Arsenal birthday boy William Saliba can be Gunners’ gift

Happy 20th birthday William Saliba. Bought as an 18-year-old for £27m and without a single senior appearance to his name, Arsenal could be the those getting a gift when he returns to the club in the summer.

The left spot of central defence is among the strongest areas of the pitch under Mikel Arteta. Pablo Mari may have produced his worst performance for the club in the 3-3 draw with West Ham, but he otherwise has proven himself to be a reliable defender whose lack of pace isn’t readily exploited.

In front of him is Gabriel, an ever blossoming Brazilian who at just 23 years old has the potential to be among the finest in the Premier League if not Europe if his current trajectory continues. In his first season in English football he’s been more successful than could’ve been imagined.

Just to the right, David Luiz has taken over the mantle from Rob Holding as the Gunners’ first choice right centre-back and, to his credit, has enjoyed his best run of games in a red and white shirt to date. He is, of course, limited.

Arsenal centre-back William Saliba can be the component Mikel Arteta needs as lack of pace in defence is clear

That came to light in the London Stadium encounter, where his frightening lack of mobility and pace was exploited by Michail Antonio and Jesse Lingard to devastating effect into the opening 30 minutes. However, give him time on the ball to pick a pass or use his leadership and experience in big games and he’ll do a job – with a few errors dotted about, sure.

But athleticism and pace are key components, two that William Saliba possesses perhaps even more than every centre-back option at Arsenal. While Gabriel is quick enough, his pressures off the ball can leave Arsenal exposed, which usually means one of Luiz or Holding – and even Calum Chambers – to deal with runners beyond. Which they aren’t adept at.

Saliba is developing at a healthy rate over in the south of France, demonstrating leadership and technical quality in abundance. He has everything Luiz doesn’t, even if the Brazilian still takes the crown in a couple of other aspects.

Keep Luiz on for another year, let Saliba share the mantle with him and Holding and, crucially, play him. He needs more than a chance, he needs a run. He’s what Arsenal need.