William Saliba 2019/20 – scout report
Arsenal bound William Saliba has been plying his trade at Saint-Étienne this season, the club that he has been rising up through the youth ranks of since 2016. The 19-year-old centre-back has been sidelined with a couple of separate injury issues during the 2019/20 campaign, however, he enjoyed a consistent run in the Saint-Étienne first-team just prior to Ligue 1’s recent postponement.
Saliba will join the Gunners next season and though he’s still a teenager, Saliba may provide an immediate first-team option at Arsenal. The Saint-Étienne defender has showcased his composure and quality on the ball and in helping his side to begin attacks from the back throughout the 2019/20 season.
Additionally, Saliba has exhibited an advanced ability to read the game at a young age, which, when combined with his large frame, physical nature and relative quickness, make him a formidable challenge for opposition attackers.
In this tactical analysis piece, we will delve into Saliba’s key attributes and pick apart what may make him a standout player for Saint-Étienne. Furthermore, this scout report will also take a look at some areas in which there may be room for improvement for the promising young defender.
Intelligence and impressive ability to read the game
Saliba has exhibited an impressive ability to read the game for a defender who is still just 19-years-old. His intelligent reading of the game is often displayed on the pitch through his defensive positioning, which helps him to effectively make plenty of interceptions. Saliba has made 4.08 interceptions per 90 this season according to Wyscout.
Saliba’s ability to intercept the ball is one of his primary defensive attributes. At times, the young Saint-Étienne defender appears to simply attract the ball to himself. Saliba’s intelligent reading of the game and impressive defensive positioning help him to occupy optimal positions off the ball, which ultimately give him an advantage when attempting to win the ball back in his final third.
This image above provides us with an example of Saliba calmly reading the game in order to position himself excellently to prevent an opposition through ball from reaching the centre-forward. His calmness and composure in defence notably remain steadfast in scenarios like the one being presented in this image, despite him being the last man protecting his goalkeeper from encountering a 1v1 situation.
In this play, we see Saliba calmly assess the situation in order to anticipate the opposition forward’s diagonal run, as well as the opposition playmaker’s attempted through ball. Saliba takes a couple of quick glances around him to make himself aware of his surroundings just prior to this image being taken. In addition to that, he ensures to maintain a firm visual hold on the opposition playmaker who is currently on the ball in this image, keeping a watch on his movement as he lines up this pass.
In keeping himself fully aware of his surroundings through some quick checks of his shoulder, Saliba manages to anticipate the opposition attacker’s run and the defender can position himself accordingly to prevent the forward from getting onto the end of the pass that is about to be played through to him here. The defender’s positioning is key in this particular passage of play.
As this passage of play unfolds, Saliba successfully thwarts the opposition attack by pouncing on the through ball as soon as it’s played. The opposition forward ultimately gets nowhere near his teammates’ attempted pass despite making what may have been a dangerous diagonal run in behind Saliba.
The 19-year-old’s composed reading of this situation was pivotal in allowing him to orientate himself in the best possible way to neutralise this attack. His quickness subsequently helped him to retrieve possession in a timely manner, however, the key to this interception was Saliba’s intelligence as by the time the ball had been played by the opposition attacker, he had positioned himself well enough to not need to move too far to win it back for his side.
This next image shows us another example of how Saliba’s reading of the game helps him to retrieve possession for his side through impressive interceptions. On this occasion, we can see the opposition attacker in possession of the ball in a wider area, attempting to play a cross into the Saint-Étienne penalty area.
In this scenario, with opposition attackers flooding the box, Saliba is positioned slightly deeper than before, however, he positions himself just as effectively on this occasion, again through an effective and intelligent reading of the game.
As Saliba observes the opposition wide man lining up his cross, he positions himself accordingly in the penalty area to prepare himself to meet the ball. He maintains distance from the central opposition attackers, focusing primarily on the opposition playmaker.
As this play moves on, the opposition wide man plays the cross into the box and sees it welcomed firmly by the head of Saliba. The defender’s positioning was once again optimal to meet the ball in a seemingly simple manner on this occasion. However, the hard work had been completed by the young Frenchman prior to the ball leaving the opposition playmaker’s foot, as he once again managed to orientate himself optimally to let the ball come to him and subsequently head it out of danger, directing his clearance away from goal.
Saliba’s impressive physicality
In addition to his impressive ability to read the game, Saliba’s physical traits are another key part of his game which may make him a difficult opponent for opposition attackers to overcome.
