Gunner Thoughts

Saliba has arrived, now let him breathe

Saliba spotted in pictures of training which means it’s time to get realistic about expectations.

Maybe the Arsenal social media admin knew what they were doing, maybe they didn’t notice, or maybe they simply thought people wouldn’t spot him, but they did. The Arsenal world lit up when a photo of Dani Ceballos taking a corner kick in training hit the web with a fuzzy William Saliba in the background waiting in the box. It’s the first proof we have of Saliba in training, to my knowledge, and the extent of his participation is hardly known, but the buzz of him being here is exciting.

Our savior has arrived. Our future is now. Googles, ‘has a team ever conceded 0 goals in the Premier League?’ Right?

After a contentious end to his time at St. Etienne where the two clubs couldn’t come to an agreement and he was left unable to play in Etienne’s final – a game with plenty of nasty tackles and bookings that I am a bit happy he wasn’t a part of – he is right into it the action at London Colney leading up to Arsenal’s FA Cup final this weekend, even if unable to be selected.

It makes sense that he would be thrown into the mix given the limited time between seasons and a desire to get him up and running while planning for the transfer window. It’s an encouraging sign for the Gunners who are in desperate need for a strengthened backline, but the first phase is over, he’s here, now it’s time to let him settle in and grow – however long that takes.

Purchased last summer for roughly £27m, Saliba needed to complete a final year at St. Etienne, but Arsenal captured his future for the next 5 years. This makes his purchase more about the next couple of years rather than immediate impact and it is important to remember that. What Saliba is capable of producing this year, should be viewed as extra contribution.

At age 19, being the savior to Arsenal’s issues would be astoundingly impressive, Tony Adams-esque, even for a player coming off a good season. The ramp up time needed to adjust to the increase in level of play, the physical and technical level, and, simply, life in London need to be given to him early and without an expected timetable.

Arsenal had two young stars pan out at this young of an age – Saka and Martinelli – and it was a sight to behold. Everyone had high hopes, but it is fair to say they outstripped those expectations and then some, which is the better route to take. Let Saliba have the same opportunity by tempering the expectations of his impact from the first day of the 2020/21 season.

Although there was a period of time that Saliba was out with injury, his numbers are extremely promising. His tackle success percentage was better than every Arsenal center back other than Chambers at over 77%, he averages almost 2 interceptions a game, a stat that highlights an ability to read the game and cut out attacking passes, and only averaged .2 fouls per game, a nice contrast to Luiz who is considered rash and foul prone.

However, these numbers are gathered across just 13 starts and 14 appearances, and in a league that many would agree is beneath the level of play he will face in the Premier League. The idea that it would take him a bit of time to adjust is hardly unfounded. Compare him to his new teammate, and past Etienne success story, Aubameyang who made the move from Etienne to the Bundesliga in 2013.

Aubameyang’s final year with Etienne, he made 45 appearances notching 21 goals and 14 assists. The following year, at a level up for Dortumund, Aubameyang made 48 appearances with 16 goals and 5 assists. Decent numbers, but a drop off from his Ligue 1 figures and a long ways from what he would produce for Dortmund just two season later. In the 2015/16 season, after a few years of acclimation, Aubameyang made 49 appearances with 39 goals and 12 assists, which is absolutely astounding numbers.

If Saliba is capable of walking into the team and putting in consistent performances or efforts that show that growth, he should but played, but putting the expectations at the level that chatter is suggesting before seeing him, feels like expecting Aubameyang to have scored 39 goals in his first season out of France, which is a tad bit unrealistic and potentially damaging.

This is why, the club needs to strongly consider the fact that Saliba may need a year or two to reach that level of play and maturity. It’s the reason Arsenal signed him for 5 years and sealed his future. To grow with him and give him that time to see his best. In the meantime, they should be expecting the likelihood of Saliba needing time with the team and in the league to blossom, by adding additional center back help.

At the very least, supporters need to be prepared to see a season with quite a few ups and downs and matches he doesn’t play in. Not only is Saliba making the jump up in level of play, but likely a jump in quantity of matches and minutes. He hasn’t played a season in which he has made more than 16 appearances, and the Premier League season is long. The idea that will waltz through 38-45 matches may be a bit idealistic and it should be okay if he doesn’t.

I have very high hopes for Saliba and believe he will be a presence in our backline for the duration of his time at the, but the club can and should play a significant role early on in setting goals and expectations for him and supporters by taking actions to set the tone. Patience is a virtue. He may be the hero we are looking for, but will need the time to realize that potential.

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