On another day, against another defender, Dominic Solanke might well have taken a touch, looked towards goal and fired a shot into the corner. But on Saturday, against William Saliba, the Bournemouth striker instead found himself face down on the turf, dispossessed and wondering what on earth had just happened to him.
Solanke had a considerable head start on Saliba when he raced behind him in the opening moments of Arsenal’s 4-0 victory at the Vitality Stadium. But the usual rules of defensive distances do not seem to apply to Arsenal’s monstrous centre-back, who eats up ground like few other players in the Premier League. A burst of speed, followed by a lunging tackle, and suddenly the attack was over.
Within six minutes of Saliba’s potentially goal-saving challenge, Arsenal had taken the lead at the other end. They never looked back. Once again, as has so often been the case since the start of last season, Saliba’s defensive strength proved to be the foundation on which Arsenal’s attacking excellence was built.
Is any player more pivotal to Arsenal’s hopes of success than the giant Frenchman at the back? Arguments could perhaps be made for Bukayo Saka and Martin Odegaard, but the available evidence points emphatically towards Saliba being the single most important figure in Mikel Arteta’s squad.
If you were to ask anyone at Arsenal, or indeed anyone who supports the club, to identify the turning point in last season’s title race with Manchester City, the vast majority of them would say it was Saliba’s back problem. Arsenal were five points clear of City at the time of Saliba’s injury, in mid-March, and then five points behind Pep Guardiola’s side when the season ended a couple of months later.
Since the start of last season, when Saliba made his long-awaited debut for the club, Arsenal have won 76.5 per cent of the league matches in which he has started. He has missed 11 league games in that time, of which Arsenal have won only five — a win percentage of just 45.5 per cent. With him, they concede an average of 0.9 goals per game. Without him, that figure leaps to 1.6 goals per game.
An even greater illustration of Saliba’s impact on this team is that, in his 34 Premier League appearances for the club, Arsenal have won an average of 2.44 points — the highest points-per-game of any player in Arsenal’s Premier League history (with at least 10 appearances). In other words, over the past 14 months, Saliba has been winning league points at a faster rate than any Arsenal player of the last 30 years.
“When you look at how he is developing, the role that he has got in the team, the level and the consistency that he has shown in the last year or so, I think it is remarkable,” said Arteta.
“I think you won’t find many centre-backs his age doing what he is doing. Credit to the players around him as well, the way they are guiding him, protecting him and inspiring him. And then obviously the qualities that he has. He has that presence, physicality and that composure to be a leader in the back line for a big club like us.”
Saliba returns to France this week for Arsenal’s Champions League meeting with Lens. With his enormous frame but delicate feet, the 22-year-old appears to have been born for this stage: against PSV Eindhoven, in Arsenal’s first group game, he played with such swagger that the home crowd were “ole-ing” as he swerved past his opponents.
There is something almost freakish about Saliba’s physical capabilities. Frankly, men of his size should not be able to move with such speed. On the ball, meanwhile, he is composed under pressure and accurate with his passing. The only flaw appears to be occasional mental blips – such as his own goal against Leicester City last season – and Arsenal will hope that they fade away with time.
Saliba believes his time at Marseille, on loan in the 2021-22 campaign, was the spell that made him comfortable defending with a high defensive line. Before joining Marseille, he had an uncertain future at Arsenal. After that year, he instantly became a key member of Arteta’s team.
“I want to improve a lot,” said Saliba. “Every part of my game. [At Marseille] it was the first year that I played with open spaces, because we tried to press high. Before, I had never played in a team that pressed high. With Arsenal, it is the same.”
With each passing week, it becomes increasingly clear that the new four-year contract he signed in the summer was one of Arsenal’s best off-field moves of recent years. When you consider the quality of the players they have recruited in that time – the likes of Odegaard, Gabriel Jesus and Declan Rice – that is high praise indeed.
Saliba’s development has been one of Arsenal’s great success stories in the last year, and he arrives in his home country ready to show how much he has developed. “It is good to be back,” he said. “It is good to show that I have grown up a lot.”