A Gunners legend has tipped the teenage centre-back to have a big impact at Emirates Stadium next season
William Saliba has the potential to be Arsenal’s version of Virgil van Dijk, according to Alan Smith, who thinks Mikel Arteta can turn the £27 million ($35m) star into a “classy defender”.
Arsenal reached an agreement to sign Saliba from Saint Etienne last summer, before sending him back to Geoffroy Stadium on loan for the duration of the 2019-20 campaign.
The 19-year-old featured in 17 games for the French outfit before Ligue 1 was cancelled in April due to the coronavirus outbreak, helping Claude Puel’s men narrowly avoid relegation despite dealing with persistent injury issues.
Saliba was not allowed to participate in last month’s Coupe de France final against Paris Saint-Germain after Saint Etienne and Arsenal failed to reach an agreement over a short-term loan extension, but he was able to attend the match before joining up with his new team-mates at the Emirates Stadium.
Before the showpiece, he expressed his excitement ahead of his arrival in north London, telling L’Equipe: “I have a crush on Arsenal. What it gives off speaks to me. I had no hesitation. I am discovering another world.”
Arsenal’s defensive issues were well documented last season, and Smith believes Saliba’s presence could make a huge difference if he hits the ground running under Arteta.
The Gunners legend drew comparisons between the Frenchman and Liverpool talisman Virgil van Dijk when asked what changes to the current squad need to be made next term.
“With a few quid to spend, another central defender must be on the cards. This area, in fact, is the most interesting of all. Will William Saliba, for instance, be given an early chance after finally coming over from Saint Etienne?” Smith told Sky Sports.
“Saliba, by all accounts, has tremendous potential as a classy defender in the Virgil van Dijk mould. I can just imagine Arteta on that training ground, working hard with the 19-year-old to instil good habits.
“Depending on how that goes, we might see the Frenchman let loose early on. Next to whom is another matter though.
“Will Arteta continue with three at the back, a system that helped bring about such huge improvement?”
The 57-year-old pundit is still hopeful that Arsenal can keep hold of Real Madrid loanee Dani Ceballos for at least one more year, and wants to see Matteo Gunedouzi used as a makeweight to bring in Thomas Partey from Atletico Madrid.
“Plenty of questions there, as there are in midfield where the future of Dani Ceballos looks far from certain,” Smith added.
“I am sure Arteta would love to keep this clever ball player with an excellent work ethic who forged a useful understanding with Granit Xhaka. Real Madrid, of course, might have other ideas.
“Midfield would further benefit if Matteo Guendouzi can be used in a deal to recruit someone like Thomas Partey, the much-admired lynchpin from Atletico Madrid.”