Arsenal have a player who should intrigue Real Madrid

WIMBLEDON, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 08: William Saliba of Arsenal in action during the Papa John's Trophy Second Round match between AFC Wimbledon and Arsenal U21 at Plough Lane on December 08, 2020 in Wimbledon, England. (Photo by James Chance/Getty Images)
WIMBLEDON, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 08: William Saliba of Arsenal in action during the Papa John's Trophy Second Round match between AFC Wimbledon and Arsenal U21 at Plough Lane on December 08, 2020 in Wimbledon, England. (Photo by James Chance/Getty Images) /

Real Madrid are a club that always generates a high amount of transfer speculation. They are one of the biggest clubs in the world and the demand of the fans for new signings is sky-high. And things only become more interesting when you factor in the potential arrival of Kylian Mbappé.

The 2021 summer transfer window was a bit bizarre for Real Madrid. The first-choice centre-back pairing of Sergio Ramos and Raphaël Varane bid adieu to join Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester United respectively. The club brought in David Alaba from Bayern Munich on a free transfer and placed faith in Jesús Vallejo to be the 4th-choice centre-back.

Madridistas were unhappy as a new and young centre-back wasn’t signed. Betting on Vallejo to complete the defence was seen as a lethargic move by the fans. And these details got magnified due to the failed Mbappé transfer. Even though Alaba was signed, he was viewed primarily as a left-back rather than a centre-back, although I am sure he has dispelled all doubts by doing brilliantly at the heart of the defence.

Real Madrid, though, were linked to a number of defenders, with Sevilla’s Jules Koundé the most heavily-linked centre-back. However, there were strong rumours of him heading to Chelsea, which eventually did not materialize. Over the past few months, there has been unrelenting speculation about the arrival of Antonio Rüdiger from Chelsea, who will be a free (but expensive) agent come June 2022.

Let’s keep all these rumours aside for a minute. What if I told you that Real Madrid could sign a cost-effective, high-potential, young centre-back in the upcoming summer? That player is Arsenal’s 20-year-old William Saliba, who is currently on loan at Ligue 1 side Marseille.

Saliba was bought by the Gunners in 2019 from AS Saint-Étienne for a fee of £27 million. This season, he is on loan at Marseille, where he has become a key figure. His performances haven’t gone unnoticed in London.

But there’s a catch. Arsenal invested £50 million in Ben White in the 2021 summer transfer window, and he has formed a good defensive partnership with Brazilian counterpart Gabriel Magalhães. That’s where Real Madrid could swoop in.

With the White-Gabriel duo doing well, it wouldn’t be easy for Saliba to break into Arteta’s XI. However, as per The Athletic, Arsenal want to prioritize securing the future of their defence by tying William Saliba down to a new contract. His current contract expires in 2024. Saliba might be keen to renew the contract too, but Real Madrid’s allure and the guarantee of Champions League football every season might entice the centre-back to seek pastures new.

Marseille have had a superb season so far, at least in the league. They lie in 3rd place with 40 points, just 2 points behind Nice. They have conceded 18 goals in 22 league games this same, the joint-lowest with both PSG and Nice, the 1st and 2nd-placed teams in the league. One of the reasons behind it is Saliba shoring up Marseille’s defence.

What will William Saliba add to Real Madrid’s squad?

This is the part of the article where things get a lot more interesting. To begin with, William Saliba is valued at around just €20-30 million according to the CIES Football Observatory. This means he will not cost much to the club. I would predict his annual salary to be around €3 million, which is pretty low when you compare it to the wage demands of Antonio Rüdiger, who was reportedly demanding €11.25 million per season. 

Let’s take a look at his statistics this season now (the stats have been referred from FBRef). Saliba has accumulated 2604 minutes over 29 appearances this season, starting every game. In the league, he has 21 starts, playing every single minute of those games.

During the last year, Saliba has won 0.95 tackles per 90. As for the interceptions, he has 1.85 interceptions per 90. These numbers are not that great when you compare it to other centre-backs across the top five leagues. But this season, in Ligue 1, he has won 1.48 tackles per 90. This does not include stats from February 2021 to August 2021. It’s proof that he has improved at Marseille.

He ranks in the 87th percentile of centre-backs when it comes to the percentage of dribblers tackled (60.7%). The average across the Top Five leagues is 49.9%. With a dribbled past rate of just 0.27 per 90, he ranks in the 93rd percentile. This shows that Saliba is an extremely reliable defender in 1v1 situations, making life difficult for the opposition attacker(s) to get past him.

