In signing William Saliba for £25 million and loaning him back to Saint-Etienne, Arsenal took a risk. But the early signs suggest it was the right decision.
Last summer, Arsenal were hoping to revamp a squad that needed investment at several different positions. They were also attempting to do this with limited resources, having missed out on Champions League qualification for the third-straight season. As a result, with a lot of holes to fill and not much money with which to fill them, they had to get creative.
Signing David Luiz as an experienced stop-gap centre-half for £8 million. Moving for Dani Ceballos on a year-long loan to replace the outgoing Aaron Ramsey. And, perhaps chief among the most inventive signings, 18-year-old William Saliba ‘arriving’ for £25 million from Saint-Etienne.
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Saliba never actually arrived in north London. The Frenchman signed for the club on a permanent deal but included a year-long loan back to St. Etienne for the 2019/20 season. It seemed curious to invest such a significant amount in a player who would not play for the club for a year at a position of tremendous and immediate need, but the club is acting in an increasingly explosive transfer market and they knew that if they waited another year they might miss out on Saliba entirely.
As such, they took a gamble: sign the wonderfully gifted teenager for a cut-price because you are betting on his development and hope that you can cobble together enough players at his position in his absence, all in the knowledge that you are acquiring a player who you would otherwise not be able to sign the next summer. And now, almost a year later, it is safe to say that the gamble paid off.
Now, Arsenal’s centre-back position has been a serious problem this season. Sokratis has been disastrous, Calum Chambers, Rob Holding and Dinos Mavropanos have offered limited minutes, either through injury, form or fitness, while Luiz and Shkodran Mustafi have been inconsistent throughout.
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However, they have muddled through. And now, with Champions League football still possible through the Premier League, they are set to receive one of the best young centre-backs in world football. Saliba has been utterly sensational for St. Etienne this season, when fit, and he will look to become a key starter from day one, per former Arsenal defender Mikael Silvestre:
“William Saliba will start from the get-go when he joins Arsenal next season <…> His performances have been good and he’s been consistent. Defensively he’s strong <…> He’s still very young but has great experience from his time in Ligue 1. He’ll continue to learn from the current centre-backs but he’ll have a big part to play from day one.”
It was a risky, quirky move to sign Saliba for a year’s time. But after just about surviving the difficulties at centre-back this season, the gamble seems to have paid off.