Even in the most heated debates around the legacy Unai Emery bequeathed Arsenal in 2019, there is one incontestable point. William Saliba arrived that summer with a £27m price tag and a glowing reputation as one of the world’s most feted teenage centre-backs, but another three years would pass before he made an appearance for them. Emery was long gone by then but it is little exaggeration to say Arsenal have been transformed by Saliba’s signing from Saint-Étienne. On Saturday the pair will meet at Villa Park in what, against most pre-season expectations, may prove a pivotal clash between title contenders.
It is another chance for Saliba and Arsenal, on a six-game winning run in all competitions, to demonstrate that they can stay the course this time. “We have the experience of last season, of course we are better,” he says. “Maybe we can go one better.”
Succeeding where Manchester City were deservedly beaten three days ago would heighten the impression that they can. It is easy to forget, when the ashes of last season’s doomed title chase are raked over, that Arsenal lost Saliba with a back injury in mid-March. Without him they took 18 points from their final 11 games, a tally well short of the level required to see things through. Now he is back at the heart of a team that, at least until Luton shook them up with three goals on Tuesday, have become practised at giving little away.
There is no point pretending Arsenal did not miss him. “Yeah, of course, and I missed them as well,” he says. “It was hard to be injured in this period of the season, but sometimes it’s like this. Now I’m back and I’m even stronger than before.
“It’s behind me now. It was so, so hard to be injured, to watch my team play in these hard moments and not be there. We were so close, but now we have the chance to compete again and we will do it.”
The story of Saliba’s early years at Arsenal, during which he felt some frustration at being sent on three loans of varying success, is well told by now. “Sometimes you have to learn from some bad experiences,” he says, and the once-floated notion that his long-term future might lie away from the Emirates could hardly seem further removed. Saliba has barely put a foot wrong in Arteta’s side, purring through games with a vanishingly rare blend of timing, physicality and speed. He praises the quality of Premier League strikers from top to bottom, but the fact is that hardly any have beaten him one-on-one.
He fits Arsenal like a glove and the same is true of his immersion in north London life. Saliba is speaking at the Arsenal Hub, a year-round community centre adjacent to the Emirates, where he has been assisting some of the club’s local projects. On the afternoon of his visit he and his teammate Emile Smith Rowe work on an anti-bullying project with pupils from a school in nearby Tufnell Park; they also take part in a session with North London United, a football group for young people with Down’s syndrome. There is also a question and answer session with some BTEC coaching students.
The youthful, relatable face of Arsenal’s squad is reflected in their interactions with the youngsters. Saliba says: “We’ve all been younger people so it’s good to be with these kids,” he says. “We enjoy it, we make them happy so we are happy as well. I didn’t have the chance to meet professional footballers when I was growing up but now I’m [a player], if I can make some younger kids happy then I will do it without hesitation.”
Saliba understands the meaning of being a role model. It so happens that one of his own, Virgil van Dijk, is a direct opponent in what could become the most open title race for several years. “Not long ago I used to watch a lot of videos of Van Dijk and now I play in the same league,” he says. “I’m still so impressed by him but I try to watch everyone, I try to learn from everyone and one day I [hope to] become the model for others.”
Perhaps he is already there, which is a remarkable thought given Saliba turns 23 in March. It is hard to think of a defender in better form but he believes his development is nowhere near complete. “I know I have a lot of work to do to improve my game but I have the right staff, the right environment to develop,” he says. “So I will give everything to become one day the best centre-back in the world.”
The sense is that, should Saliba stay fit this time around, Arsenal should be contenders to the bitter end. Declan Rice has had a similar galvanising influence since August, elevating their midfield with steel, security and the killer touch he demonstrated at Kenilworth Road. “We hope he will keep going like this and avoid injury because we need him,” Saliba says.
Ticking the wins off, especially against sides such as a resurgent Villa, would bring Arsenal closer to glory that seemed a mere pipe dream when Emery brought Saliba to England. Their aims are clear and, at last, realistic. “To win the Premier League and to go as far as possible in the Champions League,” he says. “We play to win everything. We don’t play just to be there to make up the numbers. We want to make it.”