Profiling the highly-rated Arsenal and France centre-back
Who is William Saliba?
After living through loan limbo, William Saliba looks set to finally break through at his parent club Arsenal. The 21-year-old – hot off winning the Ligue 1 award for Young Player of the Season – played a very healthy 51 90s across four competitions last season.
Whilst his performance was proclaimed, there were some elements of his game that appeared unexpectedly weaker in the South of France compared to what I had remarked about the last time I wrote about the centre-half – click here to read that.
All the indications are that Saliba will stay at Arsenal beyond this summer. He’s featured regularly during the club’s pre-season tour of the USA, impressing in a string of friendlies against Everton, Orlando City and Chelsea. Mikel Arteta has spoken highly of him as well, citing his “huge” potential and asserting that “he looks ready” to play a significant role.
There is even talk that a new contract is in the offing. That comes across as a crucial factor in the stay-or-go decision given that his current contract is due to expire in less than two years. If Arsenal are keeping Saliba, they have to give him a new deal.
William Saliba's style of play
Having played all across the back in recent seasons, Sampaoli settled Saliba into a right-sided centre-back position, usually as part of a back-three. His role here, however, was a little more restricted than usual.
When it came to movement, Saliba continued to show his positional smarts – often dropping deep and peeling very wide so to deliberately pin the inside space time and time again. When receiving directly to feet, he demonstrated great awareness to create solutions in tight situations.
All that has lacked, still, is some natural instinct in pass-and-move actions. He does the groundwork well to get off the initial pass, but the exploitation of the inside space and the blind-side to offer on the return is something he often only realises on delay.
The positivity mixed with hesitancy has also been more visible this season in the way he’s been taking on the ball. He’s followed the patterns well when receiving across the back – assessing his surroundings to know whether opening his body up to the pitch is possible, or whether a touch back inside is more beneficial. However, this has also been mixed with setting touches that see the ball get caught under him, as well as far more jittery touches even when handling the ball in space.
Much of the responsibility to progress the ball has been handed off to Boubacar Kamara and Mattéo Guendouzi, but when Saliba’s had the chance to be the focal point of play, he’s let himself down with subtle but unnecessary touches in either direction. This results in him needlessly closing off angles, thus disabling him from reacting to split-second openings.
Tied to this has been a lack of creativity and conviction to these middle-third sequences. Saliba has the ability to burst effectively with the ball and the speed of release to thread eye-of-the-needle passes, but last season he was guilty of cowering from doing so – keeping his head down and only resorting to safe options, where he was still fairly hesitantly.
His ball-carrying as a whole has continued to show potential in the way Saliba’s engaged central opponents to maximise angles and space during buildup, but has still looked equally unsure of himself this season compared to previous.
He’s let his head drop during ball-carries an uncharacteristic amount, suddenly now over-fixating on the opposition’s whereabouts, and thus disregarding the space on offer. This has resulted in many reluctant ball-carries with stunted weights of touch, an absence of challenge-hurdling to access the space, and easy shepherding.
Such a lack of conviction is even present in his forward passing, where he doesn’t seem able to use his ball-handling to forge open passing angles in the way he’s capable of. Equally, the pre-existing lack of range combined with a lack of confidence to attempt any more elaborate, creative passes has seen runs dry up in front of him.
It’s not typically a wholly weak area for him, but it’s one that has come under momentary doubt, which can’t be said for much of his shots passing. Despite occasionally similar hesitant mannerisms, he’s been steady as a rock. Saliba’s been great at releasing quickly under pressure, playing first-time on the back foot or following turnovers, and at accessing the defensive midfielders with ample disguise.
What earned him his keep, particularly in this role, though, were his defensive qualities. Whilst some areas have been less visible than before, others, like line-keeping and run-tracking, have taken to the spotlight.
Marseille consistently played a very high line under Sampaoli, which is something Saliba has improved at handling but had still been susceptible to through opposition double movements when pressing out. However, here, despite his pressing from behind being a major strong suit of his in and of itself, it was scarcely called into action as the order was to hold his position in line.
Thanks to his superb simultaneous awareness of the ball and the man at all times, he was almost impossible to get the better of.
The only way in which he’s been caught out is when another defender has dropped too deep instead, but even then, his recovery pace is able to make up almost any ground with ease. This translates to so many other tight situations, including in covering effectively out wide, in handling 1v1s, and in cutting out passes, which he often meets with effortless first-time passes.
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In the case of 1v1s, Saliba still has pronounced issues when it comes to his body shaping. He still narrows his body, faces towards the byline and distances himself more than he should – all of which bear no regard for the attacker’s tendencies. Because of this, he’s unable to direct opponents one way or the other, he can’t make an early tackle without it being telegraphed which leaves himself planted, and he can’t effectively accelerate from such a congested stance in sync with his opponent, either.
In close proximity, Saliba is able to carefully probe for tackles with either foot and has the physical capacity to outmuscle opponents.
The narrow stance is also something that has impacted his blocking technique. The lack of body spread he poses even when expecting a release means that he leaves both the cutback and face of goal angles wide open for release without way of resistance.
Saliba could still defend markers far better at set-pieces but his aerial leap is still something to behold. He seems to have gained a better sense for where balls will land in open-play situations, however, how softly he guides offensive headers downwards towards goal is something he could work on, as he has the aerial power to inject more force into the free headers he does earn.
Forecasting William Saliba's future
Despite the accolades, last season appeared to be a bit of a bump in the road performance-wise for Saliba, even with role restrictions accounted for. The reason for it is hard to pinpoint given how able he’s been in many of these areas before this point. It could well be relative to uncertainty over his future, or over a subsequent period of self-doubt, or that he never quite gelled at Marseille.
What’s important, though, is that I can’t imagine such a drop in the conviction of his actions will continue for long. Especially not in such a visibly-positive environment as it currently is at Arsenal, where he appears to have finally been granted the warm welcome he long desired.
Given what strengths Saliba has to offer – some of which weren’t even on display last season – and just how well Mikel Arteta’s system has helped shelter the weaknesses of his players, the prosperous makings of this partnership should finally come to fruition.
Saliba’s physical presence and athleticism makes him a huge presence in and out of possession, which is strengthened by the contrasting technical ability he possesses in buildup phases of play.
Saliba’s technical approach is his most alarming defect, as it hurts his 1v1 defending and his blocking. His lack of passing range is another weakness, but one of many that are fairly minimal.