COMMENT: If it had to happen, much like the way he's performed this season, the timing could not have been better. If ever William Saliba was going to be struck by injury, there'd be no better time than on the eve of an international break...
Two weeks. Two weeks for Saliba and Arsenal's medical staff to work on the back strain he suffered in the opening exchanges against Sporting Lisbon last week. As yet, we've not had any formal word on the extent of the injury, though it was serious enough for France coach Didier Deschamps to release the 21 year-old back to London on Tuesday. Of course, back injuries can be tricky things. However sources in and around both the camps of Arsenal and Les Bleus have stated a two-week recovery period is most likely needed.
So, if it all goes to plan, he'll be back for the resumption. Fully fit. Fresh. Motivated. Saliba will be back to take his place at the heart of the Premier League leaders' defence. At 21. In his first serious season in England. Saliba has established himself as a first-choice for manager Mikel Arteta. And when you take a step back and consider everything from a 60,000ft view, the progress of Saliba is really something extraordinary.
A year ago, Saliba was flying with Olympique Marseille. Moreover, whenever a microphone was put under his chin, the Frenchman spoke like his time with Arsenal was already at an end. In three years, ever since penning terms with the Gunners, Saliba had bounced from Saint Etienne, to Nice and then to OM. His time in France only interrupted by a disastrous six months in London, where he was banished to the reserves by Arteta effectively to relearn the game.
And we say disastrous, as that time at London Colney appeared to have made the mind up of many regarding Saliba and Arsenal. Which included, no less, the player himself.
But like so many of the great stories coming out of this dressing room this season, Arteta had a plan. Though, it must be said, he didn't let Saliba in on it. For the player, as he returned to France first for six months with OGCN, before last season's successful loan at OM, it really did appear the whole move had been a major career mistake.
But clearly, there was a plan in place. And the success of Saliba this season should give food for thought for any advisor connected to the current batch of Arsenal players away on-loan. The transformation from the player of two years ago, stuck in the club's U21s, to what we're seeing today really is extraordinary. For his youth. For his inexperience. For what had gone on before in an Arsenal shirt. To see Saliba emerge as one of the Premier League's brightest young players. And in a team that is leading the table. This cannot be a fluke. No matter how cold it appeared from outside. No matter how hard-hearted Arteta's approach seemed to be. The Basque, with these methods, has proven himself again.
This wasn't a young manager carelessly mis-managing a potential world-beater. It was the opposite. Saliba benefitting from a measured, considered development plan over these past three years. Step by step. Club by club. Saliba's progress and improvement continued until his manager was confident he could handle the physical and mental demands of the Premier League. And given current results, Arteta and his staff have yet again played blinder.
Which is why the example of Saliba should give those around Folarin Balogun (Reims), Albert Sambi Lokonga (Crystal Palace) and Nuno Tavares (Marseille) pause for thought. Like Saliba before them, all three have expressed frustration over their opportunities at Arsenal and under Arteta. Even Sambi Lokonga, barely a month into his loan with Palace, found himself at the centre of press claims of criticising Arteta when paying tribute to Patrick Vieira after his dismissal.
“Thank you for giving me back the smile during this short period of time. See you soon coach!" the Belgian posted to social media, which was interpreted by some as a swipe at his Arsenal manager.
Whether it was or wasn't, only Lokonga can say. But it'll be water off a duck's back for Arteta. He doesn't take such things personally, the constant snipes from Saliba last season was proof of that. He's a players' manager. He understands the frustrations. And has never shown signs of taking such digs to heart.
Which is something Arsenal's loanees should absorb and acknowledge. Like Saliba, there's clearly a plan in place for each individual currently playing away from the club. Indeed, as much as Arteta seeks technical improvement from placing his players in certain environments, it can be argued his detached approach is designed to also get a rise out of them. Arteta seeking a 'I'll prove you wrong' attitude from any returnee in preseason.
Which is exactly what he received from Saliba last summer. Even in those early weeks of preseason in the 'States, there were doubts about whether the Frenchman's future would be tied to Arsenal. But that was all speculation from the outside. Arteta had his new season plans in place - and that included a more mature, battle-hardened Saliba.
And that should offer hope to the likes of Balogun and Tavares today. There's nothing ad hoc or careless about how Arteta has approached their loans. Like Saliba back in June, the message should be: trust the process and keep faith in your manager.