For a club with a starting budget of £45m this summer – now diminished by their £6m signing of teenage Brazilian forward Gabriel Martinelli – signing a player for around £25m only to loan him back to the selling club might not seem like a strategic masterstroke.
That appears to be exactly what Arsenal intend to do with William Saliba, however. According to various reports, they are close to finalising a deal with Saint-Etienne for the teenage defender which would see him remain at the Stade Geoffroy-Guichard for the duration of the 2019-20 season.
While that makes sense from a developmental perspective given Saliba’s rapid progress at Saint-Etienne thus far, a defender who will only join the squad next year is of little use to Unai Emery. Likely to come under intense pressure over the next few months if things carry on as they did towards the end of last season, overhauling Arsenal’s malfunctioning defence is one of Emery’s main priorities and should be an anxiety-inducing red flashing light in his brain – accompanied by the words ‘Shkodran Mustafi’, screamed over and over again through a megaphone – such is its urgency.
Depending on how the deal is structured, though, loaning Saliba back to Saint-Etienne might make a sort of sense. It has been suggested that, thanks to Saliba remaining in France for another season, Arsenal might be able to defer much of the transfer fee until 2020 and so conserve their limited budget to allow for expenditure elsewhere.
Emery might not see the benefit of Saliba’s signing immediately, then, but it should at least leave Arsenal with funds available for other recruits who are able to make a direct impact.
So who is Saliba, and why are Arsenal willing to make an advance on next season’s budget to secure his signature?
William Saliba profile
Previous clubs: AS Bondy, FC Montfermeil
Career to date
Brought up in the disadvantaged north-eastern suburbs of Paris – hugely fertile ground for the latest generation of French footballers – Saliba started out with AS Bondy, the club which launched Kylian Mbappe. What’s more, Saliba was actually coached by Mbappe’s father Wilfrid, often visited their family home and even went to the same primary school as the soon-to-be World Cup winner, almost three years his senior.
“Wilfrid Mbappe taught me everything and if I’m here today, it’s thanks to him,” he told regional newspaper Le Populaire while training with France under-18s last year. Speaking to Le Parisien, another of his former coaches at AS Bondy, Tonio Riccardi, said of Saliba: “When he was 12, he was moved up to the under-15s. Because of his size, he was technically a bit clumsy but it was offset by his power. He gave off an impression of strength.”
After a couple of seasons with FC Montfermeil in the eastern suburbs of Paris, Saliba joined Saint-Etienne’s academy age 15 in 2016. He signed his first professional contract two years later, while steadily advancing through the youth set-up with the national team.
When he signed professional terms, Saint-Etienne managing director Frederic Paquet said: “His choice proves that our sporting project is attractive, because William was followed by several foreign clubs.” Even then, scouts had clearly marked out Saliba as one to watch.
Having made his professional debut in a 3-2 win against Toulouse last season, Saliba was accelerated into the first team and adapted at a remarkable rate by all accounts. He went on to make 19 appearances in all competitions, sealing a regular starting spot during the run-in as Saint-Etienne finished an impressive fourth and sealed Europa League qualification.
What will Saliba bring to Arsenal?
For the moment, the answer is very little other than perhaps a nice unveiling, a big thumbs-up for the cameras and an aesthetically on-point Adidas photoshoot. Presuming the two clubs can finalise a deal which satisfies all parties, Arsenal will still need to bring in defensive reinforcements this summer while Saliba continues to learn his game at Saint-Etienne.
As such, his signing is something of a diversion in that, once all the negotiating maneuvers are over, things look set to return to the status quo ante bellum. That’s not to say it’s insignificant, merely that it shouldn’t distract from Arsenal’s pressing need to strengthen their defence now rather than later.
While Saliba has inevitably been labelled ‘the new Varane’ and, in a more left-field shout, ‘the new Thuram’ in the English-speaking press, the hype machine has gone into overdrive in recent weeks and, given that he’s still a teenager, it’s worth sounding a note of caution. Speaking to Le Parisien in September, his national team coach Jean-Luc Vannuchi said: “He has so many qualities that he has to stay focused all the time because he is a cut above. It must not be too easy. This is the danger that lurks.”
Saliba is predominantly a centre-back but can also cover on the right flank, hence the comparisons to Thuram. Standing at around 6’3, his height is a big natural advantage. While his strength is probably his most acclaimed attribute, he also has a reputation for a good reading of the game and tactical intelligence. Vannuchi also made him captain of his under-18s side, suggesting he has decent leadership skills.
While he has to be filed under ‘one for the future’, Saliba is clearly considered a hugely exciting talent in France and, as such, could prove to be a clever investment. As long as Arsenal still secure their short-term defensive targets – Kieran Tierney, most obviously, with fingers crossed for a direct replacement for Mustafi at centre-back – few will be disappointed to see them signing a player who has been identified as one of the leaders of France’s next generation.