There is a tug-of-war ensuing in North London. At one end of the rope, Arsenal’s supposed ‘shoestring’ budget – due to them finishing fifth last season – is on the verge of snapping, whilst at the other end, Tottenham are prepared to empty their pockets to strengthen their promising squad after their Champions League final loss; in the same vain as their opponents Liverpool did a year ago.
The rope in question? 18-year-old William Saliba; a teenager hotly tipped to become a defining defensive talent of the upcoming era. The rivals in the capital are foaming at the mouth to secure the signature of the French prodigy, according to reports in The Metro, but why is such an inexperienced player being sought after with such eagerness?
Cynical fans of the two North London might scoff at the £30 million bids that are being reported. “Thirty million for a lad who’s barely just finished his GCSEs?” Arsenal fans might utter as they stare longingly at photos of the 2003/04 season.
But what Saliba may lack in experience – with only 19 Ligue 1 appearances coming at the back end of his breakthrough season – he makes up for in every other aspect, seemingly acting the role of a proven defender ten years his elder and acting it well.
For a centre-back born in 2001, the French starlet has uncanny composure on the ball; demonstrating his ability to close off and dispossess attackers in dangerous areas and carry the ball forward with very little agitation.
This valuable trait makes Saliba best suited to a formation with a prominent defensive or central midfield presence that allows him to distribute the ball into midfield – such as the 4-3-2-1 or flat 3-4-1-2 formations that Saint-Étienne favoured throughout the season; with the latter showing Saliba’s ability to command large zones on the right side of the defence.
In a similar mould to his countryman Raphaël Varane, who Saliba has drawn innumerable comparisons too, the right-footed defender is also rather quick for someone of his 6 foot 3-inch stature. This allows him to stray out to the wings of the defensive third to cut off and tackle the fast and tricky wingers that are orthodox for the modern French style of play, making the Gambardella Cup-winning captain also suited to fill in at right-back as he did sporadically last season; although he is unarguably more valuable commanding the centre-right of the defensive line.
This pace and acceleration also makes Saliba adept and breaking quick from defence to intercept a pass and distribute it towards the countering midfielders. His aforementioned height and build are also a favourable attribute of the teenager, with his strength and towering presence allowing Saliba to get leverage over the smaller attackers and dispossess them whilst also clearly being a formidable force in defending aerial crosses.
With the highest ceiling of any defensive prospect in world football at the moment, William Saliba is certainly worth every penny. But which North London footballing powerhouse is the France U20 international best suited to? Arsenal will be eager to muscle to the front of the Saliba queue, with defensive fragility a big crack that needs to be plastered in Unai Emery’s side; particularly due to the inconsistency of Shkodran Mustafi in the latter half of the season which has led to fervent Gunners calling for the German’s head.
Due to the flexibility of Unai Emery as a manager and the malleability of his formations, the French teenager could slot in perfectly to a 3-4-3 on the right side of defence to feed out to the wings or in a 4-1-2-1-2 with a compacted midfield which allows numerous options for Saliba to collect the ball and quickly feed the players further up the pitch – although the counter-attacking nature of Arsenal combined with Lucas Torreira and Mattéo Guendozi’s tendency to push forward could be asking a lot of the 18-year-old’s long passing.
Emery’s Spanish brand of fast, passing football yearns for a composed defender like Saliba who is comfortable on the ball, perhaps making him an important piece to the Arsenal puzzle. With Emery desperate to prove himself as a successful successor to Arsène Wenger and the Arsenal board under pressure from the mob of ever-frustrated Arsenal fans to spend big to strengthen their under-performing team, it’s hard to look past the Emirates as the most likely destination for Saliba – if he indeed moves. However, with deep pockets from their 4th place finish and Champions League run at their disposal, Spurs are certainly going to make proceedings difficult for Arsenal.
With a competing entity less than five miles down the road, it can definitely be argued that Tottenham could suit Saliba’s style of football more naturally than the Gunners; with Spurs also uncharacteristically showing that they have money to spend this transfer window.
Similar to his Arsenal counterpart, Mauricio Pochettino has also favoured a compact 4-1-2-1-2 this season; a formation that has been exemplified by the exciting coup of Tanguy Ndombele from Lyon.
Although Pochettino’s set-up does have more attacking central midfielders in Christian Eriksen and Moussa Sissoko which again tests Saliba’s long distribution from defence, the sheer quality of Ndombele as a dribbler and playmaker from deep in midfield could allow for a dexterous link from Saliba in defence to the high-calibre midfield; leading to frighteningly quick turnovers which can cause lethal counter-attacks.
Furthermore, Pochettino has also shown a tendency to loosen up his formations against certain teams and line up in a 3-5-2 like Tottenham did at home to Watford earlier in the year; creating untold options for the composed Frenchman in defence and potentially allowing Tottenham to pass through a midfield that is on the back foot due to the sheer number of white shirts in the centre of the park.
However, whilst Saliba may indeed show himself to be a better player at Tottenham, a move to Spurs’ spectacular new stadium is entirely dependent on the departure of Toby Alderweireld – whose future is up in the air as past suitors Manchester United have the contractual option to purchase the Belgian for £25 million. With Saliba given a guaranteed place in the Saint-Étienne line-up, the promising young defender isn’t going to move to London so that he can spend a season sitting on the bench and not developing as a player – something he could get at Arsenal.
With William Saliba’s astonishing composure on the ball being regularly touted by spectators, it should be hoped he has the same composure to deal with being caught in a transfer firefight by two of the biggest teams in England. The young playmaking defender may not have experience on his side, but he more than compensates with his technical ability on the ball and veteran-like tackling in dangerous areas – traits that are only going to evolve and flourish as he accumulates more minutes on the pitch.
William Saliba is more than worth his £30 million price tag, but who is going to pull him over the line and win this tug-of-war?