There was a brief moment of pause at the beginning of the season when Saliba was nowhere to be found in the Arsenal’s 18-man squads for the first month of matches. It seemed to many as though this didn’t align with any of the praises and projections that had been bandied about across the internet.
Saliba was supposed to be given the keys to Arteta’s Arsenal. He was supposed to be the defensive savior we were counting on this year. The bolstering of Arsenal’s spine that had been completely nonexistent in recent years.
Conversely, there were many that tried to temper the expectations and steady the boat by reminding the fanbase of Saliba’s young age, relative inexperience, and trying year at St. Etienne. At 19, having only made around 14 appearances for the French side the previous season, and coming off a year of injuries — the excitement for Saliba’s raw talent and natural, physical presence had to be meshed with a dose of ‘reality’…for lack of a better word.
These notions seemed to match what Arteta was telling people toward the end of September when he told the media, “I think William is doing very well. He is adapting to the country, adapting to our club.”
“We have to bear in mind that he had a really challenging season last year with the amount of injuries that he had. But he is a player that is going to be really important in our future, things sometimes take some time and we have to respect that.”
Many remained frustrated by the stance of Arsenal’s manager, possibly made worse by Wesley Fofana’s immediate success for Leicester City. At that point, many people seemed to at least understand or rationalize the thought.
Saliba had produced very high-quality performances in his time with St. Etienne, but there had been periods of time that injuries held him back. People even coupled in the reported loss of someone close to him shortly before arriving in London as a factor in him not settling into London.
A call for patience went out. A reminder that Saliba was signed to Arsenal until 2024 was pushed. And the fact that Gabriel came out of the gates in the splendid form he has, certainly made things a little easier to take. Had Arsenal not been playing Saliba and shipping goals left and right, the pressure would be quite a bit higher. As it currently stands, Arsenal have conceded the fewest goals in the Premier League and have some of their toughest fixtures out of the way.
Shortly after these September statements emerged from Arteta, things became even more complex and worrisome. It started with rumors and links to loan moves away from The Emirates before the end of the transfer window. Those efforts seemed to fall through at the finish line, but that left the door open for a domestic loan. In the period between the European transfer window closing and the extra time for domestic deals to be done, Europa League registration for group stages needed to be complete. This is the point that, in my opinion, has proved by far the most regretful.
Arsenal opted not to register William Saliba for the Europa League. There are likely a couple reasons that could be pointed to as explanation, but it’s taken away games that would have been a perfect opportunity to help Saliba bed into the side. With all due respect to Rapid Vienna, Dundalk, and Molde — they aren’t Premier League competition, so, if Saliba wasn’t ready for the Premier League, and he wasn’t being loaned in the early season, why wouldn’t he be a prime candidate for group stage matches or early cup matches? I’ll offer a few explanations, mostly for those unaware, although I’m not sold on them entirely justifying the end result.
When it comes to the Europa League, despite Saliba’s U21 age, he does not qualify for the same capabilities as Arsenal’s other U21-homegrown players that can be on Arsenal’s B-List. To do that, he would need to have been at the club for 2 years. This means he would need to be one of Arsenal’s A-List, 25 players and be counted as non-homegrown. Issues with too many non-homegrown players already saw Mesut Ozil and Sokratis removed from registration as well. When it comes to cup games, Arsenal have not had the easiest of fixtures. They started with Leicester City, Liverpool, and will play Manchester City in their next Carabao Cup match.
It may not be the best reasons, but there you have it.
Today, goal.com, and a few other outlets shared the report that Arteta has responded to reports from France that Saliba is fed up with his lack of football this season.
“I’m fed up with the situation because as you could see, we tried to find a way in the last few days [of the transfer window] to give him some football. I explained that he needed that transition year when we decided to buy him and send him on loan to Saint-Etienne.”
“For many reasons, that didn’t happen and he didn’t have that transition year. He needs to go through that and at the moment, with the amount of central defenders that we have in the team, we had to let him out of the squad which is painful. After that, we had some injuries and we could have used him but it’s part of this profession.”
What to make of it all. On the back of Pablo Mari being ruled out for a further set of time after a recent setback, the decision to not register Saliba hurts quite a bit more. Obviously, had there been a crystal ball available to Mikel, he would have opted to register Saliba over Mari, which maybe should have happened anyhow.
There wasn’t, and the Europa League registration came with poor timing and regrettable results. But the situation still feels as though it was handled poorly by the club. Is it an example of growing pains for Edu and Arteta? Very possibly. It doesn’t feel like Saliba’s fault, yet I can sympathize with Mikel for the variety of factors at play here and the potentially disorganized state of the club as a whole after iterations of internal restructuring.
Additionally, the start of Arsenal’s year came with tough matches early on, in both the league and cups, and some suggestions of Saliba having a tough time in his personal life. It’s hard to imagine Mikel is willing to throw Saliba into the mix against tougher teams. To make matters more difficult, the parity within the Premier League makes matches like Aston Villa, Leeds, Wolves, and Tottenham major matches for The Gunners. If Saliba doesn’t get time in these matches, he’s looking at mid-December versus Burnley as the next possible opportunity with Arsenal’s first team.
Let’s add to the mix Gabriel’s unexpected start to his career at Arsenal. While many of us will have had high hopes for Gabriel, he has played himself into a position where he feels un-droppable from major matches. Some may view that as the prime opportunity to play Gabriel and Saliba alongside one another, given that is likely the long term goal, but with Arteta’s affinity for making sure there is experience plugged into critical areas of the squad, a central pairing with the average age of 21 may feel like dangerous territory in his mind.
Arteta seems set on the fact that Saliba is in need of a true “transition year,” and we are beginning to learn a lot about how Arteta conducts himself when it comes to man-management. Love it or hate it, he seems to back himself through thick and thin. The fact that his response doesn’t mention that Arsenal have been trying to get Saliba time within their own matches, only tried getting him football through a loan, seems pretty telling.
Is it something to worry about? Not yet. Players get frustrated. They want time, they want consideration, and they want to know their career is heading in the right direction. These periods often fade when addressed. Since Saliba doesn’t seem like the Guendo-type that gets very stubborn and refuses to work with Arteta or club, I believe the club will need to sit down with him and address his future openly. Likely this results in a January loan and continued appearances with the U23 team until then. Disappointing? Yes. A failure from Arsenal, not yet. Not by a long shot. We signed him for 5 years for a reason, he has time to grow and shine.