William Saliba after the Premier League match between Arsenal and Manchester City at Emirates Stadium, London, October 2023.

William Saliba sent Haaland tumbling into another dimension with a Hulk-esque smash

“Yeah, it’s clear with me (fully fit), Arsenal could have been champions.” As far as ballsy-back-yourself statements go, you’ll have to consult the dusty annuals of human folly to beat William Saliba’s chest puffer before the Gunners took on Manchester City.

Saliba’s grace and poise at the heart of Mikel Arteta’s backline has played a major role in Arsenal’s transformation from Europa League hopers to legitimate Premier League heavyweight.

And, sure, the 22-year-old’s injury last April was a key factor in the title collapse that Arsenal fans aren’t quite ready to talk about.

But many observers would’ve scoffed at Saliba’s assertion. Good as he is, City were imperious during the run-in last season. And the ease with which they brushed Arsenal aside at the Etihad in late April suggested prime Bobby More and Paolo Maldini would’ve struggled to keep their attack quiet.

We believed it too. Until yesterday.

During Arsenal’s 1-0 win over the Premier League champions, Saliba won 100% of his duels and registered a 97% passing accuracy. He didn’t commit a single foul or get dribbled past once.

In fact, he’s not been dribbled past in his eight Premier League appearances in 2023/24. And he’s committed just two fouls all season. Yikes.

But Saliba’s pocketing of Erling Haaland was his biggest statement yet. Haaland has scored eight Premier League goals this season, but many Fantasy Footballer users took the captaincy away from the big striker this weekend.

Perhaps millions had anticipated Saliba’s masterclass. By hook, crook and swift interceptions that make opponents doubt whether the ball even existed, the France international reduced world football’s most feared striker into a harmless family pet.

During a tight, taught first-half, Haaland made the eyes at Rico Lewis and was rewarded with a glorious sweeping pass into space. The kind of ball that’s meat and drink to the Premier League’s resident Viking pillager.

But he ran into a brick wall instead. With the no-nonsense aura of a bouncer, Saliba simply stepped into Haaland’s way and watched his opponent tumble into another dimension. There was no chance Arsenal were losing after that.

Arteta was beaming in his post-match interview, and described how everyone played their part in the victory.

“I’m so proud, with the right people and the right players, we had to make it happen,” the Arsenal boss said. “In moments we had to suffer, we knew that. I thought the team was excellent and they delivered a big, big performance.

“You need the crowd to turn up and do what they’ve done for the team as well. It feels like a big win!

“In the second half we started really good. We might not have scored lots of goals but we were there and we were really aggressive, and I think the changes really helped as well.

The Gunners go into the international break still unbeaten in the Premier League, kept off top spot by rivals Tottenham on goal difference alone.

Far from the swagger that accompanied last season’s fast start, Arsenal’s form has been underpinned by defensive solidity. For all of Gary Neville’s sniping from the commentary box, David Raya kept another clean sheet, while Arteta has quietly reverted to last year’s first-choice backline.

And not since Virgil van Dijk’s imperial phase at Liverpool has English football seen a defender capable of beating opponents with their aura alone like Saliba. Just ask Haaland.

By Michael Lee

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