As William Saliba continues to enhance his reputation on loan at Marseille, we take a look at the defender's rise and ask, will he ever get a chance at Arsenal?
What really has gone on between Arsenal and Saliba? It's a mystery that so far remains unsolved.
The 20-year-old is yet to play a competitive minute for the Gunners since joining in 2019 from Saint-Etienne but has impressed on loan at Nice last season and continues to build his growing reputation even further with some impressive displays for Marseille so far this campaign.
As Marseille continue their Europa League campaign at Galatasaray on Thursday, we tell the story of Saliba's Arsenal career so far and speak to French football expert Tom Williams about the defender's rise to prominence and what the future could hold for the highly-rated defender...
What's the story?
Saliba joined Arsenal in the summer of 2019 as one of the most highly-rated teenagers in European football.
The Gunners splashed out a considerable £27m for the defender, who was 18 at the time and had only one season of professional football at Saint-Etienne to his name.
Saliba was initially sent back to Saint-Etienne on loan as part of the deal and he continued to impress in Ligue 1 during the 2019/20 season.
At the start of the following season, the French youngster was expected to get his chance at Arsenal, but was left out of the Gunners' squads for the Premier League and Europa League, leaving him with just U23 football before securing another loan move to France in January with Nice.
Saliba impressed again with Nice, making 20 appearances to help the club to a ninth-place finish in Ligue 1 before returning to Arsenal once again in the summer of 2021.
Would the Frenchman be given his Arsenal opportunity this time? "He's our player so he'll be back here for sure," said Arsenal boss Mikel Arteta during the summer. The signs were looking better for the 20-year-old, who did face a difficult few months back in England due to family bereavement, but then came the signing of Benjamin White, meaning his chances of game time were going to be limited once again.
It led to another loan move, this time with Marseille, and once again Saliba's impressive performances have started up plenty of debate among Arsenal fans as to whether the club have handled his situation in the right way, despite him not playing a senior minute for the club.
What has Arteta said?
Speaking after Saliba completed a loan move to Nice in January 2021, the Arsenal boss suggested the young defender does have a big future with the Gunners.
"We signed a big project that we had some issues with because he's not played enough football over the past 18 months and at that age, and in the development phase he is at, that is crucial. I was always very conscious when he came back, when he didn't do the step that he had to before joining us, that to start a relationship with a new manager, a new club, new team-mates where he is not having any game time is really difficult and I think it is damaging for the future.
"I want to protect the player that we signed and the future we have alongside him and the best way to do that is to give him minutes to play. He has been really good, it has been a difficult few months for him to cope with that situation but I see the development that he has made, the progression that he has shown over the months and now he is ready to compete. He is going to a really strong league as well, a league he knows really well, he has experience [there] and he needs to play as many games as possible to be ready for us from next season."
And more recently, Arteta was asked about the defender's performance against PSG in a news conference, saying the club are keeping a close eye on Saliba and there is room for him at Arsenal.
"Yes we have been as a club always in touch," Arteta said. "They went to see the game as well, Edu and Ben [Knapper] were there to watch him and to keep a close eye on him and the progress that he's making. Obviously he's our player and with all the loaned players that we have. At the moment he's there, and he played a different game that week, and this is it. He continues to do what he needs to do which is to play a lot of games and play them well."
Asked about Saliba's future at Arsenal after his season-long loan at Marseille, Arteta added: "That's a decision that we'll make in the summer," he said. "Obviously he's our player, and naturally that would happen, and we'd have to sit down and decide what the best step is next.
"I think there is room [to accommodate him, Ben White and Gabriel]. Again, it will depend on what happens with other players and that's not a conversation to have now."
What has Saliba said?
William Saliba has spoken out on his difficult spell at Arsenal in the past.
"It is clear that so much has changed in the last year," he told RMC Sport in February 2021. "When I saw that the coach changed a lot changed for me too. In this year there has been a lot of change. He [Arteta] judged me on two and a half matches. I would have liked for him to play me more. But he told me I wasn't ready. I was waiting for him to give me a chance, but football is like that."
That was not the first interview Saliba had done since his move to Nice from the Gunners. He had spoken out three times in as many weeks and in another interview, he revealed he was left 'hurt' by the lack of game time at Arsenal.
"Honestly, if you told me a year ago, I honestly would not have believed you," he told TF1. "I really, really, really didn't think that I would be transferred for €30m and to think that I would arrive, where people were expecting a lot from me and the fans were excited about me, and you find yourself in the reserves, play zero, zero nothing in the Europa League or the league. I was in the squad once in the League Cup. It hurt me, it affected me. I don't think I left too early. When you feel ready you have to go."
When asked about his future, he said: "I don't know. I have learned now that it is better not to look too far in the future. So, I am focused on just these six months to try to give absolutely everything and for the rest, we will see."
'Confusion and surprise' in France over Saliba's lack of opportunity at Arsenal…
French football expert Tom Williams speaking to Sky Sports:
"People are baffled by his lack of a chance at Arsenal given that when he left Saint-Etienne it felt like quite a natural move. Obviously, he was still young when he signed for Arsenal in 2019 but I don't think anyone thought he wasn't ready for it.
