Saint-Étienne’s U19 side winning the Coupe Gambardella on the 27th of April was the crowning moment of the season for a talented crop of young players at the club, who comfortably beat Toulouse 2-0. Their most promising talent of all, however, did not feature.
William Saliba was, in fact, preparing to help the senior team to a crucial league win against the very same club the next day, where he continued his series of impressive performances at the business end of the season. The weekend was emblematic of Saliba’s meteoric rise to the top, and testament to the club’s excellent management of a talent who looks set to make it to the pinnacle of the game.
Saliba was born in Bondy, just outside Paris, and began playing for local side AS Bondy aged six, the academy responsible for developing players such as Lille’s Jonathan Ikoné and PSG’s Kylian Mbappé (whose father actually coached Saliba). While there, he played primarily as a midfielder, as well as in attack, affording him “above average technique” compared to other defenders, according to former Saint-Étienne scout Ludovic Paradinas in L’Équipe.
In 2014, he moved to FC Montfermeil, settling at centre-back and building his reputation, before eventually joining Saint-Étienne in 2016. He has not looked back since, impressing immediately for the youth and reserve sides, and signing his first professional contract with the club in May 2018. In September that year he made his debut with the first team, starting in their 3-2 league win over Toulouse.
By this time, Saliba was already receiving a lot of media attention, and being linked with big moves away from Les Verts. However, he was used sparingly for much of the campaign, challenging for a spot in a competitive squad against experienced defenders Neven Subotić, and club stalwart Loïc Perrin. It was not until the final stretch of the season that the youngster truly began to make his mark.
In March, it seemed a promising season was petering out, with the club falling outside the European qualification places following a 2-0 loss to a resurgent Marseille side. Coach Jean-Louis Gasset called on Saliba to cover for Perrin against high-flying Lille the following weekend, and though Saint-Étienne would go on to lose the match 1-0, Saliba was instrumental in keeping quiet one of the league’s most dynamic attacks. Due to injuries, and Gasset’s frequent use of a back three, he became an important part of the team in their impressive end tothe campaign, losing just once in their final ten matches.
Saliba was imperious in Les Verts 5-0 routing of Caen, the catalyst for their strong finish to the season, and even better in the club’s crucial 2-0 win over fellow European qualification chasers Reims on the 21st of April, earning a coveted place in L’Équipe’s team of the week.
After signing a new deal set to keep him at the club until 2023, it was symbolic of Saliba’s growing value to the senior team that he was to miss the U19 team’s biggest match in over twenty years. With their win over Toulouse, the Ligue 1 side had conceded just one goal in seven matches with Saliba starting. Saint-Étienne ended the season in fourth, their joint-highest league finish since the eighties. Though the youngster had started only 13 league games, his stock had risen significantly, along with his importance to the team. A terrific debut professional campaign would have ended with his participation in the U20 World Cup, were it not for injury.
A fundamental factor for Saliba’s development has been working under experienced and highly regarded coach Jean-Louis Gasset. Instead of throwing him in the deep end, Gasset has gradually and seamlessly eased him into life as a senior pro. In an interview with the LFP, Saliba talked about the role the coach has played in his development, “[…] even when I was doing poorly, because of my youth and inexperience, he continued to play me, it is thanks to him that I was able to have this progression.” Gasset helped develop his game significantly from a sporting perspective, instructing the young Frenchman to model himself on Raphaël Varane and Thiago Silva in his playing style. Fundamentally, however, the coach helped Saliba to continue his growth off the pitch; “He taught me to be a man.”
The record fee received by Saint-Étienne of £27m seems a hefty amount for a player with just 16 appearances in Ligue 1. Yet this looks great value for a man with huge potential, and barring his inexperience, and a few minor flaws in his game, Saliba looks ready-made for the big time.
Saliba is a presence. At 6’3, he is tall, but agile, and possesses good balance, having honed his technical ability when starting his career further up the pitch. He likes to dribble, and does so with relative grace, only to occasionally be let down by his first touch. He is tactically versatile, able to play on either side of central defence in a back four, or across a back three, and if necessary can play at right-back, as in Saint-Étienne’s 3-0 win over Nice in May. With his strength and athleticism, he is often able to win battles against the more powerful attackers in the league.
From a defensive standpoint, his most eye-catching traits are his tackling and ability to read the game. In the match against Lille in March, his strong and well-timed tackles effectively dealt with one of the league’s most dangerous attacks, holding them off right until the death, and expertly handling the pace of their wide players. Saliba is not prone to lapses in concentration, and is intelligent in his positioning, frequently blocking forward passes, and often in the right place to intercept the ball.
In terms of weaknesses, the most obvious area of Saliba’s game that needs work is his heading, and he himself has admitted to the LFP that this is something Gasset has helped him with. For his height, he is not quite as dangerous in attacking scenarios as he should be, or as adept in defence. His rate of 1.8 aerial duels won per game is solid, but doesn’t tell the full story, and is something he can improve.
While he is also comfortable with the ball at his feet, he often keeps things simple when playing out from the back. Being able to bring the ball forward as a defender is now a key part of the game, and a trait that with time and experience, Saliba will surely be able to develop.
Maturity and composure are ultimately what set Saliba apart from his peers. His calm and assertive nature on the pitch is striking for a player who has just turned 18. These traits however have been evident throughout his career so far. When asked what struck him most about Saliba during his time at Montfermeil, his former coach Abdelaziz Kaddour told 20 Minutes, “Aside from his footballing qualities, he already had a lot of charisma for a young player of 13 years old who was playing U15s. In the dressing room, he was a force and he would say the right things. He looked everyone in the eyes.”
Saliba’s maturity and confidence are perhaps best summed up by club captain Loïc Perrin in L’Équipe, “When he arrived in the dressing room of the pros, he was reserved, but now he’s started joking about with us. On the 2nd of May, we celebrated the U19s winning the [Coupe] Gambardella and before joining them, William let out in a serious tone, ’Come on, let’s celebrate the kids’ achievement’. It was funny, because only recently he was playing for them…”
Should his development continue at its current rate, the Frenchman looks to have all the makings of a top defender. And Saliba himself shows no signs of slowing down, telling the LFP: “I’m still young, I have everything to improve. I have a lot of room for improvement. At my age, I must improve everything, perfect everything to make sure not to stop progressing.”
Back at Saint-Étienne on loan for the season, the stage is set for Saliba to prove his hunger, centre-back Neven Subotić has left the club to join Union Berlin, and he has already worked under new head coach Ghislain Printant, who acted as assistant to the outgoing Jean-Louis Gasset. The foundations are there for a successful season, and for Saliba to continue his progression into a top class defender, one capable of bringing defensive solidity to the Arsenal backline for years to come.