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Despite never playing a Premier League game for Arsenal, William Saliba has become one of the most decisive players in the squad. Mikel Arteta’s decision to send the player back on loan to France seemed to split the fan base, but it appears to have been the right one as Saliba has seemingly developed into a better all-round player.
Now, after much speculation that he would remain in France, William Saliba has confirmed his intention to remain in North London next season.
He told French outfit Téléfoot in a tell-all interview: “I belong to Arsenal, I still have two years left. I will be back with Arsenal … I have played zero matches and I still want to show them that I can play for these fans and this great club”
But is this finally the end of the Saliba saga?
William Saliba was one of the hottest prospects in Europe when Arsenal signed the centre defender from his boyhood club AS Saint-Éteinne for a reported fee of around £27 million in July 2019. Even more satisfying was that he chose Arsenal over North London rivals Tottenham Hotspur.
The 6’4 young Frenchman had impressed scouts, but, as part of the deal, was sent back to Saint-Éteinne. Frustratingly for the young man his 2019/20 season was marred by injury meaning he only played 12 matches in the year. Despite this, he helped his club to a French cup final, before a complication in his loan agreement, and a dispute between the clubs, meant he could not play. Another frustration.
When he finally arrived at Arsenal in 2020, things didn't go exactly to plan. Saliba would only ever feature in one preseason game against MK Dons and several U23s matches. With injuries and Covid disruption, minutes on the pitch had been few and far between for the Frenchman. Mikel Arteta also took the controversial decision to leave Saliba out of his Europa League squad, limiting his game time even further.
Eventually, after six months with little football, the French man was loaned to Nice in January 2021, where he made 20 appearances and won their player of the month for his first month at the club.
That brings us to this season.
When Arsenal signed Ben White for £50 million in the summer, questions were raised about the future of William Saliba at Arsenal. His favoured right centre back spot was now blocked by both Ben White and Rob Holding.
At this point the decision was made to send Saliba back on loan, this time to Marseille. The hierarchy justified the decision with the rationale that Saliba had played 20 games in over a year and a half, and with Arsenal playing in only one competition he would not have enough playing opportunities.
This was lamented by many Arsenal fans, desperate to see the £27 million signing, who has been talked about so much, in action.
Whatever people’s thoughts on whether he should have gone, Saliba seems to have developed significantly during his time in Marseille.
Amazingly Saliba completed the most passes EVER in a Ligue 1 season by a centre back, won possession back the most amongst centre backs, and had the most progressive carries, something that will be central to whatever role he has to play for Arsenal this year.
William Saliba during the 2021/22 Ligue 1 season:— Football365 (@F365) June 5, 2022
◎ 2,834 passes (most EVER)
◎ 260 possessions won (most)
◎ 558 progressive carries (most)
◎ 31 successful dribbles by CB's (most)
◉ Ligue 1 Young Player of the Year
Ready to rip up the Premier League. 💪 pic.twitter.com/MB7yfGNO2y
Saliba, still only 21 years old, also won his first French cap for his performances, and played for France against Denmark in the first round of Nations League fixtures last week.
Now it has been confirmed that Saliba will remain at Arsenal there does seem to be some light at the end of the tunnel for this drawn out saga.
However, it doesn’t end here.
Saliba currently only has two years left on his contract in North London, meaning his long-term future is far from certain.
The last thing the Arsenal hierarchy want to repeat is an Ozil type situation with a contract standoff, or having to sell a talent like Saliba for a cut-price just to make any money back. Whilst they may want to extend his contract, the player may need assurances they cannot give to a second or third choice defender.
Whilst all Arsenal fans are desperate to watch him in red and white, the gunners are taking a significant financial risk with him.
If things go wrong they may be forced to sell him cheaply, or let him leave for free. Given that Arsenal are a team who needs to be clever in the transfer market, losing their investment in a player like Saliba, and possibly watching him walking into another team for nothing, could be a painful prospect.
First and foremost, Saliba should be given his chance at Arsenal, but his long-term future with or without Arsenal should be a priority for Edu and Mikel Arteta.