William Saliba is finally going to have a full campaign as an Arsenal player, years after joining the club. Although the Gunners have done some eye-catching business, the return of their talented centre-back could be their biggest upgrade this season. At the age of 21, he could develop into one of the best defenders in the world. There will be few others with his experience at such a tender age and he will now want to prove himself in the Premier League.
There have been rumours that Saliba could be set for a permanent move away. It has taken time for him to convince Mikel Arteta that he can be relied upon. After a great season with Marseille that ended in the defender being capped by France, Arsenal were left with no choice. Either, they gave him a chance in their squad or they moved him on permanently. The 21-year-old wouldn’t have accepted another loan spell, especially with his contract having just two years to run.
Saliba is a right-sided centre back. It will be interesting to see if he fits in that role at Arsenal. Last season, Ben White played in that role alongside Gabriel. However, the England international can play in the middle of a back three or as a defensive midfielder.
Arsenal won’t be willing to sideline White, as they paid £50 million for him and he had a positive first season at the club. A move to a back three could be on the horizon, but it remains to be seen if Arteta would consider that on a permanent basis.
Whether they change to a back three of not, Saliba adds tactical flexibility and genuine competition for places. Arsenal lacked that last season, as their back-up defenders were not at the level of their starting pair. There are also some matches that a back three could be preferred.
When compared to White, Saliba is a similar type of player, with one key difference. He stands taller than his team-mate and he has greater recovery pace. If you consider the best physical profile for a Premier League centre back, Saliba meets that more than White does. It is no surprise that the Gunners have been determined to keep hold of the young French defender.
One of his best traits is his ability on the ball. It is becoming important for centre backs to be able to progress the ball from deep, either by carrying it forwards or with their passing range. Saliba is capable of doing both. Over the last 12 months, he averages 4.48 progressive passes and 6.36 progressive carries per ninety minutes. The Frenchman ranks in the 91st and 97th percentiles among centre backs for these metrics. Arteta wants his team to dominate possession and Saliba looks tailor-made for his system.
Meanwhile, White averages 2.81 progressive passes and 3.13 progressive carries per ninety minutes. This places him in the 61st and 73rd percentiles respectively. It can be difficult to compare the two, as they were playing in different systems in different leagues.
If Saliba can continue to rank in the top 10% for progressing the ball in the Premier League, he will quickly take the starting spot.