Fault! The file name is not specified. Arsenal fans are still waiting for William Saliba in the first match, and it may take some time before that happens. What went wrong? David Price/Arsenal FC through Getty Images
Arsenal director Mikel Arteta has asked a number of questions during a difficult season, but perhaps the most frequently asked question from dissatisfied fans is this one: Where’s William Saliba? Nice’s answer is ready Monday night, which means it will be at least two years after the signing for the Gunners before Saliba plays his first game for the team.
He’s worth around £27 million, making him the tenth most expensive signing in the club’s history and an answer from fans to time-honoured questions about defence. However, after joining the club in July 2019, he was sent back to Saint-Etienne for a year before Arteta excluded him from the Premier League and the Europa League. The boss of Gunners thought that Saliba would have to go through a year of transition before he would start his career at the Arsenal.
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A second move to Saint-Etienne fell at the end of the summer due to a series of technical details and Nice stepped in this week to offer the 19-year-old the hope of a better 2021. The Allianz Riviera is home to Saliba for at least six months. So Arsena fans will have to wait even longer to see if Saliba can ever live up to the hype.
But how exactly did this happen?
It is difficult to underestimate the number of unforeseen problems Saliba has been facing since Arsenal Tottenham Hotspur courted for his signature in the summer of 2019. Things have gone very fast so far, with Saliba signing his first professional contract a year earlier and making his debut in September 2018, the first of 17 Premier League appearances, before he was at the centre of a transfer dispute in North London.
Saliba met Arsenal midfielder Matteo Guendouzi during a visit to Paris, who convinced him to join the Gunners – an agreement that would allow him to return to Saint-Etienne for the 2019-20 season and continue his development. Sources close to the player describe him as composed and generally unshakable, but what followed was enough to test the roughest of souls. He underwent surgery for an adduction injury that delayed his return to work until September. A promising run was first interrupted by a broken midfoot in November and then by the spread of COVID-19 across Europe, resulting in the premature end of League 1 in April with 10 games to go.
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Saliba confirmed the promise many saw in him in his 12 competitive performances by committing only two fouls in 991 minute game, despite further shocks from St Etienne head coach Ghislain Printanthan – the man responsible for Saliba’s debut – who was fired after eight games this season and replaced by former Leicester coach Claude Puel. The year 2020 will also be marked by a family rhythm that has complicated England’s sedentary lifestyle.
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Earlier Saliba had been the subject of a dispute between Arsenal and Saint-Etienne. The latter wanted to sign it before the final round of the French Cup, which was postponed to the end of July and thus to a later date after the expiry of the original loan contract. Arsenal was willing to negotiate, but after the failure of the negotiations they issued a statement in which they said that we were simply not willing to risk the welfare of the Arsenal player as he recovered from an injury and tried to play in the finals against Paris Saint-Germain, and that we also thought that we would not have any financial problems by extending the loan.
That second point was somewhat lost at the time because they obviously wanted to get the £27 million for the new Premier League season. But given the consequences – not only the departure of Saliba, but also the fact that the club has dismissed 55 non-playing staff and further cutbacks in prospecting and operational staff – the financial aspect now seems more urgent, given the bonus of 2.5 million euros that Arsenal would have to pay if they played a third of the matches of St Etienne in the 2019-20 season.
Sources told ESPN that this was a clause that Arsenal insisted on to guarantee them playing time, which they said they should have improved Saliba. Nevertheless, the final of the French Cup was the 51st edition of the competition. The race of the season for Saint-Etienne. Saliba had started 16 games; if he had started on the 17th he would have won £2.5 million unless a compromise was reached. It’s not that.
A spokesman for the Arsenal insisted at the time that the treatment of Saliba was the main concern and that therefore the financial aspect was not discussed in detail. At the time, Saliba told his friends that before 2020-21, he was aiming for a place in Arsenal’s first team after inheriting the No4 jersey from a team whose lack of quality in the central defense had become apparent. But then he started training at London Colney.
Fault! The file name is not specified. Saliba (right) was sent down for two fouls in his last match for Arsenal in the U21 cup. David Price/Arsenal FC through Getty Images
Unai Emery was the head coach of Arsenal when Saliba signed for Arsenal. The decision to immediately bring him back to League 1 was a realisation that he needed more experience at the highest level. Mikel Arteta, who replaced Emery as manager in December 2019, had to make him a central part of his new team, which ended the 2019-20 season with a surprising FA Cup final victory over Chelsea.
When he joined the club, Saliba hardly spoke English, but he soon started to improve his language skills, focusing of course on the French-speaking players in the team, especially Alexandre Lacazette. Saliba, an Arsenal fan, grew up in the memory of the former French greats Patrick Vieira and Thierry Henry. He was determined to make his mark. However, Arteta and his companions quickly agreed that Saliba was still far from the required level.
This view is always horrified in France, especially as many Arsenal players have fallen back into what (until the last ten days) was the worst start of the season since 1974. How can Shkodran Mustafi get a game and not Saliba?
However, sources told ESPN that many people in Colney believe that Saliba still has much to learn in his positioning and is overwhelmed by the intensity of Arsenal’s training games. Although he has built a reputation at St Etienne by playing well and winning the ball on the field, it is feared that the fast pace of the game will all too often leave him vulnerable and out of position.
Fault! The file name is not specified. Game
Gab Marcotti stressed that the Arsenal players were not needed for their return to form.
Despite its impressive height of 1.80 m, Saliba needs to improve both physically and in the air. Sources told ESPN that several players of the team feel that it is too early to expose them to football in the first division.
One of the toughest reviews was the suggestion that he should withdraw from the league – Arsenal discussed a loan with Watford and Norwich just before the deadline – but Arteta made the most disappointing judgment of all when they decided not to put him in the Premier League and Europa League. The loan to Saint-Etienne fell through at the eleventh hour and both clubs blamed the other for not meeting the deadline. Saliba was in limbo, and the 21-year-old could only play two games. His last appearance was in the 3-0 defeat of Wimbledon in the EFL Cup at 9. December. Saliba was sent away, which gave him a second yellow card for an overzealous tackle.
Whatever doubts there may be about Saliba’s ability, he would certainly have had the guts and benefited from a match against the Irish villains Dundalk, Molde or Rapid Vienna. The Gunners won all six games in their group B despite a difficult rotation, although their form at home deteriorated. But Arsenal’s recent revival, with three consecutive victories over Chelsea, Brighton and West Brom, has eased the pressure on Arteta and revised his conclusions on a number of points, including Saliba’s willingness. Instead of succumbing to the pressure and finding a place for Saliba on the side, one of the first steps in that January window was to send him on loan to Nice, with sources insisting that the Gunners believe that the player, signed until 2024 for 40,000 pounds a week, will still be fine in Arsenal red.
The reaction of Arsenal fans to the social media has been predictably volatile and confrontational, perhaps tempered somewhat by the club’s decision to confirm the news one minute after a live television appearance on Monday by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who informed the country of a third national lockout. Maybe it was a coincidence. But another Where’s Willie? series isn’t ideal for anyone.
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