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Saliba's big chance? Luiz leaving Arsenal opens door for on-loan centre-back

10:00 BST 19/05/2021
William Saliba David Luiz
The Gunners defender has impressed since returning to France during the January transfer window and could have an important role to play next season

David Luiz is a player who will always divide opinion.

From the moment he opted to make the move across London and join Arsenal from Chelsea in 2019, he has been the subject of fierce debate.

Derided by some and respected by others, Luiz has rarely found himself out of the headlines during his time at Emirates Stadium.

His two-year stay has certainly been eventful, but now it is coming to an end.

In fact, the Brazilian centre-back may well have played his last game for the Gunners, with the hamstring injury he sustained against Newcastle earlier this month threatening to keep him out of the remaining two games of the campaign.

And should he not return in time to face either Crystal Palace on Wednesday night or Brighton on Sunday, then the 34-year-old will not feature for Arsenal again, with the centre-back due to leave the club on a free transfer when his contract expires this summer.

“I had the privilege to work with him for 18 months, which I really enjoyed,” Mikel Arteta told reporters. “We got on really well, we had some great moments together. He has been really helpful, someone that we really like and appreciate so much.

“So, I just say thank you to him and wish him the best of luck in his next chapter.”

Many outside of Arsenal will view Luiz's short stay as a failure, but that is an assessment that few inside the club would agree with.

There have been some poor performances, with his error-strew display during the 3-0 defeat at Manchester City in June, 2020, a real low point.

However, the way Luiz battled back from that difficult night, and the criticism that came his way in the days that followed, was a testament to his character and professionalism.

He was magnificent in the FA Cup semi-final success against Manchester City later that season and equally as impressive in Arsenal's 2-1 victory over Chelsea 2-1 in the final.

While Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang took the plaudits for the goals he scored as Arsenal won the competition for the 14th time, it’s doubtful they would have got their hands on the trophy without the quality and experience of Luiz at the other end of the pitch.

“I've really enjoyed learning from him,” said Arteta. “He's been very helpful every time with the team, and I feel sadness as well because you get attached to the players emotionally.

“When it gets to these stages, it's tough. It hurts because that relationship is now going away, at least in terms of not seeing him every day.

“Again, I have to say thank you to him.”

There is no doubt Arsenal are going to miss Luiz.

Off the pitch, he was a huge character, a player who had the respect of the dressing room, from senior stars such as Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette to younger players like Bukayo Saka and Emile Smith Rowe.

And, despite being 34, he was still an able performer on the pitch and someone who was key to Arteta’s plans.

So, the big question is, how will he be replaced this summer?

Will Arsenal once again dip into the transfer market and bring in a new centre-back? Or will they stick with what they have and look to integrate William Saliba following his loan spell with Nice in France?

“You will see in the summer,” said Arteta. “William is our player for sure and that's a decision that we're going to be taking soon.”

Arteta already has three centre-backs at his disposal that he trusts: Rob Holding, Gabriel Magalhaes and Pablo Mari.

Holding has enjoyed a fine season and has amassed more game time than any of the other centre-backs in Arteta’s squad, making 37 appearances and 34 starts in all competitions.

That is perhaps explained by the fact that he prefers to play as the right-sided centre-back, while Luiz, Gabriel and Mari all like to operate on the left.

Gabriel had a fine start to life at Arsenal following his £25 million ($33 million) move from Lille last summer, winning three successive player of the month awards, but found game time slightly harder to come by as the season wore on.

Mari, meanwhile, quietly emerged as an integral part of the squad towards the end of the campaign, with he and Holding striking up an impressive partnership in the absence of the injured Luiz.

With the amount of work Arsenal are planning this summer in the transfer market, it’s unlikely that any of the current crop of centre-backs will leave, with Arteta and technical director Edu currently focusing their attention on other areas of the squad.

So, Holding, Gabriel and Mari are all expected to start next season as Arteta’s centre-back options and with Holding the only one of the trio who prefers to play on the right of the central defensive unit, that gives Saliba a real opportunity to finally make his mark in north London.

The 20-year-old was expected to play a major role this season, only for Arteta to decide last summer that he was not yet ready to cope with the demands of the Premier League.

Having had to initially settle for some games with the Under-23s, he eventually joined Nice on loan in January and has had a good spell back in Ligue 1, making 21 starts in all competitions.

“I would have liked for it to have happened at the start of the season,” said Arteta, when discussing Saliba’s loan move. “But we didn't find the right moment, the right club, the right agreement to do that.

“Now, he's had a run of games that he needed after the difficult year that he had in the previous season.”

Saliba certainly has the ability to replace Luiz at Arsenal.

The Brazilian’s departure robs Arteta of his best defender when it comes to playing the ball out from the back. but Saliba’s statistics in France show he is more than capable of replicating Luiz's output in the defensive third and becoming a kind of deep-lying playmaker.

The France Under-21s international has an impressive pass accuracy of 90.9 per cent this season and of the 147 long passes he has attempted, 96 have been successful.

That gives him a long pass accuracy of 65%, which is far higher than Holding (44%), Mari (41%) Gabriel (39%) and even Luiz (45%).

Defensively, he has been solid as well. He has only been dribbled past once in his 21 appearances this season – a statistic that is made more impressive when compared to Holding (18 times in 37 games), Gabriel (12 in 30) and Mari (six in 16).

Saliba’s tackle success rate of 62.5% is also higher than any of his likely rivals for a starting spot next term, so the former Saint Etienne man clearly has the potential to be a success at Arsenal.

“We are, as a coaching staff, obviously following his progression, watching his games and [are] in contact with him,” said Arteta.

“He's our player, so he'll be back here for sure. After that, we will make a decision based on the agreement of the role that each player is going to have in the squad.”

This summer promises to be unprecedented at Arsenal, with huge changes planned on a squad that is in clear need of an overhaul.

Luiz’s departure is just the start of what’s to come over the next few months, but in Saliba at least they look like they have a talent capable of stepping up and filling the void the Brazilian will leave behind.