The 19-year-old defender stands at 192cm tall and exhibits a capability to use his large frame on the pitch. Saliba is well aware of his size and strength, and the defender can often be seen utilising it to effectively nullify opposition attacks.
The image above provides us with an example of Saliba utilising his size and strength advantage to essentially stop an opposition attacker in his tracks. Just prior to this image, the Stade de Reims attacker who we can see contesting for the ball with Saliba here was attempting to dribble past the Saint-Étienne defence, with his eyes set on goal.
While the opposition forward attempted to break through on goal, Saliba can be seen firmly stamping his authority on this passage of play by stepping in between the attacker and the ball, outmuscling the opposition forward and essentially giving him nothing but the defender’s large frame to run into, rather than the space he had been eyeing up in behind the Saint-Étienne defence.
The 19-year-old holds the attacker off in a seemingly effortless manner, ensuring that he wins the ball back before calmly laying the ball off to his goalkeeper.
This passage of play not only gives us yet another example of Saliba’s composure, but it provides us with a glimpse of his physical attributes in action. The 19-year-old can often be seen simply outmuscling opposition attackers and placing himself in between them and the ball, before ushering it back into the safety of Saint-Étienne feet.
When defending higher up the pitch, Saliba benefits from not being required to make a quick challenge. He thrives when he has room in behind him to drop off into and essentially take his time before committing to a challenge like the one we see in the image above. When he draws the attacker into making the first move through his intelligent reading of the game and impressive composure, Saliba’s physicality can be a very useful asset in helping him to nullify opposition attacks.
Confidence and composure on the ball
Saliba’s ability on the ball is undoubtedly one of the 19-year-old defender’s most impressive attributes. Saliba is an asset for his side when attempting to play out from the back, as his composure carries over from his defending into his play on the ball. Furthermore, the 19-year-old exhibits confidence and coolness on the ball which his ability generally backs up.
This image above shows us, Saliba, receiving the ball at the beginning of a Saint-Étienne attack. Saliba, positioned on the left side of a three-man defence here, is immediately put under pressure by the opposition’s right-winger here, who we can see charging towards him from a central position, keeping Saint-Étienne’s left central midfielder in his cover shadow.
Additionally, the opposition centre forward can be seen marking the central Saint-Étienne centre-back tightly, essentially cutting off that passing option also. It would appear as though this Rennes press has been designed to force Saliba to play through the wide man, who we can see being approached by the Rennes right-back here, as Saliba receives the ball.
As play moves on, we can see that the Rennes right-back has gotten closer to Saliba’s wide passing option, while the near central midfielder has also been picked up by Rennes’ right central midfielder. However, Saliba managed to play past Rennes’ press by beating the opposition player who had been approaching him with his skilful dribbling ability.
While the opposition right winger charged towards Saliba, the 19-year-old defender managed to swiftly evade the challenge and continue this Saint-Étienne attack by carrying the ball up the pitch, subsequently breaking Rennes’ first line of pressure by himself, thanks to his dribbling ability.
Saliba’s ball-carrying ability is one of his key attributes. This makes him an asset for his side when tasked with beating the first line of an opposition press, as we can see from the example above, or when needing to quickly progress the ball from the back.
This next image shows us another example of Saliba’s impressive quality on the ball. On this occasion, we can see the 19-year-old positioned further up the pitch, getting involved in a somewhat more advanced stage of this Saint-Étienne attack from his left centre-back position.
Just prior to this image being taken, Saliba’s midfield teammate, who we can see positioned nearest to Saliba on the left-wing in this image, was forced to play the ball back to Saliba due to the Bordeaux press. As Saliba prepares to receive possession here, we can see him being closed down quite urgently by the opposition player, however, despite being put under pressure by the Bordeaux man, Saliba bides his time and assesses the situation calmly prior to making his first touch.
As he does make contact with the ball, Saliba beats the opposition press once again. As he breaks Bordeaux’s first line of pressure, he puts himself into a position to go on and carry the ball further up the pitch. While Bordeaux’s block here makes it appear like a difficult scenario for Saliba to ultimately take advantage of, his personal effort in beating the first line of pressure through some impressive dribbling is difficult to fault and provides us with a second example of his effective ball-carrying ability.
