FEATURE | ‘Impassable, Cerebral, Patient’ – William Saliba told by those who know him best

As France look to reach the semi-final of EURO 2024 this evening at the expense of Portugal, they will come to rely on a player who has been the heartbeat of a defence that has only conceded one goal in the tournament. However, the crown jewel has taken an unexpectedly long journey to reach this point. 

William Saliba has been widely recognised as one of the best centre-backs playing in the Premier League for the past two seasons. He has been an assured and unflappable presence that has helped transform Arsenal into title challengers. And while the world came to fall for the Frenchman, Didier Deschamps always seemed decidedly unimpressed. 

After a 2-0 defeat to Denmark in the buildup to the 2022 World Cup, Saliba lost his place in the side. Saliba alongside Benoît Badiashile was dropped at halftime as the scapegoats in a failed three-at-the-back experiment. The ramifications of this experiment saw Saliba dropped for the World Cup (making only one appearance in the dead rubber tie against Tunisia).

Deschamps was decidedly critical of the defender during the international break in March, stating in a press conference that “He is having a good season, but he also does things that I don’t like so much. For France, he has limited game time, but when he plays, that hasn’t necessarily gone well. The hierarchy doesn’t favour him at the moment, but he is here.

William Saliba a self-evident starter for France

However, since then the hierarchy has changed and Saliba has positioned himself as a self-evident starting pick at the Euros to the frustration of Liverpool’s Ibrahima Konaté. And the reward of his newfound status in the national team has been clear to see. France might be stuttering in their attack, but their defence has been a suffocating presence from which they have been able to build and progress. 

In the Round of 16, this was on full display against Belgium, Saliba was at ease quietening Romelu Lukaku. The striker looked increasingly at a loss for ideas when attempting to figure out how to escape the clutches of the ever-looming Frenchman. However, none of this should come as a surprise to those who have watched or worked with Saliba. 

As Razik Nedder, one of Saliba’s coaches during his time at AS Saint-Étienne, explained to L’Équipe, “William’s great strength is he’s very patient in a duel. There are players who will immediately rush to recover the ball. He instead wants to annihilate the action. He will wait for a bad control, bad positioning, a mistake by the attacker and then he’ll intervene.” 

A statement supported by his former manager at ASSE, Claude Puel, who told the French outlet “He is a superb player to train. He’s confident in his abilities, there is no arrogance about him. People don’t realise it, but William is cerebral, someone who is in reflection and who is always looking for progress.” 

‘Premier League attackers are afraid of William Saliba’

However, it is not just his coaches that have seen these strengths. Matteo Guendouzi, who played with Saliba at Olympique de Marseille, lavished praise on his ex-teammate and compatriot, telling L’Équipe, “I feel that Premier League attackers are increasingly afraid of him because they know they won’t be able to pass him one-on-one, but also because he has a superb vision for the game.” 

The midfielder continued in his glowing appraisal, “When he has the confidence of a coach, a team, the staff, he is unplayable. That’s when he will show his qualities. With Jorge Sampaoli, it happened like that. With Mikel Arteta, now too.” And to that list, Deschamps can now be added. The once reluctant convert has finally put his confidence in the defender.

It has taken a far longer route than expected or deserved, but Saliba has relished the opportunity once it was finally provided to him, and has become one of France’s few bright sparks in the tournament. A difficult task awaits tonight with Portugal and Cristiano Ronaldo looking to once again heap misery on Les Bleus at the Euros, but Saliba will be willing to take on this task, and perhaps help the nation get revenge on the 2016 final. 

GFFN | Nick Hartland

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