What's next for Saliba as Arsenal close in on £50m White?

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When William Saliba signed for Arsenal in 2019 it felt like an important shift in transfer strategy from the north London club.

Fans had long called for the Gunners to invest in Europe’s best young talent and in Saliba it appeared they had done just that when they  landed the young Frenchman from Saint-Etienne for £27 million ($38m) .

Arsenal held off a late move from Tottenham to win the race for the teenager and although he was immediately sent back to the Ligue 1 club for a season on loan, there was a belief the club had signed a player who would be the bedrock of their defence for years to come.

“We’re delighted William is joining us,” former coach Unai Emery said at the time.

“Many teams wanted him but he decided he wanted to come to us and be part of our future.”

The transfer was met with plenty of excitement as it felt like a clever, strategic move from Arsenal. 

For once they had signed a young player when he was within their reach, rather than mount a failed attempt a few years down the line when his performances meant they would be priced out of the market by clubs with larger resources.

But things have not gone to plan.

It’s now 23 months to the day since Saliba signed for Arsenal and he is yet to play a single competitive minute for the Gunners.

And in a fortnight’s time he is due to report back for pre-season training with his future currently unclear.

Arsenal insist Saliba remains part of the club’s plans and will be given the chance to stake his claim for a place in the squad this summer, but the player understandably is unsure exactly where he stands, especially with the club closing in on the signing of Ben White .

Ben White

One bid of around £40 million ($56m) has already been rejected by Brighton for the 23-year-old, but Arsenal are now edging towards a deal for the England international which will total around £50m ($70m) .

White’s impending arrival certainly raises further question marks over Saliba’s long-term future in north London and it could be that he is sent out on loan once again, with several clubs across Europe having already expressed an interest.

Should that happen, then Saliba could end up three years into a five-year contract at Arsenal having not played a single minute for the club.

So how has it got to this? How has a signing that generated so much excitement gone so spectacularly wrong?

One major reason is the timing of Saliba’s arrival. There is no doubt that the young defender is one of the biggest victims of the major regime change that we’ve seen at Arsenal in recent seasons.

He was signed when Emery was in charge, when Raul Sanllehi was head of football and when Huss Fahmy was head of football operations.

All three have since left, with the new regime led by Mikel Arteta and technical director Edu looking to move the club in a totally new direction.

“When the coach changed a lot changed for me too,” Saliba admitted during an interview with RMC in February while discussing his Arsenal struggles.

When things change so dramatically at the top of a club, some players inevitably fall through the gaps that are left behind. Matteo Guendouzi is one player who has fallen victim to that at Arsenal and Saliba is clearly another.

One difference between the pair, however, is that Guendouzi’s change of fortunes at Arsenal can be traced back to some moments behind the scenes when he was punished for disciplinary issues following Arteta’s arrival. That has not been the case for Saliba.

William Saliba

When he returned last summer, having spent the season on loan at Saint-Etienne, he believed he was going to be part of Arteta’s plans for the 2020-21 campaign, but was soon disappointed.

After playing in a handful of pre-season friendlies, he was surprisingly left out of the matchday squad for Arsenal’s trip to Fulham on the opening weekend of the Premier League season.

It soon became clear he was not central to Arteta’s plans and that was confirmed when he was left out of Arsenal’s squad for the Europa League group stages.

In the end he had to make do with a few run-outs with the Under-23s before he finally returned to France in January when he agreed a loan move to Nice until the end of the season.

“[Arteta] judged me on two-and-a-half games,” Saliba bemoaned soon after his departure. “I would have liked for him to play me more. But he told me I wasn’t ready.

“I was waiting for him to give me a chance, but football is like that.”

After putting his Arsenal disappointments behind him, Saliba enjoyed an impressive spell at Nice during the second half of the season, making 21 appearances in all competitions.

It was the best spell of his young career to date and at that point there was a belief within his camp that he would return to Arsenal after the summer break and be integrated back into the first-team picture.

But the potential arrival of White has clouded things once again, with Arteta already having Rob Holding and Calum Chambers as options on the right side of central defence and Gabriel Magalhaes and Pablo Mari competing for the other spot.

And whilst sources at Arsenal still insist Saliba will be given his opportunity in pre-season just like everyone else, it is understood that the player and his representatives are unsure what the future holds.

William Saliba

Another loan is now looking the most likely option, but a permanent deal can’t be ruled out at this stage. With the market as it is at the moment, and clubs desperately needing money, every player has a price.

It’s a situation that hugely frustrates the Arsenal fan base.

The clamour for Saliba to be involved is huge, yet so far it has been completely ignored and it appears the wait to see the defender involved in the first-team picture is far from over.

Should a loan move materialise, it will be interesting to see if Arsenal opt to send the young defender out to another Premier League club, with Newcastle believed to be one of his many potential suitors.

That would give everyone a clear indication of whether the youngster is equipped for the demands of the English top flight and would surely be the sensible move, if Arsenal really are serious about keeping him for the long term.

The big issue, however, is how much damage has been done to Saliba’s relationship with the club.

His treatment has led to frustration , as he has previously expressed. Arsenal’s failure to find him a loan move last summer and a lack of clear communication since has caused some bemusement behind the scenes.

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Talks to find a solution to the situation will now accelerate over the coming weeks and the potential arrival of White will no doubt dominate those discussions.

A signing that appeared such a smart move two years ago now looks like anything but. 

Saliba’s potential can’t be doubted. Whether he ever gets to realise that potential at Arsenal, however, remains as unclear now as it did when he first arrived as a teenager two years ago.