After news broke that Ligue 1 have cancelled the remaining fixtures of the 2019/20 season, the result of that decision had fans purring over in north London. It meant William Saliba’s loan move to Saint-Étienne is over, and he’ll be heading back to Arsenal.
Granted, he won’t be playing until next season, but the fact that he will be able to link up with his new teammates and train with the club will result in a much smoother integration into Mikel Arteta’s side.
It will mean he’ll have more time to adapt to his manager’s philosophy, get to know the players and (Arsenal will be hoping) improve the squad.
As you’ll have already gathered by the title of this piece, he’s slotting straight into that lineup. No question about that.
‘But…this is a player who has yet to play a single minute of Premier League football and who only just recently turned 19 years old’, I hear you say. Yes, that’s the guy. Him. He’s one half of next seasons central defensive partnership, no doubt.
Now that is a statement that coughs up a couple of questions. Firstly, how bad does the rest of the Arsenal defence have to be to allow a teenager with significantly less experience to usurp them in the lineup? And secondly, how good is Saliba for this to be a non-issue? The answer to that? Very good indeed.
He looks every bit a star in the making, possessing all the attributes needed to cut it in the English top flight. There is good reason why a host of clubs across Europe were interested in his signature, and it speaks volumes of Arsenal’s verdict of him that they were willing to pay £27m last summer and loan him back to Saint-Étienne for the following season.
His ability to read danger is both instinctive and precise, on the ball he looks silky and almost frighteningly confident for someone his age, while he possesses the physical capacity of someone in their prime.
Saliba is the real deal, but there is no way we’ll see that talent blossom to its potential if he’s stuck alongside Shkodran Mustafi in defence (spoiler alert).
The odds of Arsenal being able to draft in another central defender in the upcoming transfer window are slim at best, with the most likely outcome being that they’ll make Pablo Mari’s loan move a permanent deal for around £10m. So, with that out of the way, who should be the Frenchman’s partner next season? Let’s take a look.
Billed as ‘one for the future’ but then thrust into the senior setup sooner than expected, Mavropanos is, quite frankly, not the answer to Arsenal’s defensive woes. He’s performed well since joining FC Nürnberg on loan in January, but the general feeling is that the move is just to boost his price tag for a future sale.
Suitability Rating: 1/10
Immediately, people will be listing the next player as the least viable candidate. Honestly though, Sokratis’ performances this season have left plenty to be desired, declining as the season went on. His form has suffered as much as the team, and it looks unlikely we’ll see an upturn in that respect either this term or next campaign.
In a bid to raise whatever funding possible, Sokratis will likely be one of the players available for sale in the coming transfer window. At present, there are eight senior centre-backs on the books at the club which, by all accounts, is far too many. Especially when so many of them are painfully average.
Suitability Rating: 2/10
As touched upon rather clearly already, Mustafi is not a strong candidate to sit beside Saliba. It’s not entirely fair on the German to discount him completely, since the truth is he’s been the most improved player in the Arsenal squad this season. Calamity error at Stamford Bridge aside, he’s shown refinement. But it wasn’t hard to do better than he was doing, since his performances were so dire that any accurate pass was seen as a revelation.
His erratic style of play and over-willingness to go to ground when a standing tackle is quite blatantly a safer, wiser and more logical option mean he’ll be putting Saliba under unnecessary stress – which is hardly the sort of welcome he’ll be looking for on his Premier League voyage.
Suitability Rating: 3/10
So much was expected of Holding before his desperately unfortunate knee injury last season, where he was key to Arsenal going on a 22-match unbeaten run. Since returning, he has looked a shadow of his former self, with mistakes becoming a far too frequent occurrence in his performances.
He can’t get near the starting lineup at present, but some fans still feel he’s capable of replicating his pre-injury form and cementing himself as a regular. At the moment, though, that isn’t the case.
Suitability Rating: 3/10
The obvious issue here is that Chambers is currently sidelined with an anterior cruciate ligament injury – one that could see him out of action until October. There are hopes that his return date could be sooner, but either way, he won’t be playing for a while. Still, before his injury, he had shown signs of vast improvement this season, battling his way into the starting lineup.
Will he ever be able to return to that level and make the position his own again? It will be a tough ask as plenty of movement is likely to take place in the squad before he’s back, but a fit Chambers wouldn’t be the worst partner for Saliba. However, for someone who will need a steady teammate alongside him, Chambers’ lack of regular football and poor tactical awareness could pose an issue.
Suitability Rating: 5/10
This will be the area for plenty of debate. Mari has only made two outings for Arsenal to date, but he boasts one trait all the other centre-backs in the squad don’t have: he’s left footed.
This alone shouldn’t grant you a place in the side, but it’s been one of Arteta’s primary areas of focus since taking the reins. He craves balance within the squad, and having central defenders playing out from the back with their preferred foot is key to his approach.
With no time to assert himself on the team or even showcase his ability, putting two inexperienced Premier League footballers alongside each other is an accident waiting to happen. The language barrier could be an issue too, with the extent of either player’s English not fully known. Still, positionally they will be compatible, as Mari’s long-range distribution would fit nicely with Saliba’s ambition on the ball.
Suitability Rating: 6/10
The obvious candidate and, at the moment, the only legitimate partner for Saliba that will get the best out of both players. Experience is so crucial in football, and while there have been moments this season where it looks as if Luiz has none, his leadership and know-how will be pivotal in bedding Saliba into the squad (and defence).
Frustratingly for Arsenal fans, Luiz has good and bad days. Consistency has been hard to come by, but no other defender in the side will complement Saliba quite as well. The Brazilian’s best performances came at Chelsea when utilised in three-man defence, with the reason for that being due to the solidity his defensive partners offered.
He is prone to a mistake or two, so the comfort of two extra centre-halves allowed his positive attributes to come to the fore. Now, I’m not suggesting Saliba equates to two defenders, of course not, but the signs coming out of his time in France are that his defensive qualities place him high above the other defenders in the squad. He looks solid already, and that will only work to benefit Luiz.
Having someone to bark orders at him and move him around the pitch will be crucial for Saliba, even if his natural instincts and football brain are more akin to someone ten years his senior. Yes, there are definite holes in this partnership – as with any current Arsenal centre-back pair – but that’s more due to the quality of his teammates rather than his own ability.
Suitability Rating: 8/10