Seven years ago, on the touchline of a Parisian youth pitch, AS Bondy coach Antonio Riccardi was approached by the opposition manager after a narrow defeat for his under-15 side. The coach wanted to praise the commanding defensive midfielder in the Bondy team, telling Riccardi that he thought the player was good enough to play for the under-17s.
“I told him I agreed,” Riccardi remembers. “But that the boy was only 12.” The way Riccardi tells the story, the coach simply stared at him for a moment, his face a picture of disbelief. “He said ‘sorry, that kid is two years younger than the others?’ I said yes, and he told me then that the boy was a phenomenon.”
That “phenomenon” was a child called William Saliba. And he was so remarkable not just for his footballing talent, which was obvious enough, but for his sheer size. Saliba may have been two years younger than the rest, not yet a teenager, but he already towered over all of the other players on the pitch.
Talk to those who saw him develop and it soon becomes clear that this was a common theme of Saliba’s early footballing journey. Wherever he went, he stood out as the boy with a man’s body, his frame as wide as his potential was large. Those mountainous shoulders will now need to be broader than ever, with a fully-grown Saliba this week beginning life as the great hope of Arsenal’s future.
There are few teenagers in world football who carry the same weight of expectation as this 19-year-old from the Parisian suburbs. Signed last year from Saint-Etienne for £27 million, he was immediately loaned back to France for an extra season. The delay on his arrival, and the disastrous defending that subsequently defined Arsenal’s campaign, has only increased the sense of excitement among the club’s fans.
The question, then, is whether he is ready. Those who know him insist there is no doubt about it. In the eyes of his former coaches, confidantes and team-mates, Saliba has been ready for some time now.
“He is very eager to start the new season,” says Abdelaziz Kaddour, Saliba’s coach at FC Montfermeil, in the east of Paris, where he moved at 13. “He has this desire to play right away. He does not want to be patient. He wants to show his qualities. He wants to give everything and be a starter from the first league game of the season.”
It was Kaddour who first saw Saliba’s potential as a centre-back. He had played as a midfielder at Bondy, where the father of Kylian Mbappe had been his coach as a child, but as he grew into his body he became better suited to a more defensive role. “He was bigger than any of the older players on his team,” Kaddour tells Telegraph Sport. “I told him, as a defender he could be a top footballer. After that, it went very quickly for him.”
Both Kaddour and Riccardi use the same word to describe Saliba: leader. “A strong personality,” says Kaddour. “He was always the one who was able to relax the other players,” says Riccardi. Later, when he was first called up to the national under-18 side, he was instantly made the team’s captain. “My first impression was that this was the biggest man of his generation,” says Jean-Luc Vannuchi, the France coach who selected him.
It did not take long for word to spread of the 13-year-old giant who was dominating 15-year-old forwards for Montfermeil. Two years after leaving Bondy, Saliba joined Saint-Etienne. Two years after joining Saint-Etienne, he made his professional debut. “He was a kid who was going very fast,” says Kaddour. “He was calm, he was mature. And technically, he was good. He anticipated the movements of the opponent, reading the game. He never panicked.”
Vannuchi tells Telegraph Sport that Saliba reminds him of both Raphael Varane and Virgil van Dijk. “A mix of the two styles,” says the France youth coach. “With Varane because of his speed and power, and with Van Dijk it is the interceptions, the positioning on the pitch.”
For Vannuchi, it is Saliba’s attitude that stood out when he first joined the French under-18 setup. “On the pitch, he is a competitor,” he says. “A technical and physical leader. As a person he is more reserved but all the other players respected him because he was the very best defender at that age.
“He looked like a man. The difference between him and the other players was massive. When he took the ball and ran into midfield, no one could stop him. He was like a monster compared to other players of the same age.
“He is something different to what I have worked with before. When he played with Saint-Etienne it looked normal for him, even though he was so young. You never saw any difference between him and the older men around him.”
Vannuchi tells the story of an international match against Scotland when, for once, Saliba was struggling. Playing at centre-back, he continually tried to slide passes through the Scotland midfield, but lost possession every time in the first half. “At half-time, he came to me and apologised,” says Vannuchi. “He said ‘coach, I am sorry. It will change in the second half.’ And it did. William is able to reset his mind. When he makes a mistake, he can move on from it.”
Interest from other, bigger clubs was inevitable. In January 2019, Manchester United made a genuine approach. But Arsenal had been tracking him for months, and Saliba was focused on them, having supported the club as a child. United’s approach was naturally of major interest to Saliba but once Arsenal came forward, there was nowhere else he wanted to go.
As Saliba’s move to Arsenal neared its conclusion last summer, there was a late attempt by Tottenham Hotspur to hijack the process. Those who know Saliba say Tottenham’s move was doomed to fail from the start — by that stage, his heart was set on Arsenal. “I have a crush on Arsenal,” he told L’Equipe last month.
It has not all run smoothly since. Loaned back to Saint-Etienne after completing his transfer to Arsenal, Saliba struggled with a metatarsal fracture. He was then unable to play in the Coupe de France final after a contractual squabble between Arsenal and Saint-Etienne prevented him from returning for one final match with the club where he developed. He was hugely disappointed, and said so publicly.
When he was fit and available, though, Saliba continued to excel last season. Saint-Etienne won 41 per cent of their matches with Saliba and only 28 per cent of those when he was injured. Remarkably, he only conceded two fouls in the entire league campaign. By contrast, Arsenal defender David Luiz conceded 30 fouls in the Premier League — including five penalties.
Saliba is not a natural extrovert. As a character he is cool, if not a little shy. That much was obvious in the celebrations of Arsenal’s FA Cup final win over Chelsea, when he looked sheepish in the dressing room as Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette danced around him in jest.
Saliba had trained with Mikel Arteta’s first team in the build-up to that final, to help him assimilate and adapt to the Spaniard’s demands. He loved it, and he loves the city — even though he will not be able to move into his new house until next month.
He had been training hard over lockdown, wanting to be in the best possible shape for when the new season begins. He also started English lessons as soon as he signed for Arsenal last year, and now sees his teacher three or four times a week.
The French speakers in the team have been an early source of support, but Saliba has also clicked with the young generation of English academy graduates. Eddie Nketiah, Joe Willock and Bukayo Saka have been there for Saliba, helping him to settle and adjust to a different culture. Together, they represent the future of the club.
No one is pretending he is the finished article. His heading is not always as assured as you might expect for someone of his size, for example, and his long passing can be loose. But his talent is hard to ignore and the big man from Bondy is intent on making a big impact this season. Arsenal are so keen for him to thrive that one of the reasons they gave Luiz a lucrative new contract was because they believe he can help Saliba’s development.
“Arsenal is a great club but William will not be intimidated,” says Kaddour. “He is sure of himself, sure of his strength. He wants to learn, to progress. And he will give everything he has got to the coach, to the team and to the club, so that he can perform as quickly as possible.”