William Saliba – Starter or Substitute?

[image via getty]

Since joining Arsenal in the summer of 2019, it’s fair to say that William Saliba has had a rather bumpy ride as a Gooner so far. The French centre half joined the club from St. Ettiene for a reported fee of £27 million, with a huge reputation; a player labelled “generational” by many.

As expected, Saliba returned to his former club for a season-long loan immediately after making the switch to North London. The Arsenal hierarchy wanted him to gain wider experience at a good level. He returned in the summer of 2020, with many Arsenal fans expecting him to burst into the first team.

This did not come to fruition, however. Saliba started the 2020/21 season out of the squad, and secured a 6-month loan in January with Nice, taking him back to his home country. He returned once again in the 2021 summer, and after quite the saga left to join Olympique Marseille on loan.

Fast forward to now, William Saliba seems set to stay at Arsenal. He’s been integrated with the first team, making appearances in our pre season games and impressing in each of these. Despite heavy interest from Marseille, the message from Arsenal was clear – William Saliba was not, and is not, for sale. He now appears to be part of Edu and Arteta’s plans, and is set to stay at the club for the upcoming season.

Many Arsenal fans have likened Saliba to a new signing; a player we’ve never really seen at the club properly, and who could have a huge impact on our future. Let’s not forget that Saliba was in the Ligue 1 ‘Team of the Season’; a player of his quality at such a young age would surely be worth upwards of £50 million if we were to sign him now. The 21-year-old is a real talent, a player who can do great things for Arsenal. So, how does he fit in to the side this season?

Last summer, Arsenal invested £50 million in England and Brighton defender Benjamin White. The 24-year-old operates on the right side of defence, where you’d typically expect Saliba to play. As such, Arsenal Twitter has taken to debates over who should start- but as far as I see it, the choice is not as simple as that.

Firstly, let’s just establish this: having three able centre backs (Gabriel Magalhães, Ben White and William Saliba) can never be a bad thing. For how many years have we needed depth at the back? Years of players like Mustafi, Sokratis and Paulista are over, and we should be grateful for the quality we have in defence now.

Secondly, it is simply infeasible to field the same lineup for all 38 games of the league season, plus domestic cups and in our Europa League campaign. In a year where a winter World Cup has forced the Premier League to squeeze even more fixtures in before November, rotation is going to be absolutely essential to maintain high levels of output.

That being said, I think all three of our main centre backs will play essentially as first team starters throughout the season- and this could materialise in several forms.

Arsenal’s 4-0 triumph over Chelsea in the final game of the Florida Cup saw us play an experimental back four- one that we have never seen before. New signing Zinchenko started on the left, with Gabriel and Saliba the central pairing and White operating as right back – covering for the (again) injured Takehiro Tomiyasu.

Though we must apply context, as this was a preseason fixture, the dynamic worked perfectly. Saliba was rock solid against Premier League opposition, Ben White filled the archetypal right back role that Arteta favours- a more defensive, narrow player that is part of a back 3 on the ball- with Zinchenko pushing into midfield.

I’d suggest that this is most likely the back four that Arteta will field against Crystal Palace on the opening day. Technically superb, defensively compact and confident in playing the ball out through the back.

Alternatively, William Saliba could find himself in rotation- most likely with White for the RCB position, as Arteta favours a left footer on the left side- and Magalhães is arguably too good to drop.

If Tomiyasu can maintain fitness and regain his spot as first choice right back, I imagine that both Saliba and White would be confident in their ability to become the first choice. Competition for starting places drives up standards- and can only be a good thing.

That being said, even if they are to both play as right sided centre backs, I imagine they’ll both get a considerable amount of minutes. As I eluded to earlier, the fixture congestion between August and November in the Premier League, whilst also juggling a European campaign (which we didn’t have to consider last season), will mean rotation will become not just a luxury, but almost a necessity.

Focusing back on Saliba: what’s next? I think I speak for all Arsenal fans when I say a new contract would be fantastic, and though some reports say the deal was completed before the USA trip, we are still waiting on Ornstein or Romano to deliver the good news. If he signs, great. If he doesn’t, I’ll understand it. Use him as he is needed for the first few months of the season and then offer the deal again. Saliba will want to be in the World Cup squad for France this winter, so he’ll want guaranteed playing time to help his case with Deschamps.

Once more let me reiterate: depth is good. Competition is good. Having three centre backs of top quality will only make us better. I’m excited to see all three playing together in the upcoming season.

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