Excitement is building towards the final hurdle of this topsy turvy Premier League season, one in which Arsenal are worryingly low on central defenders.
Taking on Newcastle on Monday, there is no Rob Holding and big question marks over Benjamin White and Gabriel’s respective fitness. Mikel Arteta’s season of patching up could be in for another repair job in a fixture of huge magnitude.
They could really do with William Saliba round about now.
Sent on loan to Marseille last summer to understandably irk a fanbase who had seen their club spend £27m on a player yet to make a senior Arsenal appearance, by the time Saliba returns when pre-season kicks off it will have been three years since he signed.
Arsenal see perfect loan move rounded off as William Saliba wins Ligue 1 Young Player of the Year award for Marseille spell
The numbers do make for bizarre reading, but Saliba will return to north London as the most experienced Under-21 defender in the whole of Europe. Playing more minutes than anyone else, if what he’s learned in France isn’t enough to see him involved at Arsenal then nothing will be.
Only seven players in all of Ligue 1 played more minutes than him in what was over 50 appearances all season, including a first taste of senior international football.
Nowhere is it more noteworthy to feature for the your national team than at France, simply because they are constantly inundated with a revolving door of exceptional young talent. Saliba is now part of that conversation.
Marseille were also involved in European competition, playing six times in the Europa League before moving into the Conference League, where they bowed out at the semi-final stage to Reiss Nelson’s PSV Eindhoven.
Saliba even knows what losing a European semi-final feels like, how fitting.
As a player he’s also developed tremendously. Jorge Sampaoli is an experienced coach with unique stylistic ideas, and watching Saliba it’s clear that the tactical side of the game is something he’s improved.
Given license to carry the ball out from the back, Saliba has made by far the most progressive carries in Ligue 1 this season, touched the ball more than any other player, completed more passes than anyone else, and he has the highest percentage for successful pressures in the whole division (46.8%).
There is still work to do on his heading, particularly when it comes to clearances, but he’s excellent with and without the ball, ever improving, and only just turned 21 years old. Quite rightly, then, he’s scooped the Young Player of the Year award in Ligue 1.
As far as loan spells go, this one has been near enough perfect. You couldn’t really have asked for more, even if many still question to move in the first place. Having actually happened, it’s been the smoothest period of his whole Arsenal career.
Whatever happens now, Arsenal will either welcome back a supremely talented young centre-back to give them competition and outstanding quality in depth, or move him on for the hefty fee they can undoubtedly charge. Given he cost £27m, you’d like to think they would demand at least double.
This is Arsenal, mind you.
It hasn’t been the career pathway to playing Premier League football Saliba would have wanted, and it’s completely understandable were to have grown disconnected with the club he supported as a boy, but he’s going to have a fabulous career wherever he ends up.