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Arsenal's Saliba dilemma: What next for £27m star as Gunners talks loom?

11:00 EAT 30/03/2022
William Saliba Marseille 2021-22
The on-loan defender made his first France start on Tuesday after impressing for Marseille - but his future in north London remains unclear

William Saliba has just enjoyed the biggest few days of his life.

The young centre-back made his senior France debut on Friday, coming off the bench to replace Raphael Varane during his country's 2-1 win over Ivory Coast.

And then on Tuesday night he followed that up with his second appearance, playing the full 90 minutes after he was named in the starting line-up to take on South Africa, as Les Bleus ran out 5-0 winners.

That capped a memorable week for the defender, who also celebrated his 21st birthday on Thursday while he was away with Didier Deschamps’ squad.

“It’s an honour for me to wear this shirt,” Saliba said after the Ivory Coast game, which was played at Marseille, where he is currently spending the season on loan from Arsenal.

“I had to stay concentrated because the crowd cheered a lot when I came on, but I thank them for giving me confidence.

“I’m going to keep this shirt and not wash it, that’s for sure!”

Saliba is enjoying a fine season in France and his first senior call-up for the national side is recognition for the way he has performed since he made his move to Marseille last summer.

It is a move that Arsenal look at as a major success, such has been Saliba’s exposure to regular first-team football at the Stade Velodrome.

The former Saint-Etienne star has made 28 appearances in all competitions for the Ligue 1 side, and has been one of the main reasons they currently sit second in the table and have progressed through to the quarter-finals of the Europa Conference League.

It is exactly what the Gunners were looking for when they agreed to send Saliba out on loan again last summer, following his stay with Nice during the second half of the 2020-21 season.

But the success of the loan spell also looks set to bring with it a major dilemma this summer.

Saliba will have just two years of his Arsenal contract left at the end of the season and, given he has yet to make a single appearance for the Gunners since his £27 million ($34m) move from Saint-Etienne in 2019, what comes next is very much up in the air.

“I don't know my future,” Saliba admitted on March 23. “There are two months left [with Marseille]. The most important thing is to qualify for the Champions League and go as far as possible in the Conference League.

“I think there will be discussions afterwards, at the end of May-beginning of June, with Arsenal and Marseille, we will decide at that time. 

“But I never hid that I felt good here. Continuing here would not be a bad idea. I know the city, my team-mates, my coach. But it's not just up to me."

Arsenal are now facing a decision when it comes to Saliba.

With the defender now approaching the final two years of his contract, they must decide whether to finally integrate him into the first team, or to cut their losses and sell for the best possible price.

And of course, a big part of that decision will rest on what Saliba himself decides.

Sources close to the player have confirmed to GOAL that initial discussions with Arsenal will take place in the next few weeks.

Saliba’s camp will use these talks to try to learn what Arsenal’s plans are for the defender ahead of the summer.

As it stands, a new contract has not yet been discussed, but should the Gunners decide they want Saliba to be part of Mikel Arteta’s first-team squad next season, it is expected they will look to offer him a new deal when formal talks begin.

Given how content he is in Marseille, however, it is far from clear whether the defender will be in any rush to sign any extension that comes his way.

Arsenal fans are understandably keen to get a proper look at Saliba. His arrival generated huge excitement, with many expecting the youngster to make an immediate impact with the first team.

So the fact he is yet to make a competitive appearance for the club nearly three years on has left many confused about the way his development has been handled.

"I know that sometimes it’s difficult to explain or understand after the money that the club has spent trying to bring him in, to send him on loan,” Arteta explained, when discussing Saliba earlier this season. "But a lot of things have happened to him.

"He’s a long-term player for us and we need to protect him as well. And giving him three or four games is not enough.

"He’s very happy to go there now. Hopefully, he can enjoy his football and be ready for us for next season."

Arsenal’s stance has always been that Saliba remains part of their long-term plans. Sources at the club point to the fact there was no option included for Marseille to make his loan move permanent as proof that they will offer him an opportunity to succeed in north London.

But with only two years left on his contract, Saliba now holds a lot of power and what he decides this summer will be crucial.

With Ben White and Gabriel Magalhaes having firmly established themselves as Arsenal’s first-choice centre-back pairing under Arteta, Saliba could understandably be hesitant to return to a club where he would not be guaranteed game time - especially with the 2022 World Cup on the horizon.

And should he opt not to sign any deal that was offered to him, Arsenal will be left with little option but to sell and attempt to recoup as much of the £27m they spent to bring him to the club in the first place.

But with Arteta’s side looking all but certain to be back in Europe next season, either in the Champions League or Europa League, they will have far more fixtures to contend with, and that would give the Arsenal boss more flexibility when it comes to rotating his squad and guaranteeing players game time.

"I think there is room [to accommodate him, White and Gabriel],” Arteta said, when asked if all three of his young centre-backs could feature in the same squad. “We will have to sit down and decide what the next step is.”

With talks due to begin soon, that moment for that decision is now drawing ever closer.

Arsenal fans have waited for nearly three years to see Saliba in action, and the imminent discussions will go a long way to determining whether the talented defender ever makes his debut at the Emirates.

The past week has demonstrated once again that Saliba has a big, big future in football. Whether that is with Arsenal, though, remains to be seen.