Speaking exclusively to our colleagues at 20 Minutes, 18-year-old Arsenal player William Saliba’s former coach at Montfermeil, between 2014 and 2016, discussed the teen’s irrepressible rise.
How does it feel to see a player you coached become the record transfer sale for St Étienne?
It is a great source of pride to have coached William for two seasons and to say today that St Étienne’s biggest ever transfer comes from us (Montfermeil). Being just 18, and having so many big clubs being interested in him, it’s quite something. It is also totally logical because he is a top player, even if he still has a lot to learn.
How did William Saliba cope with all this interest at such a young age?
I speak with William two or three times a week. He had Tottenham and also Gladbach, but Arsenal did everything to get him. He explained to me from the beginning that his choice was Arsenal, especially because it is a club that does not hesitate to give young players a chance. Whatever happened, St Étienne wanted to keep him for another season on loan. When I think about it, to battle at Arsenal at 19-years-old, that will be exceptional.
Does this transfer not feel a bit premature for you, maybe even disproportionate, for a player who has played just 16 times in Ligue 1?
Honestly, I did not think that William would be transferred this summer. He himself wanted to have a full season in Ligue 1 with St Étienne before looking at a possible departure. He often reminds me that he hasn’t proven anything yet, even if he has an exceptional potential. But English clubs who can put down as much money as €30m, it is not a lot for them for an upcoming talent. If William has two good seasons with Arsenal, he could be sold again for €80m, €100m, who knows.
In the image of Jean-Louis Gasset, St Étienne seem to have managed his rise to the top very well.
For me, everything has been done perfectly by St Étienne. The club prepared him well and exposed him to 1st team action at the right time. Over his 13 starts, I can only remember super performances. And even though he has become a crucial element in the starting XI, William wanted to stay in and around the youth academy. It enables him to go home at a sensible time and the younger players see him as a role model.
If we go back to 2014, what struck you about William Saliba at FC Montfermeil?
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. And he quickly understood that he could only achieve his dreams by accepting to become a central defender like I repeated to him, and not as a midfielder or even attacker like he was at AS Bondy.
From his time at the St Étienne youth academy, to his explosion onto the Ligue 1 scene to his transfer to Arsenal at age 18. What has impressed you most about his stratospheric rise?
To see him succeed so quickly with the 1st team at St Étienne, that impressed me the most. He projects confidence, a cold-blooded mentality and technical ease as if he was still playing for FC Montfermeil. He never felt pressure. And still, I feel like I am watching the same William in Ligue 1 as when he was playing for us. I feel that he is mentally ready for this level. He has always known what he wanted, whilst keeping his feet on the ground. Even in the final days, he let his agent deal with all of that and didn’t lose his head. And then he is a boy who likes to work.
Ok – so where can he honestly improve, what are his faults?
I am sure we can find some even if he has rarely made mistakes in Ligue 1. With his big size, he needs to be more aggressive in his heading game to add a threat from attacking set-pieces. He could also improve in overtaking players, not hesitating to advance further with the ball to spark a move, which he did very well for us. But I see him as a future French international.