- William Saliba aims to become the best defender on the planet
- The French stopper was one of the key factors in Arsenal’s fine form last season
- The centre-back was among the Gunners stars to show off their new away kit
In the end, Wilfried Mbappe was only half right. On the pitches of Stade Leo-Lagrange, in a suburb seven miles northeast of Paris, the coach produced French football’s golden child: his son, Kylian. He also helped nurture another local boy whose star burns brighter every day.
William Saliba primarily played as a striker for AS Bondy until his early teenage years. “I was a good goalscorer, I was strong, I was also technical,” the 22-year-old told Mail Sport.
“My worst quality was maybe…” Saliba pauses briefly. ‘I was lazy. And I was nonchalant’.
The Frenchman reckons he could still have carved out a career for himself as a striker.
But even then, Mbappe knew that the youngster’s future lay elsewhere. He just got Saliba’s final destination wrong.
“He was a good coach and he really helped me at this age… he told the truth – even if you were young,” recalls Saliba. ‘The message he told me was: ‘Yes, you’re a good striker, but I think you’ll be a defensive midfielder’. Saliba laughs.
As it turned out, he fell even deeper. These days, Saliba is one of English football’s most accomplished centre-backs, the 22-year-old who anchored Arsenal’s title run last season.
It seems remarkable now that Saliba, after joining as a teenager for £27m, had to wait 1,107 days to make his senior debut.
On his way from Bondy to Mikel Arteta’s backline, via the wasteland, Saliba would study Liverpool defender Virgil van Dijk.
“I’m still watching him!” says the Frenchman. – I really like his quality in one-on-ones, his composure, his composure and his long balls. He has everything and for me he was a good defender to learn from… I think he was – for two or three years – the best defender in the world.’
Gradually, Saliba shares much of the Dutchman’s coolness and class.
So does he have the qualities to also become the world’s best?
“Of course I have the quality, but that doesn’t mean anything,” says Saliba.
‘You have to work hard to reach this level. So I’m not close to this level, but I will give everything to maybe one day become the best defender in the world.’
What a coup for Arsenal as Saliba recently agreed to stay in north London until 2027.
Saliba’s new deal, which was finally confirmed this month, was reward for an excellent first season at the heart of Arsenal’s back line. Until a back injury ended his season in March, Saliba had started every Premier League game.
In that time, only one team conceded fewer goals than Arsenal. Did it shock itself?
“No, I’m not surprised because I knew I had a good time on loan, I knew I was ready, I was just waiting for my chance,” says Saliba.
‘I look forward to the future with this club. The future will be good for everyone, I hope. It won’t be easy but we will work hard for this and I know the club will be back at the top. We must do everything to win all possible titles.’
Saliba returned to Arsenal’s side for last week’s friendly against Nurmberg. He is now back in the US. It was here last year, on Arsenal’s pre-season tour, that Saliba was reintegrated after three loan spells in France. While he was away, the Frenchman had developed cult-like devotion among many followers. And yet his future under Arteta seemed uncertain.
“I was so excited to do a pre-season with the team and try to play in the Premier League and the Europa League,” he recalls. But when Saliba reported for training, he was met with near silence from Arteta.
SALIBA HELPS WITH LAUNCHING AWAY KIT
William Saliba grew up watching Arsenal in the Champions League. He was drawn in by the club’s French connection; he wore a shirt with the name of his idol, Thierry Henry. Today he is helping to promote the Gunners’ new away kit. The launch includes a film featuring local musical talent on ‘Islington FM’. It is the club’s latest attempt to connect with its roots and supporters around the world. Hence the slogan: ‘Home is never so far away’.
“He said hello to me on the first day,” recalls the 22-year-old. “And then after he didn’t talk to me.” Not for a week.
Arteta was keen to see how the Frenchman would act and react. That way he could gauge his true character.
‘I told myself to be good on the pitch, to give him a solution, to tell him: ‘Yes, I’m ready’,’ says Saliba.
“Telling him on the field is the better way… I knew one day he would come to talk to me.”
In reality, Arteta was hit during a few training sessions. Any lingering question marks – especially after so long on the fringes – were answered.
It didn’t take long for everyone else to catch on either; soon Saliba’s name was heard around North London.
And yet this was not the inevitable end point of some grand plan.
While on loan at Nice, Saliba lamented a lack of chances at Arsenal, who spent £77m on Ben White and Gabriel.
Fortunately, any frustration was offset by a determination to play at least once for the club he supported as a boy.
Saliba grew up watching Arsenal in the Champions League. He was drawn in by the club’s French connection; he wore a shirt with the name of his idol, Thierry Henry. Today he is helping to promote the Gunners’ new away kit.
The launch includes a film featuring local musical talent on ‘Islington FM’. It is the club’s latest attempt to connect with its roots and supporters around the world. Hence the slogan: ‘Home is never so far away’.
Over the coming days, supporters in Washington, New Jersey and Los Angeles will see the defender up close as Arsenal prepare to go one better than last year.
“We had a great season and we learned a lot. We know the Premier League is tough and long, we can’t wait to start again and try to win it,” he says. “At the end of the day… we always remember the winning team, not the other.’
Gabriel Jesus recently identified Saliba’s injury – picked up against Sporting Lisbon – as a turning point in Arsenal’s campaign.
“It’s good that I became an important player,” he says. “I was angry not to be with the team at this important moment, but of course it’s football: sometimes there are injuries and I’ve worked hard to be back at my best and not to have any more injuries this season. “
Gabriel also signed a long-term deal last season, laying the foundation for a lasting partnership.
“I’ve known him since Ligue 1 because I played against him,” Saliba says of the former Lille defender. “We speak the same language – French – so it’s easier for us… he’s a really good guy, a guy who really wants to win, a good leader.”
Do they strengthen that bond off the field?
“Yes, of course,” says Saliba. ‘Not much – because I see him enough on the training ground!’
Unity – developed after a deep cleaning of the squad – has been central to Arsenal’s revival under Arteta.
“His great quality is that he keeps everyone together,” says Saliba. ‘We also do a lot of things outside the pitch to be more together.’ They go out to eat, they play games, they go bowling.
Once a month during the season, players and staff go out together.
‘It’s good to see each other away from the club – and without pressure,’ says Saliba.
Well, the normal pressure anyway. Because among the activities Arsenal’s crew do together? Escape Rooms – where small-sided teams try to free themselves – against the clock – by solving clues and completing challenges.
“They were competitive,” laughs Saliba. ‘I don’t know why, but I’m not the best at these games.’
Fortunately, he’s decent enough for day-to-day work.