‘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

The Daily Telegraph - Business - - Total Football - By Sam Dean

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

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