William Saliba sending two opponents for a hot dog has left our jaw dislocated
By the middle of the second half at a damp, but exuberant, Emirates Stadium, it was possible to believe that Arsenal had replaced its footballers with 11 swans such was their grace on the club’s Champions League return.
After a six-year absence from Europe’s premier club competition, Mikel Arteta’s side tore into PSV Eindhoven with the relish of a recently released hostage tackling a Chinese banquet. The final scoreline of 4-0 was flattering to the Dutch side.
Angles were found in their passing that would’ve confounded Pythagoras himself. The speed and directness of Leandro Trossard and Bukayo Saka suggested they’d been constructed in a futuristic lab primarily tasked with destroying the will of mid-level European defenders.
And there was William Saliba, marking his first Champions League appearance with his trademark unflappable serenity.
In truth, PSV didn’t threaten Arsenal’s defence too much. By the second half, some observers at the Emirates saw Gabriel prepare a picnic and Oleksandr Zinchenko mixing cocktails as their team-mates did their thing around the Dutch side’s penalty area.
But Saliba is increasingly playing with an aura not seen since Virgil van Dijk’s imperial phase at Liverpool. The kind where opponents are beaten in the tunnel, broken by the Frenchman’s steely gaze and refusal to take prisoners.
Arsenal were three goals ahead when Saliba found himself running towards his own goal with Noa Lang breathing down his neck. Now, you or I would defecate ourselves in that position, hurriedly getting rid of the ball or crumpling into a puddle of shame and sweat.
Instead, the 22-year-old navigated his way out of trouble like he was in possession of the Maurader’s Map. Lang was brushed aside with ease, before another hapless PSV opponent was sent for a hot dog by Saliba’s jinking footwork as the Arsenal fans whooped with awe-struck wonder.
William Saliba getting himself out of trouble against PSV…
— Football on TNT Sports (@footballontnt) September 21, 2023
Saliba moved to north London four years ago but only established himself in the XI last season following a series of loan spells in Ligue 1, becoming a key player in Arsenal’s Premier League title challenge.
Saliba joined Arsenal from Saint-Etienne and before that he spent time in the youth teams of FC Montfermeil and AS Bondy, recently opening up about his change in attitude since his youth team days.
“I have to be honest and say I was a lazy player,” Saliba told the Arsenal website about his time at AS Bondy.
“Yes I was lazy, and also I would sulk quite a lot. My manager would always tell me off for sulking, for being lazy in training.
“This is maybe why I wasn’t captain! As I said, I was young in my head, but then I grew up.
“My coaches helped me a lot at that age. I realised how you had to be on the pitch and I changed.
“I’ve felt like more a part of the family since I came here [to Arsenal] after the loan spells, and that’s how it is here. There’s a great feeling here. Every year new players come into the group.
“Every day we have a laugh, we have a joke, we like being around each other, but when we are on the pitch we go hard and we are serious. It’s important to have both – you cannot do one without the other.”
As Arsenal fans shuffled away from the Emirates last night, with their hearts warm and spirits lifted, there’s every chance a giddiness that arose during last season’s title challenge will once again emerge.
But expect Saliba to remain serenely above all that. His performance against PSV, including his transformation into an Olympic slalom champion, proves this swan-like defender has the chops for football’s greatest stages.
By Michael Lee