Friday, August 19, 2022

The William Saliba loan to Marseille was … good

Morning all, an early one for you today.

No doubt you’ll have seen the news this week that William Saliba earned his first call up to the French national side, replacing the injured Benjamin Pavard. It’s great news for him on a personal level, a real step forward in his career, and the first thing I thought of when I heard it was that the decision to loan him to Marseille was a good one.

At Arsenal this season, we have seen the deployment and development of a central defensive partnership that is as encouraging as we’ve had for a very long time. Ben White and Gabriel have had their moments, like any defenders will, but you can see very clearly they work well together and as both are just 24 years of age, there’s a lot more to come – all going well.

William Saliba is just 20, and that age gap is quite significant at this point in the life of a young defender. To put it context, when he was 20, White was sent out on loan from Brighton to Newport County in League Two. When Gabriel was 20, he had loan spells at Troyes and Dinamo Zagreb. Both of them needed regular football, foundational football, the kind of experience which is why they are where they are right now, and part of the reason why we’ve kept as many clean sheets this season (13) as we have since 2017/18 (and there are still 10 games to go).

Let’s imagine Saliba had stayed at Arsenal this season. He wouldn’t have played anywhere near as much as he has for Marseille – 40 appearances in all competitions so far, 3595 minutes under his belt. It might have kept some people happy that we didn’t loan him out, but if you’re looking at what the best thing for the player is, there’s no question it was the right decision.

And, when you look back at what Mikel Arteta has said about Saliba, that is the recurring theme:

September 2020: “He is going to be really important in our future and things sometimes take some time. And we have to respect that.”

January 2021 (after he was loaned to Saint-Etienne): “I want to protect the player that we signed and the future that we have alongside him. The best way to do that is to give him minutes and play him.”

Clearly the arrival of Ben White had a part to play in the decision to loan him to Marseille, and both Arteta and Edu would have to admit that period where he was left in limbo for a few months at the start of the 2020-21 season was a mistake, but when it comes down to it, there weren’t many 19/20 year old centre-halves playing for teams at the top end of the Premier League.

Now, he’s getting all these minutes under his belt, and while he has generally been impressive at Marseille, he’s made mistakes too which are necessary as part of the learning process when you’re a young defender. That’s not criticism, it’s reality. The very best central defenders we’ve had at this club didn’t just appear as the finished article, they learned on the job as Saliba is doing right now.

The other thing to say is that whatever happens with Saliba, whatever decision will be made come the summer about where his future lies, it’s been a  beneficial loan move for Arsenal. Ideally – and this would be my preference – he returns, is included in the squad next season, and plays a part in a season which has European football, for which we will need a bigger squad. If that’s the case, you talk about extending his contract too, if that’s something he’s open to. It’s also worth pointing out that he’d return to a club and a team where the age profile has changed considerably; where the idea that the manager doesn’t like or want to use young players has been put to bed completely; and where he’d fit right in.

If, for whatever reason, we don’t want to do that, the fact that we’d be looking to sell a player who has made progress this season and may well be a full international means his transfer value is likely to be decent with two years left on his contract. Whether we recoup the full £28m we paid for an 18 year old with barely 15 professional appearances to his name is another question, but it would certainly be more than if he’d stayed here this season and played understudy to White and Gabriel, spending most of the campaign on the bench. Those who take umbrage that we ‘fail to protect our investment’ in players would, at least, have to acknowledge that.

So for all the angst that accompanied the decision to send him on loan last summer, it looks to have been a smart decision, part of a strategy which – to be fair – we weren’t as aware of back then as we are now, and it appears as if it’s one that will serve both player and club whichever further decisions are made at the end of this season.

Right, that’s your lot for this morning, for now, take it easy.

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