He arrived with a huge weight of expectation in 2019.
William Saliba was labelled “The Mbappe of centre backs” by some following his £27 million transfer to Arsenal aged 18.
Some were putting him straight in the first team, already claiming he was one of the best centre backs in Europe.
Saliba was an exciting prospect, but it was clear to the majority that he still had a long way to go in his development.
His fans seem to forget that he arrived at the club at such a tender age with just 16 senior appearances in France. He was a clear talent but needed development.
As part of the deal with Saint-Étienne, Saliba remained in France for the next season.
That season was beset with injury.
A hamstring injury caused him to be out of the first quarter of the season, and a broken metatarsal led him to miss 8 games in the middle. Those injuries and Covid led him to make just 16 starts in what was supposed to be his first full season of senior football.
He begun 2020/21 at Arsenal, but failed to make a single start in the league and was left out of the Europa League squad.
At the time, Arteta was asked about Saliba’s continued absence on a number of occasions and it is believed language issues and the death of his mother contributed to the France Under-20 international’s slow adaptation to life in England.
“For many reasons, that [last season] wasn’t the transition year that he needed because he had a lot of injuries, some personal issues and also with COVID and the French league getting cancelled, he didn’t have that year,” Arteta said when asked about Saliba’s loan spell.
“He needs that year of transition and we are trying to make the right decisions for him to give him the best transitional year to have the player we want in our future.”
Saliba was supposed to return to Saint-Étienne that summer.
“Unfortunately, all the administrative conditions could not be met in time, in England, for the completion of the deal,” a club statement read.
“The disappointment is great for ASSE and William Saliba, who was particularly determined to return to a club where he has flourished.”
In January, he joined Nice where he quickly established himself as a first team regular.
With Ben White joining in the summer of 2021 to play alongside Gabriel Magalhães, Saliba had still yet to have a full season of senior football playing week in, week out.
That summer, some argued that Saliba was superior to White. But White was clearly ahead in his development having played a full season of Premier League football the year before – and a full Championship season the year before that.
Saliba had yet to experience an English game, was still just 20 and had not played a full season of senior football.
It was decided that another season on loan was what was needed to continue his development.
At Marseille, Saliba has got the game time he would not gained at Arsenal. And he has dramatically improved as a player as a result.
He has played 40 games this season and his form has led him to get a France call-up.
Considering the form of White and Gabriel (Arsenal have conceded the 5th least goals in the league), their fitness (neither has missed a league game since Man City away) and the lack of European football, Saliba would simply not have got an opportunity.
Saliba returns next season with a full season of senior football under his belt and ready to contribute to the first team. And he will be barely 21.
Next season, with a return of European football, Arsenal will need 3 front line centre backs.
White and Gabriel will start, with Saliba being their cover at right and left centre back.
To see the increase workload, take a look at the appearances of defenders at those 3 times above us
Ruben Dias (33), Laporte (31) & John Stones (20) at Manchester City. Virgil van Dijk (38), Joel Matip (33) & Ibrahima Konaté (19) at Liverpool; and Antonio Rudiger (33), Thiago Silva (27) & Andreas Christensen (22) at Chelsea.
Next season, White, Gabriel and Saliba will all play over 30 games across all competitions. With Rob Holding backing them up.
Saliba’s progress at Arsenal might not have been as fast as some had hoped. But slow and steady wins the race.
Next season Saliba will be “like a new signing”. He returns to the club, ready to contribute, with over 100 games under his belt – and potentially a few French caps.
The future is bright; the future is Arsenal.