Saliba’s dribbling ability is an important aspect of his game. However, another important feature of Saliba’s game is his tendency to look for and play progressive passes when building out from the back. This image above provides us with an example of Saliba attempting to play the progressive pass into the midfield when put under pressure by Rennes once again.
On this occasion, we can see more Rennes bodies orientated further up the pitch, as a result, making it difficult for Saliba to dribble past the first line of pressure due to the close proximity of the second line. While the pass may be on to the goalkeeper here if he could turn to face that direction, Saliba instead aims to play through Rennes’ press by passing into the midfield from this scenario.
Despite being pressed aggressively by the opposition’s right-sided attacker, as we can see in this image, Saliba remains composed and manages to play the ball past the Rennes press and into the midfield. Saliba has got a tendency to generally look for the progressive passing option, even when put under a significant amount of pressure, as it may be fair to say he is in this image above.
This is a quality of Saliba’s which can sometimes land his team in some difficult scenarios, however, it is also a quality which allows the 19-year-old to showcase both his composure and his ball-playing ability.
Potential areas of improvement
As we discussed previously, Saliba likes to play out from the back and tends to look for progressive passing options if they are in any way available. While this can often be a positive for his team, this can also lead to the 19-year-old being dispossessed or simply giving the ball away needlessly, at times.
While Saliba’s confidence and composure on the ball are clear to see and his dribbling ability is one of his key traits, there is some room for improvement in the passing department, which, if refined, could help Saliba to become an even more well-rounded footballer.
Another positive trait of Saliba’s which we have discussed at an earlier point in this tactical analysis piece, in the form of a scout report, is his proficiency when defending in a higher line, due to the freedom this gives him to back off oncoming attackers and bide his time before committing to a challenge. This is a quality which is helped by his quickness, in addition to his strength.
However, while Saliba thrives when he isn’t required to dive into challenges, he often tends to struggle when defending from a deeper position and when forced to commit to a challenge.
This image provides us with an example of this type of scenario, in which Saliba can often struggle and be exploited by intelligent opposition attackers. On this particular occasion, we can see Rennes playmaker Raphinha in possession of the ball inside the Saint-Étienne penalty area. Left centre-back Saliba is drawn in by the attacker, as a result of the tricky dribbler making this dangerous run.
In this image, we can see Raphinha seemingly driving towards the byline, attracting Saliba’s movement as he does so. When we previously discussed the kind of defensive situation in which the 19-year-old thrives, we looked at how he made the most of the space in behind him by backing off the opposition attacker and subsequently inserting himself between the attacker and the ball when the opening presented itself.
This particular scenario is very different to the one in which we saw Saliba thrive, as he doesn’t have nearly as much space to draw the attacker into, nor can he enjoy the luxury of taking his time before being forced to make a decision. This is the kind of scenario in which Saliba sometimes struggles.
As this passage of play moves on, Raphinha swiftly cuts back inside, exhibiting his impressive dribbling quality and agility. While Raphinha begins to take the ball back to the inside, Saliba had already committed to a challenge, which we can see him making in this image.
The 19-year-old defender stuck his foot in as Raphinha began to come inside, ultimately resulting in the Rennes attacker being tripped and winning a penalty from Saliba.
When given time to make his decision, Saliba is a very difficult defender to beat, thanks to his intelligence, in addition to his physical traits. However, his split-second decision making in scenarios like the one being presented above is an area which could do with some improvement.
To conclude this tactical analysis piece, it may be fair to say that Saliba is an intelligent defender who has got plenty of physical qualities to help him benefit from his calculated reading of the game.
Additionally, the 19-year-old Saint-Étienne defender has shown himself to be composed and confident both on and off the ball. When tasked with being the last line of defence between the goalkeeper and an onrushing attacker, Saliba’s composure is often firm. Meanwhile, his composure and confidence on the ball when facing an aggressive opposition press is also an impressive trait of the young defender.
The 19-year-old’s future club, Arsenal, may be able to expect a defender, in Saliba, who will help to add a sense of calmness to their defence, in addition to potentially contributing some defensive solidity for the Gunners in the Premier League.
Arsenal have, at times, notably struggled when attempting to play out from the back. Saliba may be an ideal addition to the Arsenal defence to help them overcome these struggles in playing out from the back, thanks to his quality on the ball, both technically and mentally. As a result, Saliba may provide a boost to Arsenal’s tactics during the build-up phase upon his arrival at The Emirates in the summer.