635 voters can’t be wrong. Even if Gooners might be extra elated after that famous result, you can trust these ratings to be 100% empirically accurate. The numbers in the blue circles are from Sofascore, but those are heavily skewed by irrational emotions. Saliba earned the honours after so thoroughly pocketing Haaland, who was absolutely anonymous with just 23 touches and zero shots on goal. As a squad, City only registered one shot on goal (so says whoscored.com). Despite the early shakiness, Saliba & Co. did more than hold City at bay. They almost completely neutralised our guests.
Critics will say, “well, they didn’t have De Bruyne or Rodri,” and they’d have a point. However, as we discussed prior to the match we were without Saka and Timber and played most of the match without Partey. Martinelli only played a half. It feels like I have a similar point. City can call on some very, very good players—Silva, Alvarez, and Foden would probably walk into just about any other squad in the Prem—but they weren’t up to the challenge of piercing a backline that’s quickly becoming the best we’ve had in the Emirates era…if it isn’t already the best.
No less an authority on playing centre-back for Arsenal is one David O’Leary, who played 772 matches from 1977 to 1993. Speaking to The Independent, here’s what the Irish legend had to say:
He’s quick, calm, reads the game well. He’s good in the air and he’s strong. He’s a good passer of the ball and can step out. The big quality is that extra gear to get the ball. Where other defenders might be steaming across to kick it out of play, he’s able to get there in time to play it back to the keeper or another defender. I think we have a player who can be very, very special. There’s a good pairing with Gabriel but, to me, he’s the Rolls-Royce that we missed at the most important time last year. He can be up with our very best if he continues the way he is.https://www.telegraph.co.uk/football/2023/10/10/david-oleary-william-saliba-arsenal-arteta-premier-league/
Between he and Magalhães, we have the most assured CB pairing since the days of Koscielny and Mertesacker, and the two of them are only going to continue to improve. Saliba is just 22 and Magalhães has reached the ripe old age of 25. Remember the heart-stopping, teeth-gnashing days of Luiz, Sokratis, Holding, Mustafi? Merely typing those names gave me PTSD. Now, the only people suffering PTSD at the thought of our backline are the likes of Haaland, he of the two 0.00 xG.
We’re getting accustomed to Saliba’s calm dominance, his ability to win the ball and deny passes, but what may garner less attention from his performance on Sunday are his heading and his passing. Watching the highlights revealed numerous line-breaking passes, cutting against the grain to find open lanes and putting the ball where only a teammate could receive it. His heading, too, seemed sharper. Taking a page from Magalhães’s book, most of his headers were more than clearances; many of them were well-placed passes even when he was grappling with Haaland to win the aerial duel.
Against City, Saliba had 76 touches No Arsenal player registered more. He won 100% of his duels and completed 97% of his 70 attempted passes against Man City. Despite locking horns with Haaland while also having to mind Alvarez and Foden, he didn’t get dribbled once nor did he commit a single foul. Frenchman didn’t commit a single foul, nor did he get dribbled past once. It came out after the match that Saliba was carrying a toe injury for which he received a painkilling injection. Good news: he’s pulled out of international duty for France as a result, so he should be fit as a fiddle when the lads return in two weeks.
Calling him a Rolls Royce seems to only address parts of Saliba’s performance and potential. I don’t know there is is a single model that symbolises or captures the essence of the player, so lete’s leave it at this: we have a very, very, very good defender at the heart of our defense.