William Saliba was not ready to play for Arsenal.
It is that reason why Edu bought in Ben White – with his Premier League and English football experience – to partner Gabriel.
Gabriel had been a stand out performer in France and gave Arsenal good balance on the left hand side of the back 2.
The Brazilian had a tough first season at Arsenal – picking up a red card and contracting Covid19 – but the talent was clear and obvious for all to see.
The question this summer would have been who partners him.
With David Luiz leaving following the expieration of his contract and Pablo Mari clearly Gabriel’s back-up, Mikel Arteta and Edu had a few options.
Rob Holding was “first reserve” last season, coming in for Luiz when he was out injured. But Holding is a limited player.
Holding is very good when a team is defending deep, backs against the wall. But his pace is exposed when holding a high line and his distrubtion is weak.
He is very much an old school English centreback – focusing on defending rather than playing football. It is a style not suited to Arsenal and Arteta moving forward.
It was therefore not a surprise that Arteta was not sold on him, and that Edu made a new defender a priority.
The other option would have been Calum Chambers.
Chambers is perhaps more sorted to Arteta’s game play than Holding.
He is quicker and much better on the ball – yet he is not as good defensively and certainly not a power house in the air.
Chambers is one of these whose career has been affected by never really establishing a position for himself.
He started as a right back at Southampton; but upon his move to Arsenal his lack of pace was exposed in that position.
When he moved centrally, he proved a good reader of the game and ball player, but could be dominated physically.
A period playing central midfield for Fulham created more problems than it solved.
That left William Saliba – but the feeling was the young Frenchman was still not ready for Premier League football.
No one has ever questioned Saliba’s natural physical talents. It was those that saw Arsenal pay so much for him at such a young age. But he needed to learn how to defend and deal with different situations.
He would only develop this side of his game through playing – and with the state of Arsenal and the defence it was a risk that the club could not take.
Still just 20-years-old, he opted to go to Marseille on loan this seaosn rather than Arsenal’s preferred choice of Newcastle United.
Arsenal wanted him exposed to Premier League football. Some could argue that Saliba opted for the comfort zone of French football. But in hindsight with everything going on at Newcastle, Saliba made the right decision.
Saliba has been fantastic this season for the French club and it would not be a surprise if he gets a France call up sooner rather than later.
Some would argue that Saliba should have been given the opportunity he is getting now for Marseille at Arsenal – but it has to be remembered the coaches saw him week in week out. And that he barely got a sniff in pre-season friendlies.
It was clear that Arsenal did not feel he was ready for 38 Premier League games a season.
So the club went out to the market and signed Ben White for £50million from Brighton.
A few gawped at that price-tag and Arsenal probably did overpay for him. but it showed an intent – that we had the oney to get the players we want.
After a tough first game against Brentford, White has been fantastic.
His reading of the game, his defensive ability and his ball playing has transformed the Arsenal defence; and he has built a really god partnership with Gabriel.
Against Leeds United we really saw the gulf in class between Holding and White. The new signing is levels above.
That shows Arsenal got the decision right in buying White to come in ahead of Holding.
The other option would have been to have Holding as first choice for one more year and hope Saliba develops in France. It would have been a risk.
So moving forward to next summer; what are Arsenal’s options?
White and Gabriel will be going nowhere. That is our first choice defence.
If Saliba continues his form in France, I expect him to return to Arsenal and compete with the pair to start for Arsenal.
It only seems to be at Arsenal where having quality players as back-up and competing for first team places is a proble,. There is easily enough room for White, Saliba and Gabriel.
Injury, suspension, rest and rotation will mean there is plenty of game time for all 3.
What is clear about the data over the previous 5 years is that when we are in Europe, we need 3 first choice centre backs.
The 3rd defenmder has averaged 24 starts over the last 5 years and 28 appearances. That is more than enough games to justify keeping Smith, Gabriel and Saliba in the squad. It will also be more than enough games to keep all 3 satisfied with their laying time.
Manchester City have John Stone, Ruben Diaz, Nathan Ake and Aymeric Laporte. Liverpool Virgil van Dijk, Ibrahima Konaté, Joe Gomez and Joël Matip.
Antonio Rüdiger, Andreas Christensen, Thiago Silva and Malang Sarr are all competing to start at Chelsea – and the club failed to buy Jules Kounde i nthe summer.
It is clear that to compete at the bottom, you need 3 top class central defenders and then another one or two backing them up.
At Arsenal, we would have White, Gabriel and Saliba competing for two spots, with Pablo Mari as the 4th option.
Saliba, again still just 20, is in finishing school at Marseille. He wil lcome back a beeter player next summer than he would have been had he stayed at Arsenal this season and been in and out of the squad.
Instead of pointing at Saliba’s performances in France and saying “why is he on loan?” embrace his development and get excited over the depth in defence we will have next season.