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The William Saliba narrative – Are controversial decisions favouring Arteta of late?

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William Saliba. Another man that just divides opinion. “He’s just another CB.” “Saliba is a generational talent.” “Arteta should be sacked for sending him out on loan.” “What is Arteta thinking for playing him in the reserves for 6 months.” The twittersphere absolutely loves the narrative that is William Saliba and Arsenal. It’s the gift that keeps on giving.

Its like the waves of the ocean rolling through to crash onto the beach. Except its not just a nice day out, the swell is rising, a storm is brewing and the currents really are ripping back and forth. A standard day out at Piha if I might use a little anaolgy from the black sand beaches of the West Coast in NZ.

The Saliba story pops up and down every few weeks just like the ocean. And my goodness does it roar! I haven’t heard the fanbase so divided in its opinion of the treatment of a player since well… Aubameyang just last week. Then I suppose Mesut Ozil the year before. Mikel really is bold in the way he deals with players. Inexperienced coach’s naivety or young manager’s confidence? Take your pick. One thing we can see is that he seems to be getting it right a lot more than he is getting it wrong.

The same can certainly be said in my opinion for William Saliba. Old mate Arteta has done it again. The 20 year old French CB is going to come back to Arsenal next year as the most experienced defender of his age group playing in the top 5 European leagues. He has played 43 matches through the course of 2021. That alone is enough to make me pat Arteta on the back.

You can’t beat game time when it comes to learning the art of defending. As a CB that is just absolutely crucial. Experience is what gives a central defender the confidence to go out and lead from the front. Marshall his troops and hold a good shape. Arsenal will have 3 CBs below the age of 24 next year in this same mould. I tell you what, its been a very, very long time since an Arsenal fan could say something like that; and not just say it. Shout from the top of your lungs and feel proud of whats at our disposable.

Even Rob Holding as a 4th choice. Name a better fourth choice than Rob. Rob from accounting anyone? Just for the new hairline alone. Add to that the strength of character to stand up for his mates and give the racist fans at Leeds a kick out of the park. Not a bad footballer too mind. 

Back to William Saliba.

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Not only is the man racking up games and experience; but he is starting to fill the stat sheet and compare favourably to some of the best defenders in Europe in key areas. He is fast turning into a potential world class talent. To make matters even better he is showcasing the kind of quality in areas that Mikel Arteta is looking for from his CBs. He will fit in and not only will he fit in, but he will play ball.

Saliba is a baller. A Rolls Royce of a defender. Good both on the ball and off it. The young man is going to fit into the possession based system of Arteta like a house on fire. Comfortable both playing out from the back and defending on the front foot, Saliba is more than capable of leading a defensive line that pushes high up the field to turn the ball over as close to the opponents goal as possible.

Whilst the high press is a key part of Arsenal’s game plan there are times that it will be played through and the counter attack needs to be cleaned up. In this instance we must rely on our defender’s abilities to defend 1 v 1, decision making on when to engage and prevent the space being attacked in behind.

William Saliba has only been dribbled past 0.21 times per 90 mins through 2021. This rates him in the 96th percentile of central defenders in European football. Compare this to Ben White at 0.79 times per 90 mins and Gabriel at 0.35 timer per 90 mins; it puts Saliba in the elite territory and top of the Arsenal CBs.

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Think back to the likes of Mustafi (0.82 x per 90) and Sokratis (0.74 x per 90) at the back and the number of occasions we absolutely capitulated defending the counter attack because someone dived in and was beaten 1 v 1. Saliba doesn’t do this. He literally hardly ever gets beaten on the dribble.

Another key aspect of Arteta’s central defenders is the ability to play out from the back and beat the press with calmness and composure. William Saliba once again looks good. Both on the stat sheet and to the naked eye.

Saliba’s pass completion rates at 93.4%. This puts him in the 97th percentile. Again he ranks higher than Ben White (84.9%), Gabriel (86.8%) and Rob Holding (89.3%). Now these stats show part of the story – William can keep the ball well and recycle possession. However can he really beat the press and play passes into areas that matter and get the side moving forward?

