Let’s start this morning with William Saliba, following confirmation of the news yesterday that he will join Nice on loan until the end of the season.
It’s been clear for some time that this was going to happen, the question was more about his destination than whether or not he’d go on loan. Nice are currently 12th in Ligue 1, having won 6, drawn 4 and lost 6. Sadly the Arsenal connection there is gone, Patrick Vieira was fired as Head Coach at the start of the December, but hopefully he’ll get plenty of minutes and time to play.
Speaking about the move, Technical Director Edu said:
“William Saliba is a player with a huge amount of talent and potential. We’re confident he will have a great career with us but we must remember that he is still only 19 years old and has a lot of time ahead of him.
“William experienced a very challenging time last year, with his playing time limited by injury and the early ending of the Ligue 1 season due to the pandemic.
“So together with William, we have decided that spending the rest of the season on loan with Nice is the best way for him to develop. We will be keeping in close contact with William during his time with Nice and look forward to seeing him make good progress until the end of the season.”
All of which makes sense. In general, I’m very sympathetic to the idea that a 19 year old central defender isn’t quite ready for Premier League football, and I think that’s especially true in the modern era where every kick, every moment in every game is captured in HD, broadcast around the world, and judgements are made so quickly. One mistake, one misplaced pass, one slip and you become a meme.
In general though, there are very few 19 year old centre-halves who cost £28m. In fact, he was 18 when he cost £28m, and with a price-tag like that comes expectation. You just don’t pay that much money for a kid who has barely played 20 professional games without seeing something special in him, do you? And look, it might well be a case that down the line that fee looks like a pittance because we’ve got a player who has all the attributes of a modern centre-half. Tall, quick, strong, good recovery pace, good on the ball, good in the air, good reading of the game, a solid, well-timed tackler. All the things you need to succeed.
But, how many of those attributes are where we need them to be right now? Why is that we talk about someone like Nicolas Pepe after his arrival and suggest he might need time to adapt to English football, yet expect Saliba to oven-ready when he’s far less experienced in terms of top flight appearances? Especially when he’s a defender and, like it not, their mistakes are scrutinised more heavily because they’re usually much more costly. A winger fluffs a chance or fails to beat a man, he’s given encouragement to do it again and try again. A centre-half who cocks up the offside trap, doesn’t win a header or mark his man costs his team a goal at this level, and there’s very little forgiveness or understanding when that happens.
Since Saliba arrived at the club last year, Arteta has, more than once, acknowledged the potential, but urged patience to allow the player to develop. This from July 3rd:
“I am excited to work with him but I am worried about the expectations because I know how difficult it is to play as a central defender in this country.
“It is one of the most complicated positions here. The step is really, really big. William had a really positive season last year, but he has had a really difficult one this year with injuries. We know where the potential is, but to fulfil that potential every three days at the highest level is a different task.”
This from September 22nd:
“He is going to be really important in our future and things sometimes take some time. And we have to respect that.”
I have to believe that any manager who has the collection of centre-halves that Arsenal do is open to working with players who can improve us. They also see him every day on the training ground. It might be frustrating for us as fans, but perhaps there’s an element of protecting Saliba here as much as anything else.
The big mistake, in my opinion, was our failure to complete the documentation to send him on loan at the end of the ‘summer’ window. That was amateurish, shabby, and I think seriously detrimental to the player and his development. Instead of spending another season on loan at his ‘home’ club Saint-Etienne – a move which could be pretty well justified by his age, his injury issues, and our own desire to see him play more before we deem him ready – he’s spent 4 months scratching around at U23 level and playing the odd game in a tournament sponsored by a pizza franchise.
That’s just not good enough for a player of his potential. That was compounded by our failure to register him for the Europa League squad, because even if you think the Premier League is a step too far at this point, the group we were drawn in was certainly kind enough for him to have played games and begin his Arsenal career. So, loaning him now isn’t really the issue for me, it’s that we didn’t loan him earlier, and of course the fact that some of the central defensive options we have are considered so dismal to us that it exacerbates the frustration.
All in all, it’s a situation Arsenal have handled poorly, but hopefully it’s not too costly in terms of his relationship with the club. You wouldn’t blame him at all if he felt like he’s gone through a period of his career which has been a waste. He now has the chance to play at Nice, and never before will there be so many Arsenal supporting eyes on their games to see how he performs.
There’s likely to be a central defensive cull at the end of this season. Shkodran Mustafi, Sokratis and David Luiz will all be gone; it remains to be seen what happens with Calum Chambers after his injury problems; I suspect Dinos Mavropanos will leave permanently as well; so there is a pathway there for Saliba to return and compete for a place in a much less crowded and bloated environment. That’s down the line though, until then let’s hope he can win a place in the Nice team, and reap the benefits of regular football.
Best of luck to him. I’m also curious to see/hear what, if anything, he has to say about what’s happened at Arsenal this season if he does speak to the press over there. That will be interesting.
Right, if you haven’t already heard it, I’ll leave you with yesterday’s Arsecast Extra. Lots of discussion of the West Brom game, a lot of centre-half questions, and some January transfer window chat too. All the links you need to listen/subscribe are below. Enjoy.