggested that a meeting this week between the club and Saliba’s camp has yielded an agreement that he can leave either on loan or permanently in January. It has also been claimed in his homeland that he willing to drop his weekly salary by almost half – from around £40,000 to the equivalent of just over £20,000 – in order to return to Saint-Etienne.
In short, it has gone badly wrong for Saliba.
It hasn’t been a smooth road from the very start. Once he had signed for the Gunners, he stayed at Saint-Etienne on loan for the 2019/20 season in the hope that he would continue playing regularly and wouldn’t have had that opportunity at Arsenal for at least a little while.But Saliba was limited to only 12 Ligue 1 appearances for Saint-Etienne, the result of a hamstring layoff early in the campaign, later suffering a broken foot, and finally the abandonment of the French league season altogether because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Before the season was called off, Saint-Etienne had progressed to the Coupe de France final, which was to be delayed until July so it could still go ahead.
The French club wanted Saliba to play, despite his initial loan contract expiring a month earlier, but a spat with Arsenal over their concerns about the player’s fitness and training that resulted in tit for tat public statements from each side prevented him from featuring.
It was a disappointing season that didn’t help his development as intended, although Saliba looked to begin afresh at Arsenal in 2020/21. He was handed the club’s famous number four shirt, taken away from Mohamed Elneny, hinting at a first-team role.
Saliba was on the bench for the Community Shield against Liverpool and had appeared in pre-season. Since then, however, he has made just a single first-team matchday squad – an unused substitute in the Carabao Cup – and has played exclusively at Under-23 level.
In November, manager Mikel Arteta lamented Saliba’s situation, having viewed 2019/20 as an important ‘transition’ year before joining Arsenal properly. He obviously didn’t get it, but Arteta still wanted him to have it and explained the club tried and failed to find a new loan club for 2020/21.
“I explained that he needed that transition year when we decided to buy him and send him on loan to Saint-Etienne. For many reasons, that didn’t happen – he didn’t have that transition year and he needs to go through that,” Arteta said, reflecting on the situation.
That largely explains why Saliba is still to make his senior debut for the Gunners. Arteta doesn’t consider him ready and is unwilling to take that gamble, despite leaving Sokratis out of the club’s Premier League and Europa League squads and making use of Kieran Tierney and Sead Kolasinac, both left-backs by trade, as auxiliary centre-backs in the early weeks of the season.
Saliba’s situation also won’t have been helped since then by a red card in an EFL Trophy defeat by Wimbledon last month that highlighted his inexperience and naivety.
Arsenal clearly saw enough talent and potential in him to commit up to £27m into the deal to sign him. Selling him so soon, almost certainly for a big loss if that was the case, would be short-sighted, especially for a player who is still a teenager and won’t turn 20 until March.
A loan, perhaps of longer duration for 18 months so that Saliba gets the chance of a lengthy run of games wherever the ends up, could still suit both parties better. That way, the player could return to north London with invaluable senior experience and renewed confidence to try this again.
The only certainty is that the situation as it stands isn’t a good one for anyone.
Source : 90min