How Has William Saliba Done On Loan?
In the summer of 2019, William Saliba caught the eyes of many clubs across the world with an impressive breakout season with Saint-Etienne. Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal were reportedly the two frontrunners for the Frenchman's signature and he opted for the latter, joining the Unai Emery revolution on the 25th July.
Fast forward 20 months and Saliba is still yet to make his professional debut for the Gunners. The London club's fans were impatient during the 2019/20 season, waiting for their apparent world-class talent to come back from a successful loan spell with his former club in central France.
The Arsenal faithful finally got what they had waited for in late August, watching Saliba in their famous red and white for the first time in a pre-season friendly against MK Dons. The performance was an encouraging one with the youngster showcasing his much-touted ability playing out from the back. However, it was his last appearance for the Arsenal first-team to date.
After being surprisingly left out of the Gunners' Premier League and Europa League squads for the season, (a decision Mikel Arteta later admitted he regretted) in January, Saliba joined Ligue 1 side Nice on loan until the end of the season.
Over the last few weeks, I've been watching Nice's matches to assess how Saliba has done, what his main strengths are and also what he should hope to improve on over the next few years. Here's what I found...
Ability on the ball
Considering he is 6ft 4 in and broad-shouldered, it is perhaps surprising to some just how good Saliba is with the ball at his feet. The 19-year-old confidently carries the ball out from the back, keeping the ball close to his feet and often opting to glide past opposition forwards who try and tackle him, reminiscent of former Arsenal defender Laurent Koscielny.
He certainly doesn't lack confidence, never afraid to bring the ball out from the outside of his box and progress up the pitch, an extremely useful tool to possess when facing teams who press with intensity.
Saliba's dribbling attributes are evidenced by his stats when compared to other centre-backs
In the eleven games he's started since his loan move to Nice, Saliba has averaged 290 progressive yards when dribbling with the ball per game - much higher than any of the current options in the heart of Arsenal's defence.
"I think he has everything needed to become a good player" - Jose Mourinho speaking about Saliba in 2018
Moreover, Saliba's capabilities with the ball go further than his impressive dribbling - he is also an extremely accomplished passer. His variety of passes is particularly noticeable.
Saliba ranks extremely high in passing statistics compared to other centre-backs
The Bondy-born defender can play diagonal switches with ease, always looking up to find winger's making blind-side runs, but he can also play between the lines, something that a number of the current crop of Arsenal centre-backs struggle with. This versatility makes him very difficult to press, as he can dribble past opposition players, switch the play with an over-the-top pass or even find a midfielder with a pass that breaks the lines.
Since his move to Nice, Saliba has further demonstrated just how good he is with the ball at his feet. In last Wednesday's 2-1 win over Nimes, Saliba completed a whopping 14 passes into the final third, a feat that no Arsenal player other than Granit Xhaka has matched this season. This is even more impressive considering Arsenal are a more possession orientated side than Nice.
Despite still being a teenager, Saliba plays like a seasoned veteran. He is clearly a player with extreme determination and intelligence, showcased by his impressive ability to read the game in front of him.
Saliba positions himself in a way that allows him to frequently block through balls and cut off passing lanes. This is evidenced by his interception statistics, averaging just over 2 a game during his time at Nice thus far.
Nice have recorded back to back 2-1 victories in their last two games, games in which Saliba has demonstrated his ability to read the game. In both matches he recorded four interceptions, more than any other player on the pitch, a theme that seems to be a recurring one during his loan spell. In Saliba's 11 games in the south of France, he has had the most or second-most interceptions for Nice in eight of those.
The youngster is also revered for his decision making, tackling only when it is an absolute necessity. He is yet to be dribbled past in a Nice shirt, averaging 0.45 successful tackles per game, a similar stat line to Virgil van Dijk's 0.53 last season. In fact, comparisons to van Dijk have become relatively frequent, as Saliba combines cool and composed on ball skills with intelligent positioning and decision making.
Saliba is more than a quick-witted centre-back who reads the game and positions himself accordingly. He also possesses electric pace that gets him out of trouble if he does make mistakes.
This speed will be extremely beneficial to Arsenal when playing a high defensive line, as David Luiz and Rob Holding can be caught out with through balls due to their sluggish nature. Moreover, the 19-year-old combines this speed with strength, regularly going shoulder to shoulder with opposition attackers and coming out victorious by shrugging them off the ball.
Utilises his blend of speed and strength to stop a dangerous attack
In the dying embers of January's draw with Metz, Saliba showcased his incredible recovery pace and strong frame to deny the opposition a last-gasp goal, outmuscling the Metz attacker to grab a point for his side.
The French under-20 international is never afraid of putting his body on the line to stop the opposition from scoring. In last week's win against Nimes, Saliba made two goal-saving blocks in the space of 30 seconds before clearing his lines.
Areas to improve on
Saliba is an undeniable talent, possessing a rare blend of technical ability, intelligent positioning and physicality. However, he does still have a few flaws in his game, unsurprising considering he is still just a teenager.
Despite being 6ft 4in, Saliba isn't as proficient in the air as may be expected - often losing duels against attackers a lot smaller than him. His main problem with his aerial ability is not his presence, but in fact, the timing of his jumps.
When attacking set-pieces, as well as attempting to clear a defensive cross, Saliba regularly chooses to leap early, a tactic that can result in inefficient contact with the ball. In his 40 games as a professional Saliba is yet to find the target at the other end, much of that down to his sub-par heading accuracy.
During his spell at Nice he has won just 1.91 aerial duels a game, an extremely low amount when compared to other centre-halves around the world. However, this is largely because of his low rate in terms of attempts. His success rate in aerial duels is relatively impressive, winning over 67% of his battles in the air.
Another area for the starlet to work on is his over-confidence, paradoxical considering his confidence is also one of his greatest strengths. As mentioned, his composure on the ball is exceptional, but this can sometimes haunt him as he takes too much time on the ball and can sometimes be caught out due to lapses of concentration.
Saliba's solid display against Rennes last month was overshadowed by a careless mistake. He brought the ball out of defence and attempted a lazy cross-field pass to Daniliuc which was cut out by Terrier and punished with a brilliant finish.
Errors like these have become a bit too frequent for Saliba, averaging 0.09 errors per match this term, more than Rob Holding, David Luiz or Pablo Mari have managed.
That being said, it is only natural for a young defender to make mistakes, and as Saliba grows and matures as a player it is safe to assume these errors will become fewer and farer between. The Frenchman continues to impress during his loan spell back in Ligue 1, even picking up Nice's January player of the month due to his stellar displays on the south-coast.
What do you think of Saliba? Tweet me @ReidTheGame on Twitter.
- Aaron Catterson-Reid