William Saliba has been an Arsenal player for the last three years, but until now his only appearances had come in pre-season before inevitably heading out on loan when the season began for real.
Saliba was only 18 when Arsenal agreed a transfer with Saint-Etienne worth up to £27m in 2019. That immediately put huge expectation on his shoulders and his lack of action over the past three years had at times left fans scratching their heads.
But as the Gunners took to the field against Crystal Palace for their 2022/23 Premier League opener on Friday night, Saliba was part of the lineup and looked every bit like he belonged there.
The Frenchman is still only 21 even now, but appears to have benefitted from Arsenal’s patient and cautious approach to his development – he played progressively more games each season he spent away on loan, culminating in 52 with Marseille in 2021/22.
Stats revealed that Saliba only misplaced three passes all night, made seven clearances and also won the ball back on seven occasions. He was named man of the match and manager Mikel Arteta commented afterwards: “Rightly so”.
Saliba was praised for his imposing physique and stature, which made Arsenal automatically look stronger before a ball had been kicked – Gary Neville likened him to a young Rio Ferdinand.
“You need the right balance,” Arteta went on to tell Sky Sports. “Physicality in this league, you cannot come short, because if you do you won’t be able to deal with certain games and certain opponents.”
Arsenal did indeed need that additional resilience in the second half when Palace grew in confidence and threatened to get back into the game when they were only trailing by a goal. But Saliba, who now stands to be a genuine option all season, ensured the clean sheet remained intact.