Saliba’s aggressive nature as a defender is further rubber-stamped when you consider his percentage of successful pressures. For someone who might not know, a successful pressure is the number of times the team gained possession within five seconds of applying pressure to an opposing player who is receiving, releasing, or carrying the ball. With a successful pressure percentage of 44.8%, he ranks in the 98th percentile for centre-backs. Such a trait can help Real Madrid in games where want to play a high press (Carlo Ancelotti stated during the start of the season that he would love to employ a high press).

Now, the most surprising stats that I found out were his passing stats. Saliba is a supernova when it comes to his passing and ball-carrying ability from the back. Here are a few of his statistics from this category (all stats are based on numbers per 90 minutes):

  • Passes completed – 76.54 (99th percentile)
  • Successful passes – 93.4% (98th percentile)
  • Passes into the final third – 5.17 (92nd percentile)
  • Progressive passes – 4.61 (91st percentile)
  • Touches – 90.41 (98th percentile)
  • Carries – 68.12 (99th percentile)
  • Progressive carries – 5.76 (95th percentile)
  • Passes under pressure – 8.15 (95th percentile)
  • Switches of play – 2.07 (79th percentile)

The above-mentioned stats are evidence that William Saliba is an impressive passer of the ball. Not only does he have a high passing success rate, but also a good solution to progress the ball quickly from the back (look at passes into final third and progressive passes). He can be very helpful against teams that deploy a low-block, a structure which Real Madrid find very difficult to break down. You could argue that David Alaba does the same by charging forward and delivering passes between the lines, but two is always better than one, isn’t it?

Saliba is a potent ball-carrier too. He can single-handedly help the team move upfield by making a 20 or 30-yard run from the back. Couple that with his impressive passing stats when it comes to the final third and Real Madrid can potentially have a multi-dimensional centre-back at their disposal. In addition to that, he is a press-resistant defender. Don’t these traits ring any bells in your head?

As with any player, Saliba has his drawbacks too. He is not good at winning aerial duels, a weakness that can be easily exploited if you are up against someone tall and physical. Saliba has managed to win just 1.39 aerials per 90 in the last 365 days, putting in the 4th percentile of centre-backs across the top five European leagues. For the same reason, Saliba cannot be as helpful to his team from set-pieces.

How does Saliba fare against David Alaba and Éder Militão in 2021-22?

As we edge towards the end of the article, I would like to make comparisons between Real Madrid’s first-choice centre-back pairing of David Alaba and Éder Militão. If I had to make a fair assessment, Alaba and Militão have done well enough to not make us feel the absence of the Ramos-Varane duo, although there’s certainly a lot of room for improvement (so many instances of poor decision-making that led to goals).

Saliba has amassed 2,604 minutes this term, with Alaba and Militão displaying similar numbers with 2,691 and 2,812 minutes respectively. In terms of passing, Saliba has an upper hand over the Real Madrid pairing, completing 93.4% of his passes as compared to Alaba and Militão’s 91.6% and 89.6% respectively. He has also completed more passes than the duo this season (Saliba hit a season-high of 123 passes completed in a 2-1 loss against Brest in December).

When it comes to defensive actions, Saliba once again comes out on top. He has a successful tackle rate of 60.9% against dribblers. Alaba has 46.2% success while Militão has 50% success in that category. As for the interceptions+tackles, Saliba stands 2nd with 105. Alaba has 60 while Militão has 110.

Saliba, once again, outshines the Real Madrid duo when it comes to successful pressures. While Militão and Alaba have a successful pressure rate of 35.5% and 35.0%, Saliba is way ahead with 44.8%. As for the ball-carrying stats, Alaba (1413) and Militão (1232) are nowhere close to Saliba’s 1919 carries this season.

However, Alaba and Militão are both better than Saliba when it comes to aerials. Militão has won 78.4% of his aerials, Alaba has won 50% of his aerials, while Saliba has the lowest aerial duel win percentage of the lot with 47.5%.

The statistics show that William Saliba has done as well as David Alaba and Éder Militão, even outperforming them in a majority of categories. At just 20 years old, Saliba is performing way beyond his years.

Final Verdict

Real Madrid and William Saliba can indeed be a fruitful relationship if Los Blancos do set his eyes on the Frenchman. The 20-year-old would not cost much – both the transfer fee and wages included – and he can be an excellent backup for the time being, eventually staking his claim in the Real Madrid line-up.

I am highly optimistic that if Saliba does join Real Madrid, he will add a lot to the squad depth. I will also go as far as to say that he can also play as a quarter-back in midfield, considering his distributional prowess and press-resistant nature.

Next. 3 Stars and 3 Flops from Real Madrid’s Copa del Rey exit against Athletic Bilbao. dark

The upcoming summer will be an interesting one for Madridistas. Do you think Real Madrid should go for this defender?