Arsenal and Mikel Arteta are reaping the rewards of their new transfer strategy ahead of the summer window, but there is one £27m mistake they cannot afford to happen again
He is excellent on the ball, strong in the air, and can read a game better than many players his senior.
Unfortunately, he is an Arsenal player in a Marseille shirt and, come the end of the season, he may no longer be a Gunner, in shirt or on paper.
Ben White and Gabriel Magalhaes’ excellent partnership connotes a picture of success for Arteta and Gunners’ technical director Edu, but a long and expensive process of trial and error preceded their arrivals.
Whether Saliba stays at the Emirates Stadium or not, the 20-year-old’s predicament presents the Gunners a huge lesson to learn.
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Arteta’s predecessor, Unai Emery, gave the green light for the Gunners to fork out £27million on Saliba’s services in his final transfer window at the Emirates Stadium.
Emery and the Arsenal board allowed the then 18-year-old to remain at Saint-Etienne for another year to enrich his youthful footballing experience.
A matter of months later, Emery was sacked by the club and Arteta stepped up to the Arsenal helm.
The Spaniard may not have been the manager in charge when Saliba was signed, but he has sent him on a series of loans to Saint-Etienne, Nice, and most recently Marseille, where he is playing a starring role under Jorge Sampaoli.
In the meantime, David Luiz has worn the Arsenal armband, Pablo Mari has been loaned and then signed permanently by the club, and both Gabriel and White have been bought at huge expense.
The latter have evidently been a revelation, but Luiz and Mari’s unimpressive occupation of a space Saliba may well have succeeded in is a blot on Arteta’s record. Both players are far from north London now, currently residing at Flamengo and Udinese respectively.
Luckily for Arsenal, Arteta and Edu’s overhaul of the Gunners’ transfer strategy ensures players such as Saliba will be signed and then retained, rather than bought in only to be loaned out immediately.
“Before going to Arsenal, I said to myself I was going to play, I was sure, I was wondering who I would play alongside,” Saliba said recently.
“I arrive, I play 0 matches. I played for the U23s. That gave me a good slap.
“Things go so fast in football. I don’t want to think about the future. I am going to give my all. Then there will be discussions in summer.”
Saliba’s words resemble those of a player who has learned the harsh lessons football has dealt him.
He may well be ready for Arsenal and Arteta may be willing to break up White and Gabriel’s partnership, or even deploy the Frenchman in-between them to make an impenetrable back three.
His future remains uncertain and there is every chance his fighting talk was aimed at other suitors such as AC Milan and Real Madrid who are purported to be scouting the Frenchman.
Disrupting Gabriel and White may seem like a risky decision, but a single defensive partnership will struggle to simultaneously thrive in the Premier League, the FA Cup, the League Cup, and potentially, the Champions League.
Having worked so closely with Pep Guardiola at Manchester City, Arteta appreciates the importance of rotation, even if he has not always had the quality at his disposal to effectively rest and recover his players with every passing game.
Saliba would offer some breathing room and would likely boost the performances of Gabriel and White, and vice-versa.
But this is an uncomfortable situation where Arteta and Arsenal no longer have control over a potentially excellent asset, and that is a mistake they quite simply cannot afford to repeat.