The cause of the frenzy turned out to be Mohamed Elneny’s most notable contribution in weeks. The Arsenal midfielder’s Instagram Story showed William Saliba back in the gym, pedaling around on an exercise bike and pointing to his head. Other than that, the clip didn’t reveal anything you couldn’t otherwise see, but it went viral on social media anyway, drawing an excited reaction from a fan base desperate to grab any kind of positive news ahead of the trip to the Manchester City. This was one: Saliba was back and everything was going to be okay.
And then it wasn’t. First, Saliba didn’t appear in Arsenal’s training photos before facing Southampton last week, then Mikel Arteta broke the news. “He’s not progressing as fast as we expected,” Arteta admitted. He all but confirmed that Saliba was out of Arsenal’s biggest Premier League game in 19 years. While Arteta did not want to make any predictions, there are now doubts as to whether he will. play again this season too. “We’re done,” was a reply. “Bye, headline,” was another, even if Twitter isn’t the place if you’re looking for measured reactions.
That is especially true in such difficult times. It is end of April. Arsenal reeling in the title race, being chased by this Manchester City – the maniacal figures of Pep Guardiola and Erling Haaland appear everywhere, but especially in the rearview mirror. Arsenal’s Saliba episode, where a cycle of delight and despair received even the most ambiguous updates, can perhaps be taken to gauge how Arsenal fans are dealing with it all. It’s also illustrative of just how important the 22-year-old has become.
The notion that Saliba could turn the title race around has grown during the five games he’s been away. Until he injured his back in Arsenal’s Europa League knockout against Sporting Lisbon, the centre-back had started every Premier League game this season alongside Gabriel Magalhaes. Without Saliba, Arsenal have not been able to keep a clean sheet. They have conceded seven goals in the last three games, losing expensive points at every turn. The 2-2 draws at Liverpool and West Ham showed weaknesses and a defensive line exposed by Saliba’s lack of pace, or forced below their usual high mark to account for it. Then it was on Friday night against Southampton.
None of which is particularly fair to Rob Holding, who has been caught up in the title race, but rather signifies Saliba’s downfall. West Ham took advantage of it at the London Stadium, with Michail Antonio targeting Holding’s side. Saliba is not only faster on the ground than Holding, but he is also more dominant in the air and better on the ball. Without him, Arsenal have been less precise, both in how they regain possession and how they build from below. Gabriel, who by age was an absolute central defender along with Saliba, has been more erratic and frayed without the Frenchman.
Arsenal have dealt with injuries this season, but so far Arteta’s team have rarely allowed them to look as important. In December, it was assumed that the knee injury suffered by Gabriel Jesus at the World Cup would be the moment when Arsenal’s title race would start to run out of steam. They managed admirably well without him, first with Eddie Nketiah at the helm and then with the timely addition of Leandro Trossard. Thomas Partey and Oleksandr Zinchenko have missed key games in which Arsenal have not looked like the same team, but the absence of either generated the same amount of fever as Saliba’s.
This too, for a player who is still playing in his first season in the Premier League and is as inexperienced in situations like the title race as most of the Arsenal team. Saliba has had an excellent season, but has struggled at times when teams have played directly to a forward target, an approach Guardiola replicated with considerable success with Haaland in the title rivals’ first meeting at the Emirates. Arsenal needed Saliba to return in time and pitting Haaland against Holding, or anyone, is a terrifying prospect.
So what does Arteta do? Is it time to turn? Arsenal could change their system, perhaps moving Ben White or Thomas Partey closer to Holding and the positions Haaland likes to shoot from.
Despite what some may say, finishing second for Arsenal would not be a disaster and if they were beaten for the title by City they would not have thrown away the league by any sensible estimate. But here’s what Arsenal are up against: they built their lead with Saliba, and now they must maintain it knowing there’s a chance he won’t play again this season. It means that they cling to it even more than before.