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FEATURE | Decision time for Arsenal, Marseille and William Saliba

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William Saliba’s return to Ligue 1 has become a case study in how crucial the right environment is to a young player’s development. Applying talent is just as important as having it. A risk-taking, technical, ball-playing centre-back, the 21-year-old Frenchman is the type of player that, at this stage of his career, is certain to make mistakes. Indeed, he needs to be allowed to do so.

Having languished at Arsenal for six months after a £30m move in 2020 following a season of injuries with Saint-Etienne, the Saliba that arrived at Nice in January 2021 was effectively the same player that broke through with Les Verts in the 2018/19 campaign. Despite steady improvement under Jorge Sampaoli at OM this season, Saliba remains a defender with two personas.

The first and increasingly dominant version is unerringly calm, serene and assured. He glides across the backline to extinguish danger with an air of authority while his passing is snappy, graceful and neatly progressive. The other Saliba is easily unsettled, indecisive and slow to react when the opposition amps up their intensity or press. He’s static in his positioning and can look over-awed.

Whichever Saliba turns up, he can lack the ability to impose himself physically and take charge generally. His next club will need a proactive and rigorous coach to hone those areas of his game. Nevertheless, the 21-year-old boasts one of the highest potential levels of all Ligue 1 defenders, as few can match his combination of a developing defensive nose, a supreme ability to turn away from trouble and physical potential.

Although mistakes remain, he deserves significant credit for managing such wide-ranging responsibility under Sampaoli. In the Argentine coach’s constantly evolving and often lopsided system, Saliba has regularly been asked to cover vast swathes of Marseille’s right flank alone. One of the midfielders, usually Valentin Rongier, often shuffles across to drop in at right-back next to Saliba. With Saliba nominally the right of three centre-backs, the other two naturally drift left as a result, leaving Saliba exposed, especially in transition.

As Lazio notably showed in a Europa League meeting earlier this season, this asymmetry can be exploited but Saliba’s mobility and assured defending have usually won out. Although he can still badly lack awareness when defending crosses, as the Arsenal loanee slowly eradicates mistakes, Saliba is now OM’s leading defender and a key player for Sampaoli.

With Saliba’s loan deal ending, decisions are immanent for Marseille, Arsenal and the player. With his contract up in 2024, next season will likely be Arsenal’s least risky chance to integrate Saliba into their first team with an agreeable fee still achievable next summer should things not work out. Marseille, meanwhile, will need to weigh up Saliba’s importance to the team and if they can afford a big fee to sign him permanently – which seems unlikely.

France’s latest international, meanwhile, has stated he doesn’t want to sit on the bench at Arsenal and may see another loan as the best option. However, he may have to agree on a contract extension with Arsenal to make that happen. Although this suits OM, Arsenal might be less keen and could yet choose to sell with suitors, other than Marseille, likely to be plentiful. Regardless of his destination, a deficit of experience to this point means Saliba will need considerable game time next season if he’s to realise his potential. As such, his summer could be career-defining.

GFFN Weekly

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