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On Saturday afternoon, when William Saliba was heading towards the dressing room at the Emirates Stadium after Arsenal’s 3-1 win against Tottenham, his first victory in a North London derby, Peter Mujuzi, the club’s DJ/PA announcer, had a bright idea. He played The Champs’ classic song “Tequila,” which Arsenal fans have turned into a Saliba song by shouting the Frenchman’s name instead of the signature lyric.
As Saliba was about to disappear into the tunnel, the whole stadium chanted his name in song. The 21-year-old defender applauded the fans in thanks with a huge grin on his face. The Paris-born-and-bred player is already a fans’ favourite and, more importantly, has been one of the best centre-backs in the Premier League so far this season. Yet his success and quick adaptation to one of the world’s best leagues is no surprise if you know the former Saint-Etienne defender.
Saliba’s talent has been obvious since he made his Ligue 1 debut with Les Verts at 17 years old in September 2018. He’d only moved to the club’s academy two years earlier after playing for many years with Bondy, in the north suburbs of Paris, where he is from, and with a certain Wilfried Mbappe — father of Kylian Mbappe — as a coach, before then starring with Montfermeil.
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However, more than his talent, Saliba’s personality sets him apart from other players. He has supreme confidence in his own ability and is not fazed by pressure or expectations. Growing up in the Paris banlieues was tough: he learned the game by playing on the streets, on concrete, against bigger and stronger boys. So he had to be self-assured, solid and hungry, otherwise he would not have made the cut. He replicated the same sense of confidence when he joined Arsenal for preseason this past summer.
Saliba was aware that not many people at the club knew him when he came back to London. Three years after signing for €30 million, he had spent his entire time out on loan to Saint-Etienne, Nice and Marseille to gain experience. Marseille wanted to keep him on a permanent deal and tried everything to do so in the last transfer window, but Arsenal rebuffed their proposal. PSG also kept an eye on him, while other big European clubs, like Barcelona, had him on their shortlists too, but Arsenal and Mikel Arteta were never going to let him go. They liked what they saw from him in Ligue 1 last season (as did France coach Didier Deschamps, who called him up to the senior side in March) and Saliba’s potential was too good to lose.
In the end, it only took a few training sessions for everyone at Arsenal to realise what a gem they had. Quietly, but impressively, he is establishing his place in the team and comparisons with Virgil van Dijk are in full flow before Liverpool arrive at the Emirates on Sunday.
Saliba’s stats so far are frightening. Against Tottenham and Harry Kane last weekend, no opponent completed a dribble against him. He recovered the ball 11 times, which is more than any other defender in a single game this season. He made six passes into the final third, won five duels and made three clearances, while also being a threat on set pieces and even nutmegging Spurs midfielder Oliver Skipp.
William Saliba has been the anchor in defence for Arsenal this season. (Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)
Two weeks after shutting down Ivan Toney at Brentford, he did the same with Kane, and this weekend presents another test, with any one of Mohamed Salah, Darwin Nunez, Diogo Jota and Luis Diaz lining up against him. Saliba won’t fear it; he’s happy to have finally broken through at Arsenal where he can do his job with commitment, confidence and momentum. He is relishing the challenge as he always wants to test himself against the best, learning and improving with the World Cup on the horizon. (He has only made seven appearances for Les Bleus, but all of them have been in 2022, which bodes well for his chances of making the final squad in Qatar.)
Over the whole season, Saliba’s stats are outstanding. He is actually yet to be beaten on the dribble and is yet to make an error leading to a goal. He has won possession the most among defenders in the entire league, but is also in the top five for the most carries with the ball (14,115m in only eight games and 720 minutes.)
Saliba plays as part of Arsenal’s high defensive line and his pressures in midfield are vital for Arteta and the team, as we saw against Tottenham. It’s no wonder that Arsenal want to sign him to a new long-term contract. His current one, signed back in 2018, expires in June 2024 and talks have only just started over an extension.
On Tuesday, when the Gunners set up for their annual team photo, there was just one place for Saliba. Right there, in the middle of it all: big, imposing, solid. This is his character. He is not the loudest, but his self-belief resonates. His Arsenal teammates have been singing his “Tequila” chant in the dressing room and will hope to do the same this weekend as they witness the emergence of a special player.