Sunday, April 21, 2024

Saliba’s strong hand a reality Arsenal have to deal with

Happy Friday to you all.

The rumour mill is starting to crank up, as you would expect. It’s quite something that as Declan Rice prepares for his last game for West Ham (next Wednesday in the Europa Conference League final), there’s all kinds of talk about interest from Bayern Munich. I mean, they may well be interested. He might be interested in them. When you’re a footballer of that stature, it’s sort of like ‘which excellent restaurant are you going to go and eat in’? You have lots of options.

Do I want the Michelin star pintxos from Arsenal’s singular Basque chef, or the Bavarian pork knuckle and dumplings from the lad who looks like he has a basement that you never want to see because if you do it’s the last thing you see? I think I know where I would prefer to eat.

There’s been some talk about William Saliba this week, and after tying down Bukayo Saka, Gabriel Martinelli and Aaron Ramsdale to new deals, he’s the one in the spotlight now when it comes to contract renewals. I have heard about interest from PSG, but then there was also interest from PSG in Martin Odegaard. It shouldn’t be a big story that one of the richest clubs in Europe has their eye on one of the best young defenders in Europe, especially a French one.

The fact that he just has a year left is a cause for some anxiety among Arsenal fans, understandably so. It was the same situation with Saka, of course, but I don’t think there was the same sense of jeopardy. I always felt like he was going to renew because of his connection to the club and London, and it’s not the same with Saliba.

There have been some bumps along the road with him, some things that should have been handled a bit better – but in principal I don’t think there was anything egregiously wrong with developing a very young defender with a couple of loan spells. The one where we missed the deadline and he stayed and didn’t play, that was bad, no question – but beyond that his time at Nice and Marseille in particular was really good for his development. I think you can draw a straight line between those loan spells and how good he was for us this season.

When you pay £28m for a kid who is just 18 and barely into double-figures for professional appearances, you have to be conscious of that investment. Was he potentially better than some of the defenders we had at the club? Yes. Was he ready to play regularly in the Premier League in a team that Mikel Arteta was building? I’m not sure it would have been the right time for him. We had some ups and downs in that period that he might not have been as well set up for as we needed. So, I don’t have a big issue with the loans, per se. They have been beneficial.

The question most people had was about what would happen last summer when he returned and we had a £50m signing playing in Ben White playing in his position? The answer was emphatic. White moved to right-back, Saliba came in, and as I’ve said consistently, you can tell what a manager thinks of a player by his team selections. Saliba played every game, forming a brilliant partnership with Gabriel, until he picked up that injury against Fulham and then aggravated it against Sporting.

When I look at him on the pitch, during celebrations, in training videos, and all the other ways you can try and see how a player feels at a club, I don’t get any sense that he’s disconnected. Watch him after the Reiss Nelson goal. See how he fits into the group. I don’t see a player who is unhappy, so that’s a good foundation. He has spoken publicly, more than once, about how much he likes it at Arsenal. You could dismiss it as the kind of stuff footballers say all the time in interviews, but just as easily take it at face value.

When it comes to the contract, Saliba and his representatives are in a very, very strong position. That’s the reality of the situation Arsenal have to deal with. The club face the duel threat of him either leaving on a free next year, or having to make a decision this summer so we don’t leave at least some money on the table. It’s a dream for the agent because he will be able to play that hand with a cigar and a whiskey because he has the ace up his sleeve too.

I could be wrong, but I suspect some of what we’re seeing now is about that negotiation. It serves the Saliba side of things well for some of it to play out publicly because there can’t be an Arsenal fan out there who doesn’t want him to commit his future to the club. We have one of the best young defenders in the world, and the best players need to be paid. Everyone know what we’ve paid Saka, and the highest paid player at your club is always a kind of benchmark. But then so too is the lowest. Which isn’t to say he wants Saka wages, but find the right spot between him and someone like Cedric (who is on a big Bosman salary, thanks Raul), and you probably get it done.

If Arsenal don’t pay him, someone else will. It’s as simple as that. But I hope that as a key part of this young side that did so well last season, as someone who connected with the fans, who enjoys his football here and his life in London, it doesn’t get any more complicated for Saliba than finding the right figure. Arsenal is an attractive place to be for footballers right now, it looks like there are going to be some decent names coming through the door in the summer, and that might help too.

Fingers crossed.

Right, I’ll leave you with a brand new Arsecast, doing Statements with Clive Palmer. Enjoy!

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