The answer to that question is yes. A big yes. William Saliba’s progressive passing distance is off the charts. He moves the ball forward exceedingly well, and gets his team on the front foot. Saliba’s progressive passing distance per 90 mins is 470m, which once again puts him in the 95th percentile. Again he blows our current CBs out of the water. Ben White – possibly our best ball playing defender hits 278m per 90; Gabriel at 306m per 90 and Holding at 347m per 90.

That really is elite ball playing potential. To put it in perspective Ruben Dias at Manchester City also averages at 470m of progressive passing per 90 mins. Dias is the Pirlo of modern day central defenders, so the fact that Saliba compares favourably speaks volumes. Let’s not forget also that he is only 20 years old. The man is outperforming seasoned pros across Europe’s big 5 leagues. Now to me, that’s bloody exciting stuff. 

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Now let’s forget about stats for a moment. There has been a big push for data in football in recent years and the value we should place on this vs the age old trust of the naked eye. Arguments are thrown back and forth like nobodies business. In reality they both have their place. Data can track movements, actions, styles, and similarities between players. Whereas our vision can really assess the fluidity and quality of these movements.

For example watching Saliba control, pass and carry the ball for Marseille this year has shown a man who is in supreme control. He is comfortable in every stride, and exudes confidence in the way he passes the ball vertically more often than not and through opposition defensive lines. He rarely miscontrols the ball, and always has his body in the correct position to shield from his opponents. He is measured to the finest detail to the point where he is constantly passing the ball in front of his intended target or to the player’s back foot enabling an easy and fast turn into space for his attacking team mates.

Just imagine the likes of Smith Rowe, Saka, Odegaard and Martinelli receiving perfectly weighted passess enabling a quick transition to turn towards goal. Speed of movement and speed of thought is everything when it comes to the difference between high quality and low quality chances. Saliba can provide this in bucket loads.

These traits and skills marry the tendencies he shows with the stats; and offers the data an extra layer of quality that can sometimes be left wondering about.

Saliba displays speed on defence ensuring that he is able to catch his marker. This is not just shown through his top speed, but in the sense that he is more often than not the first to recover for a ball played in behind showing not just a good turn of speed but high levels of reaction time, turning speed and timing of his tackle. All unknown metrics to our current data pool, but extremely important when assessing whether a young CB has the desired ability to make the step up to the Premier League.

William Saliba is good. In fact take that back. He is an elite talent that has the ability to go on and be a legend at the football club.

It won’t be easy however. Ben White and Gabriel have formed a formidable partnership so far this season. What it does mean however is that Arteta will have 3 elite CBs to call upon next season. Whichever of the two are in form will play and the competition will ensure that mental strength and resilience is a huge part of our defensive structure going forward.

The final piece that really has got me excited is watching how vocal Saliba is at Marseille. He leads his side around the pitch. He is developing his ability to organise a back line in the best way possible; doing it whilst on the pitch playing in one of the top 5 leagues in the world. A video went viral of Saliba leading his youth team chant a few months back. It screamed out that this guy is a presence in the dressing room. Confidence, exuberance and communication. Under-appreciated yet vital qualities of a Premier League CB – think John Terry, Tony Adams, Rio Ferdinand.

I think we can put to bed the thought that Arteta’s doesn’t have a clue what he is doing with William Saliba. He has knocked this one out of the park and to be fair most of his decisions at the moment are reaping the reward. Fingers crossed that Mikel and the Arsenal keep getting it right over the next few months. Saliba could be back just in time to boss the Champions League next season.

Stranger things have happened ya know.

Cheers for reading my first blog on Gunners Town team. Let me know your thoughts in the comments or drop me a follow on twitter @KiwiGoonerHaz to further the debate. I’m always up for it!

Kia Kaha everyone.

 

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