Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta has told Sky Sports how excited he is to finally work with William Saliba, though he also urges caution not to put too much pressure on his shoulders.
Arsenal beat Tottenham to the signing of the 19-year-old centre-back last summer in a £27million deal from Saint-Etienne (BBC Sport), but loaned him back to the Ligue 1 club for the entirety of the 2019-20 season as part of the deal.
Saliba missed a large part of the campaign through injury but impressed on his return against Monaco at the end of January and duly returned to the starting XI prior to the football suspension and eventual premature end to the Ligue 1 season.
While the French league campaign is over, the French Cup final is to go ahead at the Stade de France on 24 July, Saint-Etienne are up against Paris Saint-Germain, and his loan club was hoping he’d feature.
However, Arsenal and Saint-Etienne both confirmed this week that an agreement for Saliba has not been reached, while the French club criticised the Gunners for their “unacceptable” demands.
Arsenal responded by claiming that Saint-Etienne were unwilling to follow a specialised training plan for Saliba as he has struggled with injuries this season, and according to BUT! in France, Saliba was desperate to play in the final and his “disappointment is immense”.
Despite it not being the ideal start to Saliba’s time in North London, Arteta has no doubt that the 6ft 4in ace has what it takes to become a hit at the club, though at the same time, he stressed the need to give him time and not saddle him with too much expectations.
“I am excited to work with him but I am worried about the expectations because I know how difficult it is to play as a central defender in this country,” Arteta told Sky Sports. “It is one of the most complicated positions here. The step is really, really big.
“William had a really positive season last year, but he has had a really difficult one this year with injuries. We know where the potential is, but to fulfil that potential every three days at the highest level is a different task. So, tranquilo (relax).”
While it is a shame that Saliba won’t be able to come to the Emirates Stadium with a major trophy on his CV, at the end of the day he’s an Arsenal player and, were he to get injured in the build-up to, or during the game, it would be an unnecessary blow, so best to play it safe.
Defence has been a weak point for Arsenal this season so a reinforcement of Saliba’s calibre is welcomed, and there is plenty of enthusiasm amongst the fanbase about a youngster who has been lauded by numerous peers including Mathieu Debuchy, who calls him a “great player” (Official Ligue 1 podcast).
At the same time, Arteta is absolutely right to temper expectations at this stage – after all, he’s just 19, and has plenty of years ahead of him.