When Arsenal’s Europa League campaign begins on Thursday against Rapid Wien in Austria, they will do so without two of their most expensive signings ever.
When the teenage defender signed for the Gunners in 2019 after 19 top-team appearances for Saint-Etienne, he was hailed as the solution to the club’s long-standing issues at centre-back, yet 15 months after making a £27 million move, he has yet to even feature for the north London side.
Admittedly he spent last term back on loan with his formative club – but his distance from Mikel Arteta’s thinking has been underlined by the fact that he was nearly loaned back to Saint-Etienne this summer, that he has not been picked for European action and that the Gunners elected to invest another £27m in Lille’s Gabriel in August.
Certainly, it’s not been smooth running at all since the transfer was made official. The 19-year-old, who is a graduate of the famed AS Bondy club that also produced Kylian Mbappe, suffered badly at the hands of two injuries last season, missing the first seven league matches of the season due to hamstring trouble then another nine due to a broken foot.
He was never fit for long enough to gain a true level of match sharpness and was further hampered by the fact that he was playing for an ailing team that was low on confidence and just above the relegation zone. Wesley Fofana, who subsequently moved to Leicester City, became Saint-Etienne’s golden boy in the heart of the defence.
Despite the Paris-born defender’s troubles, Saint-Etienne wanted to retain him for the Coupe de France final against PSG in July, a request that Arsenal did not flatly refuse but made economically unviable for the Ligue 1 side.
Given that Arteta has since cited that one of the reasons he has thus far overlooked the defender – even for an EFL Cup fixture against Liverpool – is a lack of game time, this hard-line stance from the club is difficult to understand.
"He needs a year of transition and we are trying to make the right decisions for him to give him the best transitional year for him to have the player we want in our future."Mikel Arteta
“He needs a year of transition and we are trying to make the right decisions for him to give him the best transitional year for him to have the player we want in our future,” were the words the Gunners boss said when reflecting on what amounted to a wasted season for the youngster.
With that in mind, a loan move would have been a logical option, but nothing materialised.
A player who made his France Under-20 debut aged only 17, is therefore careering towards a second wasted year, which appears destined to be spent in Premier League 2 or possibly on loan at a Championship club.
It is an unworthy situation for a player of so much promise as Claude Puel indicated when considering the sale.
“It was short-term [thinking], even for the kids,” he told L’Equipe, referring to Saint-Etienne’s need to raise money. “A superb player like William, to whom I wish the best, has not even made it to Arsenal’s Europa League squad. Where is the logic of selling him, if not financial?”
But while Arsenal would have been wise to do more to find Saliba a stage worthy of his talents, their reticence to throw him in at the deep end is understandable, particularly when his numbers are compared with those of Fofana. In ever key individual defensive matrix when looking at last season’s games, it is the Leicester player who comes out on top.
Similarly, his numbers in terms of duels won and aerials won per 90 are lower than those posted by Gabriel, who at Lille was playing for a team that spent significantly less time defending.
Competitions like the Europa League and EFL Cup would have seemed, however, like a logical staging post from which Saliba could have been introduced to first-team football at the Emirates, particularly given the pressures that players will come under in a season that will test their fitness levels like no other.
This highlights the apparent state of limbo that Saliba currently finds himself: first-team football does not look readily available at Arsenal, and while game time may be on offer at the Championship, it would represent a step backwards in his career trajectory.
With no other apparent way out, though, it may just be one that he needs to take to prove to Arteta he is a player worthy of wearing the Arsenal red.