A certain German playmaker made headlines with his absence from Arsenal’s 2020/21 Premier League squad this season. However, the name of their highly-touted, teenage centre-back was also missing.
William Saliba, despite joining Arsenal in the summer of 2019, is yet to make a senior appearance for the Gunners. Having been loaned straight back to Saint-Etienne for the 2019/20 campaign, Arsenal’s manager Mikel Arteta has clearly deemed the France Under-20 international surplus to requirements this term, leaving Saliba with no choice but to embark upon another loan spell.
Ligue 1’s OGC Nice have gratefully welcomed Saliba back to the division where he first caught the eye of the Premier League side, agreeing to take the centre-back on loan for the remainder of the season and cover all his wages.
But, aside from an idyllic setting, what can Saliba expect when he arrives on the Cote d’Azur, and can he finally accrue that vague a bit of ‘experience’ that may ignite his Arsenal career?
As one Arsenal name comes in at Nice, one goes out. Patrick Vieira – who so elegantly patrolled Arsenal’s midfield during the club’s golden era in the late 1990s and early 2000s – missed out on the chance to manage Saliba after getting sacked at the start of December.
Vieira, who led the team to seventh and fifth place finishes in his first two seasons, oversaw five successive defeats before Nice finally pulled the trigger. His former assistant Adrian Ursea has been unable to quell the poor form since taking over however, leaving Nice with just one win from their final 11 games of 2020.
Les Aiglons – the Eagles – sit 12th in the table, in no threat of relegation but some way off the European places too. In truth, their Europa League qualification last term owed much to the early curtailment of the French top flight and the sensational individual performances of goalkeeper Walter Benitez, who kept out almost 11 more goals than the average shot-stopper according to FBRef – the largest such figure in Europe’s top five league last season.
Things aren’t great off the field either. The club’s fans voiced their displeasure with the club’s woeful form by blocking the team bus from travelling to a Europa League group stage match in December. The bus did eventually leave, but may have been better off staying – Nice limped out of the competition with five defeats from six games.
Unrest has been seemingly transferred from the terraces to the training ground with the French publication l’Equipe reporting a ‘scuffle’ between two Nice players as recently as January.
There has also been upheaval among the club’s hierarchy. Club president Jean-Pierre Rivere and sporting director Julian Fournier have been two hugely influential figures during Nice’s recent successes, yet, within six months of leaving the club in February 2019, the pair returned with the change of ownership in August 2019.
The new owners – the chemical company INEOS, owned by British billionaire Sir Jim Ratcliffe – have overseen a spending spree since taking charge. Nice boasting the third-highest net spend in Ligue 1 – behind Monaco and Paris Saint-Germain – since the summer of 2019.
However, the players that have joined have endured mixed fortunes, with many more concerned with the personnel allowed to leave the club than those that lucratively arrive.
Worryingly for Arsenal, Nice’s once impressive reputation for promoting young players has dwindled in recent years.
Stanley Nsoki, once a hugely promising left-back – and one of the players reportedly involved in that training ground kerfuffle – has been putting in increasingly error-strewn performances this term. While the exciting centre-back Malang Sarr was allowed to join Chelsea on a free transfer last summer.
Saliba has been forced to undertake this loan move to prevent a similar downward trajectory, yet will be arriving at a club familiar with that particular arc.
Unfortunately, the 19-year-old hasn’t even played a minute and is already being framed as the club’s saving grace. Nice’s coach wasted no time in painting Saliba as a defensive linchpin, with Ursea telling the club’s website: “He can bring a lot of things to us, defensively, and in terms of our game plan, and the way we play the ball out from the back.”
Nice suffered a huge loss with the injury to 37-year-old club captain Dante earlier in the season. Saliba – who is still a teenager – has already been singled out as a player who can replicate the kind of leadership the team lost with Dante’s injury.
“Him arriving will lead to emulation in our defence,” Ursea claimed. “We have lost Dante, and we’re still waiting for leaders to come through. William is a player who gives off a lot of personality.”
Whether he inspires a turnaround, or joins a sinking ship still on the way down, Saliba is sure to amass some more of that much-vaunted ‘experience’ in his six months at Nice.