"He had only played a small amount of first-team football for Saint-Etienne by then, but he'd shown plenty of potential and the French club had bought through a lot of good young players in previous years. It wasn't uncommon to see a young Saint-Etienne player sign for a big European club.
"So, the fact he didn't get a look in at all people found it baffling, and much like Arsenal supporters, there was conjecture as to what exactly had gone wrong.
"Was it a personality clash with Arteta? Was he just having absolute howlers in training on a weekly basis? Did something else happen? It left a lot of people scratching their heads. Then, at the back end of last season, he ends up in Ligue 1 with Nice, and played very well. And now, since the start of the season, he's been exceptional for Marseille.
"So, like a lot of Arsenal fans and a lot of people who have followed Saliba's career, the main feeling regarding what has happened for him at Arsenal so far has been one of confusion and surprise."
The rebuild at Nice...
TW: "When he first came through at Saint-Etienne he played like a much more experienced player than he was. He seemed to find his feet very quickly in Ligue 1 and was very quickly being linked with lots of big clubs. One of the problems he had there was after the Arsenal move went through and he was loaned back to Saint-Etienne, he had various injury problems and that also probably contributed to him making a bit of a slow start at Arsenal.
"However, at Nice last season he was pretty impressive. Just because there was so much mystery around what had happened to him at Arsenal, it felt like a bit of a gamble for Nice to be bringing him in and putting him into their first-team, but he formed this sort of reject centre-back partnership with another young French defender called Jean-Clair Todibo, who had made a move to Barcelona when he was quite young.
He guides and instructs the defence, gives impression he’s been there a long time. He’s just arrived but has already shown he’s the boss of the defence.
"Todibo hadn't really got a look in at Barcelona and had been loaned out to a succession of clubs and it felt like both he and Saliba were in the same boat. They both had this big move to a big European club early in their careers, it hadn't worked out and they were trying to find their feet again. But, in the second half of last season. Nice were solid and Saliba and Todibo both demonstrated that actually they hadn't forgotten how to play football despite the difficulties they'd been through.
"Nice were very keen to hold onto Saliba and the end of last season, but Marseille were determined that they wanted to sign him."
Showcasing his talent at Marseille…
TW: "Marseille had a substantial summer recruitment drive, piloted by Pablo Longoria, who is the president, and Jorge Sampaoli the head coach, and one of the really striking things about Saliba - who has been a virtual ever-present this season, playing more minutes than any other player in Ligue 1 - is that Marseille play with a system that is extremely demanding of their central defenders.
"It's basically a 3-2-4-1 formation with players in all sorts of unusual hybrid positions. The only players providing any real width are the two wingers and they both stay very high up the pitch. So, the guys that are playing as the lateral centre-backs, and Saliba has basically played the whole season as the right-sided centre-back, have to cover a huge amount of ground, both with and without the ball.
He’s a top player at his post. We had the chance to bring him on loan, it was not easy. He is good at marking but he has a good recovery too. It’s a great future. of French football, he is very good at the recovery. He has adapted well to the defense at 3, and his performance is also linked to the team which likes to start from behind.
"Saliba won't have had much experience of playing in that way before and he's just taken to it really well. It's allowed him to showcase what a good defender he is first and foremost in that, because of the way Marseille play and because they are very attacking, very often their defenders - the back three in particular - are left one-on-one with the opposition forwards. They have to deal with quick players running at them.
"They don't always receive a huge amount of protection and that's something that Saliba has coped really well with. But also, on the ball because the right-sided winger stays so high, when Saliba picks up the ball he's generally got quite a lot of space in front of him, and he's been able to showcase how good he is on the ball and that he's prepared to take calculated risks in possession and in terms of the sort of passes he plays.
"Marseille's system is a big ask for a young centre-back, who has had this difficult experience at Arsenal, but he's come in straight away and been absolutely brilliant. That has only reinforced the puzzlement as to why he hasn't had a loom in at all at Arsenal."
The breakthrough performance and that tackle on Mbappe…
TW: "His performance for Marseille against PSG confirmed a lot of what he had already been doing since the beginning of the season.
"However, that game, in particular, was really hotly anticipated because in recent years PSG have repeatedly blown Marseille away almost every time they've played them and yet, with Sampaoli coming in and playing this very adventurous, risky style of football and also the game being played at the Stade Velodrome with fans present for the first time at this game since the pandemic, there was huge expectation.
"As we mentioned earlier, with the way Marseille play their defenders are often left exposed and if you are a centre-back the last player in world football who you want to find yourself one-on-one with is Kylian Mbappe, but Saliba dealt with him very well.
"Mbappe has been having a fantastic season and I think the last-ditch tackle made on him by Saliba really summed up his time so far at the club. The roar it drew from the Velodrome crowd was comparable to what you hear when a goal is scored.
"There is always a danger you focus too much on moments like that but for Marseille, who have had to put up with PSG being top dogs for so long, seeing this young defender go toe-to-toe with PSG's superstar centre forward and come out on top, I think that would have really helped his popularity within the Marseille fanbase.
