You are currently viewing Arsenal defender William Saliba on setting his sights high, studying Virgil van Dijk, winning over Mikel Arteta, and going one better than last season
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  • William Saliba has his sights set on becoming the best defender on the planet 
  • The France stopper was one of the key factors in Arsenal’s fine form last season 
  • The centre back was among the Gunners stars showing off their new away ki

In the end, Wilfried Mbappe was only half right. On the pitches at Stade Leo-Lagrange, in a suburb seven miles northeast of Paris, the coach produced French football’s golden child: his son, Kylian. He also helped nurture another local boy whose star burns brighter by the day.

William Saliba played primarily as a striker for AS Bondy until his early teens. ‘I was a good scorer, I was strong, I was technical as well,’ the 22-year-old tells Mail Sport.

‘My worst quality was maybe…’ Saliba pauses briefly. ‘I was lazy. And I was nonchalant.’

The Frenchman reckons he could still have carved out a career as a forward.

But even back then, Mbappe knew the youngster’s future lay elsewhere. He just erred on Saliba’s final destination.

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‘He was a good coach and he really helped me at this age… he told the truth – even if you were young,’ Saliba recalls. ‘The message he told me was: “Yeah, you’re a good striker but I think you will become a defensive midfielder”.’ Saliba laughs.


As it turned out, he dropped even deeper. These days, Saliba is one of English football’s most accomplished centre-backs, the 22-year-old who anchored Arsenal’s title charge last season.

It seems remarkable now that, after joining as a teenager for £27million, Saliba had to wait 1,107 days just to make his senior debut.


En route from Bondy to Mikel Arteta’s backline, via the wilderness, Saliba would study Liverpool defender Virgil van Dijk.

‘I still watch him!’ the Frenchman says. ‘I really like his quality in one-against-one, his calmness, his composure and his long balls as well. He has everything and, for me, he was a good defender to learn from… I think he was – for two or three years – the best defender in the world.’


By now, Saliba shares much of the Dutchman’s coolness and class.

So does he have the attributes to become the world’s best, too?

‘Of course, I have the quality, but that means nothing,’ Saliba says.

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You have to work hard to go to this level. So I’m not close to this level but I will give everything to maybe one day become the best defender in the world.’


What a coup for Arsenal, then, that Saliba recently agreed to remain in north London until 2027.

Saliba’s new deal, confirmed at last this month, was the reward for an outstanding first season at the heart of Arsenal’s backline. Until a back injury ended his season in March, Saliba had started every Premier League match.


In that time, only one team conceded fewer goals than Arsenal. Did that impact shock even himself?

‘No, I’m not surprised because I knew that I had a good time on loan, I knew I was ready, I was just waiting for my chance,’ Saliba says.

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‘I’m looking forward to the future with this club. The future will be good for everyone, I hope. It won’t be easy but we will work hard for this and I know the club will be back at the very, very top. We have to do everything to win every title possible.’

Saliba returned to Arsenal’s side for last week’s friendly against Nuremberg. He is now back in the United States. It was here last year, on Arsenal’s pre-season tour, that Saliba was reintegrated after three loan spells in France. While away, the Frenchman had developed cult-like devotion among many supporters. And yet his future under Arteta appeared uncertain.


‘I was so excited to do a pre-season with the team and to try to play in the Premier League and the Europa League,’ he recalls. But when Saliba reported for training, he was met with near-silence from Arteta.

He said hello to me the first day,’ the 22-year-old recalls. ‘And then after he didn’t speak with me.’ Not for a week.


Arteta was keen to see how the Frenchman would act and react. That way he could gauge his true character.

‘I told myself to be good on the pitch, to give him a solution, to tell him: “Yeah I’m ready”,’ Saliba says.

‘To tell him on the pitch is the better way… I knew one day he’ll come to speak to me.’

In truth, Arteta was struck within a couple of training sessions. Any lingering question marks – particularly after so long on the fringes – were answered.


It didn’t take long for everyone else to catch on, either; soon Saliba’s name rang out around north London.

And yet, this was not the inevitable end point of some grand plan.

While on loan at Nice, Saliba bemoaned his lack of chances at Arsenal, who spent £77m on Ben White and Gabriel.

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Gabriel Jesus pinpointed Saliba’s injury – against Sporting – as a turning point last season

Fortunately, any frustration was outweighed by a determination to play at least once for the club he supported as a boy.

Saliba grew up watching Arsenal in the Champions League. He was drawn in by the club’s French connection; he wore a shirt carrying the name of his idol, Thierry Henry. Today, he is helping promote the Gunners’ new away kit.

The launch includes a film, featuring local musical talent on ‘Islington FM’. It is the club’s latest attempt to connect with its roots and supporters around the world. Hence the tagline: ‘Home is never that far away’.

Over the coming days, supporters in Washington, New Jersey and Los Angeles will see the defender up close as Arsenal prime themselves to go one better than last year.

‘We had a great season and we learnt a lot. We know that the Premier League is hard and is long, we can’t wait to start again, to try and win it,’ he says. ‘At the end… we remember always the winning team, not the second.’

Gabriel Jesus recently pinpointed Saliba’s injury – picked up against Sporting Lisbon – as a turning point in Arsenal’s campaign.

‘It’s good that I became an important player,’ he says. ‘I was angry not to be with the team in this key moment but of course it’s football: sometimes there are injuries and I’ve worked hard to be back at my best and to not have any more injuries this season.’

Gabriel also signed a long-term deal last season, laying the foundations for a lasting partnership.

I’ve known him since Ligue 1 because I played against him,’ Saliba says of the former Lille defender. ‘We speak the same language – French – so it’s easier for us… he’s a really good guy, a guy who really wants to win, a good leader.’

Do they strengthen that bond off the pitch?

‘Yes, of course,’ Saliba says. ‘Not a lot – because I see him enough at the training ground!’

Unity – developed after a deep clean of the squad – has been central to Arsenal’s revival under Arteta.

‘His big quality is he keeps everyone together,’ Saliba says. ‘We do a lot of things off the pitch as well, to be more together.’ They go out for meals, they play games, they go bowling. 

Once a month during the season, the players and staff head out together. 

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The French defender praised manager Arteta’s ability to ‘keep everyone together at the club

It’s good to see each other away from the club – and without pressure,’ Saliba says. 

Well, the normal pressures, anyway. Because among the activities that Arsenal’s squad does together? Escape Rooms – where small-sided teams attempt to free themselves – against the clock – by solving clues and completing challenges.

‘They were competitive,’ Saliba laughs. ‘I don’t know why but I’m not the best at these games.’

Fortunately, he’s decent enough at the day job.

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