Arsenal are closing in on the official signing of 18 year old center back William Saliba. All that is pending is the official announcement. He is coming from (and going right back on loan for a year to) Saint-Etienne, for a fee that is reported at 27 million pounds. He looks to be a very good defensive prospect and very well could become a bargain if he is able to fulfill his enormous potential.
From a build perspective, Saliba has the ideal attributes that you would look for in a modern center back. He has very good height at 6 foot 4, even at just 18 he has plenty of strength already on his frame with room for more if needed. Playing a good chunk of last season as a 17 year old in Ligue 1, there weren’t many times that he was outmuscled on the ball in the several hours worth of video I watched on him.
For a man his size, he shows exceptional athletic ability and he is very smart in his ability to use his body to his advantage.
Saliba, played primarily as a right sided player last year, splitting time between right center back and right back.
He logged 51% of minutes as a center back in a back four, with an additional 34% coming as the right most center back in a back three and the remaining 15% as a right back, which came primarily early in the season.
Long term, and for Arsenal, his primary position looks to be at that right center back role.
His defensive statistics show incredible promise to me.
He is an aggressive defender, but not one that finds himself involved in a lot of defensive duels. His 5.7 duels per 90 ranks 42nd out of 50 teenagers who have managed over a thousand minutes in all of Europe and South America.
What sets him apart is that when he does commit to a duel, he nearly always comes out on top. Saliba wins his duels at a high rate, primarily with his ability to put in a tackle.
Last season he won just under 70% of the duels that he was involved in, which ranks 8th with the same broad pool of players to compare against. While putting in over 2.5 tackles per 90, which puts him in the 83rd percentile of all center backs.
His overall statistical profile looks like a player that was not over his head in a major European league and he even showed signs that he has the ability to be a plus tackler. All of these statistics point to a player that can be an average to good player right now and one with great promise to become even more than that.
I think that his best skill is passing. For a young player, on a team that finished a surprising 4th place he really stood out with his ability to move the ball and his calmness under pressure.
Last season he completed 88% of his pass attempts, putting him in the 79th percentile for center backs. He also showed that he while he wasn’t asked to do it often, he can complete long passes at a high rate and can be a good processor of the ball.
Breaking down his passing further, he looked to play the ball forward when possible but still preferred to keep possession over attempting more risky progressive passes.
As a center and right back, it is no surprise that the majority of his pass attempts were within the defensive and middle thirds of the pitch. With the style that Saint-Etienne played last year he also looked to play the ball short more often and while they built attacks more methodically.
This matches the style Arsenal will play, and should hopefully make for an easier adjustment for him when he finally makes the move to London.
Looking at his passing ability, my expected passing model thinks that he is above average. Given the locations and types of passes that he attempted he completed more than the average player. This is another positive sign for me.
Overall he wasn’t tasked with being the main player to progress the ball but given more time and growth I think that he possesses the skills to become that as he matures and at a minimum this should not be a major weakness for him.
From the video I watched, Saliba shows great composure when pressed, he doesn’t immediately look to launch the ball forward but instead is comfortable on the ball and finds a pass that he can complete.
He is also very good at continuing to move after making a pass, creating space and giving his team mates another passing option while stretching out the defense as teams look to press. Both of these would be welcome additions to an Arsenal back line.
One area that I think Saliba needs to improve is his ability in the air, especially for when he moves to the Premier League.
For a defender that is 6 foot 4 he isn’t as dominating a force in the air as you would expect.
He wins 60% of his aerial duels, but that is right around the median for a center back and his 2 per 90 minutes are also right around the 50th percentile. A player with his size and athletic ability should probably expect to produce better than the average player.
I think that as he gets more comfortable at the senior level he will be better able to take advantage of his height and strength to win more challenges. Right now there are times that he can be a bit hesitant when going up for a ball in the air.
It is a bit of a disappointment that he will spend the year away on loan in France, but that is probably a better move for his long term development. The thought of him being thrown into the fire with big expectations at Arsenal is asking a lot of a teenager. As Arsenal fans we have seen promising defenders destroyed by the pressure of playing for Arsenal’s often exposed defense and logically it makes sense to let a young player grow without some of that pressure.
Hopefully with Saliba, Arsenal have the right side of their defense sorted out for years to come.
This post originally ran on The Short Fuse