"So, yes, I think that performance and in particular the tackle on Mbappe almost feel like the standout moments in his career so far."
Saliba has all the qualities to play in the Premier League. He’s well built, quick and a good passer of the ball too. I don’t see any reason why he shouldn’t be in Arsenal’s team.
Is there a future for him at Arsenal? Are the loan moves part of the plan?
TW: "Arsenal were on a decent run of form before the defeat at Liverpool. The Benjamin White and Gabriel partnership has looked pretty solid over the last few weeks, and I can't imagine that Arteta would want to tinker too much with that if he can avoid it.
"However, if Saliba carries on this same trajectory, he'll reach the end of the season as an ever-present, injury permitting, in a team that is competing for Champions League qualification in France and in a very demanding atmosphere.
"There is no more demanding club to play for in France than Marseille. No supporters expect more from their players, no supporters create more of an intimidating atmosphere and on top of that, as we've said before, he's performing well in this very difficult system.
"The fact Edu was there for the PSG game and the fact Arteta is starting to talk about Saliba's future at Arsenal suggests there is scope for him to be brought back in. I can't think of many previous examples of a big Premier League club spending that much on a player and not even giving him 30 minutes in a dead rubber league game at some point.
I think there is room [to accommodate him, Ben White and Gabriel]. Again, it will depend on what happens with other players and that's not a conversation to have now.
"It does remain a mystery that he didn't get more of a look in and given that Arteta was so reluctant to blood him into the first team, it's hard to give much credit to Arsenal for the fact Saliba appears to be blossoming at Marseille. But if he carries on developing at this current rate and finishes the season in a decent run of form, I'm sure Arsenal fans would welcome him back to the club with open arms.
"However, the question then is can Arteta find a place for him in his team? Is there a way of bringing him into the rotation or does he have to go out on loan again? Or do they capitalise on the fact he's had this good season and sell him, trying to recoup some of the money they paid for him when they initially signed him from Saint-Etienne?"
Does he have the attributes to play in the Premier League?
TW: "It's one of the elements that makes what has happened to him at Arsenal so far so baffling. He seems to be perfectly equipped for the Premier League.
"If you make the comparison with Wesley Fofana, another ex-Saint-Etienne centre-back who went to Leicester, he doesn't quite have the same level of physicality. He's not quite as aggressive and not as much of a front foot defender. His heading is not actually one of his real strengths despite the fact he is tall, but in terms of his speed and his anticipation, he's excellent.
"One of the things that has really improved under Sampaoli is his tactical awareness, his management of space, which is a huge element in the way Marseille defenders have to defend. That would all seem to be well suited to the Premier League and also the fact he is very comfortable on the ball.
"He's pretty much every inch the modern centre-back and aside from the fact he's not quite as dominant in the air as he could be, there aren't too many shortcomings to his game, and I can't see why one day he couldn't thrive in the Premier League."
William Saliba has the best true tackle success rate of any player to attempt 20+ tackles in Ligue 1 this season:— Squawka Football (@Squawka) November 9, 2021
◉ 82% true tackle success
◎ 22 tackles attempted
◎ 18 tackles made
◎ 2 fouls from tackle attempts
◎ 2x dribbled past
Squeaky clean. 🧼 pic.twitter.com/G3gNTdBxhF
What about Marseille? They must want to keep him?
TW: "It seems Saliba was one of the top priorities for Longoria and Sampaoli last summer and particularly given the experience he's had at Arsenal, I'm sure that's something Saliba really appreciated.
"As I mentioned earlier, Marseille is simultaneously the most difficult club to play for in France when things are going badly, but also the best club to play for in France when things are going well. There is no other club that offers you that buzz, the thrill of 60,000 supporters roaring you on.
"If there are any doubts about Saliba going back to Arsenal and getting first-team football and he managed to finish the season in a positive way, I'm sure there will be a desire from him to explore the chance of staying, given that Sampaoli was so keen to sign him and has picked him at every possible opportunity.
"You would have thought Marseille would be keen to keep him and again, the fact he's doing so well means any of the other big French clubs that are looking to recruit a centre-back will be keeping an eye on his situation.
"He'll be quite a wanted man by the end of the season and Arenal will have a decision to make. Do they bring him back in and try to fit him into the first team somehow? Do they send him out on loan again or do they try to recoup some of their initial outlay?"
The verdict: Hard to see Saliba's long-term future at Arsenal...
TW: "Given that we are still relatively early in the season a lot of things can still happen between now and the end of the campaign.
"If Arsenal continue on this good vein of form and Ben White and Gabriel further entrench themselves in the starting line-up it's going to be very hard for Saliba to force his way into that team regardless of how he plays.
"If he can keep his current momentum going and Marseille have a good season, I'm sure they would love to keep him, and if he's enjoyed his time at the club perhaps, he'll want to stay.
"The fact there is that competition at Arsenal, coupled with the fact Arteta clearly didn't fancy him to begin with, even if he is now coming round to the idea of finding him a place for him, that makes it hard to see a long-term future for Saliba with the Gunners.
"But, at the same time, we know football is a funny sport so watch this space."