‘He reminds me of Raphael Varane and Virgil van Dijk’
➤ William Saliba has developed from the outstanding talent of his generation in France to the great hope of Arsenal’s defence
Seven years ago, on the touchline of a Parisian youth pitch, AS Bondy coach Antonio Riccardi was approached by the opposition manager after a narrow defeat for his under-15 side. The coach wanted to praise the commanding defensive midfielder in the Bondy team, telling Riccardi that he thought the player was good enough to play for the under-17s.
“I told him I agreed,” Riccardi remembers. “But that the boy was only 12.”
The way Riccardi tells the story, the coach simply stared at him for a moment, his face a picture of disbelief. “He said, ‘Sorry, that kid is two years younger than the others?’ I said yes, and he told me then that the boy was a phenomenon.”
That “phenomenon” was William Saliba. And he was so remarkable, not just for his footballing talent, which was obvious enough, but for his sheer size.
Saliba may have been two years younger than the rest, but he already towered over all of the other players on the pitch.
Talk to those who saw him develop and it soon becomes clear that this was a common theme of Saliba’s early footballing journey. Wherever he went, he stood out as the boy with a man’s body, his frame as wide as his potential was large. Those mountainous shoulders will now need to be broader than ever, with a fully grown Saliba this week beginning life as the great hope of Arsenal’s future.
There are few teenagers in world football who carry the same weight of expectation as this 19-year-old from the Parisian suburbs.
Signed last year from St-Etienne for £27 million, he was immediately lent back to France for another season. The delay on his arrival, and the disastrous defending that subsequently defined Arsenal’s campaign, has only increased the sense of excitement among the club’s supporters.
The question, then, is whether he is ready. Those who know him insist he is. In their eyes, Saliba has been ready for some time.
“He is very eager to start the new season,” says Abdelaziz Kaddour, Saliba’s coach at FC Montfermeil, where he moved to at 13. “He has this desire to play right away. He does not want to be patient. He wants to be a starter from the first league game of the season.”
It was Kaddour who first saw Saliba’s potential as a centreback. He had played as a midfielder at Bondy, but as he gradually grew into his body he became better suited to a more defensive role.
“He was bigger than the older players,” Kaddour tells
The Daily Telegraph. “I told him that as a defender he could be a top footballer. After that, it all went very quickly for him.”
Both Kaddour and Riccardi use the same word to describe Saliba: leader. “A strong personality,” Kaddour says. “He was always the one who was able to relax the other players,” Riccardi adds.
Later, when he received a call-up to the national under-18 side, he was instantly made captain. “My first impression was that this was the biggest man of his generation,” Jean-Luc Vannuchi, the France coach who selected him, says.
It did not take long for word to spread of the 13-year-old giant who was dominating 15-yearold forwards. Two years after leaving Bondy, Saliba joined St-Etienne. Two years after that, he made his professional debut.
“He was a kid who was going very fast,” Kaddour says.
Vannuchi tells The Telegraph that Saliba reminds him of Raphael Varane and Virgil van Dijk. “A mix of the two styles,” he says. “With Varane because of his speed and power, and with Van Dijk it is the interceptions, the positioning on the pitch.” For Vannuchi, Saliba is comfortably the standout player of his age in France. “The difference between him and the other players was massive,” he says.
“When he took the ball and ran into midfield, no one could stop him. He was like a monster compared to the others. When he played with St-Etienne it looked normal for him, even though he was so young.”
Vannuchi tells the story of a match against Scotland when, for once, Saliba was struggling.
He continually tried to slide passes through the midfield, but lost possession every single time. “At half-time, he apologised,” Vannuchi recalls. “He said, ‘Coach, I am sorry. It will change in the second half.’
“And it did. William is able to reset his mind. When he makes a mistake, he can move on from it.”
Interest from bigger clubs was inevitable. In January 2019, Manchester United made a genuine approach. Saliba was interested, naturally, but once Arsenal came forward there was nowhere else he wanted to go, having supported them as a child.
As Saliba’s move to Arsenal neared its conclusion last summer, there was a late attempt by Tottenham Hotspur to hijack the process. Those who were involved say Tottenham’s move was doomed to fail from the start – by that stage, Saliba’s heart was set on Arsenal.
“I have a crush on Arsenal,” he told sports newspaper L’Equipe.
It has not all run smoothly since. Lent back to St-Etienne after completing his transfer to Arsenal, Saliba had the misfortune to suffer a metatarsal fracture.
He was then unable to play in the Coupe de France final after a contractual squabble between Arsenal and St-Etienne. He was hugely disappointed, and made his feelings known publicly.
When he was fit and available, though, Saliba continued to excel. St-Etienne won 41 per cent of their matches with him and only 28 per cent without. Remarkably, he conceded only two fouls in the entire league campaign. By contrast, David Luiz conceded 30 fouls in the Premier League – including five penalties.
As a character Saliba is calm, if not a little shy. That much was obvious in the celebrations of Arsenal’s FA Cup victory over Chelsea, when he looked sheepish in the dressing room as Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette danced around him in jest.
Saliba had trained with Mikel Arteta’s first team in the build-up to that final, to help him adapt to the Spaniard’s demands. He loved it, and he loves the city – even though he will not be able to move into his new house until next month.
He started English lessons as soon as he signed for Arsenal last year, and now sees his teacher three or four times a week.
Saliba has already clicked with Arsenal’s young generation of English academy graduates. Eddie Nketiah, Joe Willock and Bukayo Saka have been there for him, helping him to settle and adjust to a different culture.
No one is pretending that Saliba is the finished article. But his talent is hard to ignore and the 6ft 4in teenager from Bondy is intent on making an impact this season.
Arsenal are so keen for him to thrive that one of the reasons they gave Luiz a lucrative new contract was because they believe he can make a significant contribution to Saliba’s development.
“Arsenal is a great club, but William will not be intimidated,” Kaddour says. “He is sure of himself, sure of his strength. He wants to learn. And he will give everything he has got to the coach, to the team and to the club, so that he can perform as quickly as possible.”
‘When Saliba took the ball into midfield, no one could stop him, he was like a monster’
Out to impress: William Saliba has been training with Arsenal’s first-team squad