“He’s got all the assets to become a top player.”
When it comes to defenders, José Mourinho knows what he’s talking about. The former Manchester United manager oversaw the development of Chelsea legends Ricardo Carvalho and John Terry while both Raphaël Varane and Sergio Ramos matured under his watch at Real Madrid.
When he singles out a young defender, it’s wise to listen. The centre-back in question this time is William Saliba, and Mourinho was speaking with RMC when he revealed the 18-year-old Saint-Étienne man reminded him of Kurt Zouma when the Portuguese tactician signed him for Chelsea in 2014.
Saliba has only played 1,277 minutes in Ligue 1 this season, but a host of clubs are already lining up to sign the youngster. Arsenal are believed to be interested and have no qualms paying the rumoured £25million price tag on his head.
Manchester United are another Premier League team who have registered their interest in the teenager. But Manchester City, Liverpool and Spurs are all in the market for a centre-back this summer, too, so ruling any of them out would be naive.
Saliba is the latest wonderkid to appear in Ligue 1. The list of potential centre-backs for France at the next World Cup is starting to swell. The reigning champions can call upon the likes of Samuel Umtiti, Benjamin Pavard, Lucas Hernandez, Clément Lenglet, Varane, Zouma, Presnel Kimpbembe, Abdou Diallo, Malang Sarr, Ibrahima Konaté, Nordi Mukiele, and Barcelona’s Jean-Clair Todibo.
They’re stocked, and perhaps the envy of every other footballing nation in the world.
It means competition for places is fierce and any youngster with aspirations of starring for his country can’t afford to make the wrong move and end up sitting on the bench. This will no doubt play a part in what Saliba chooses next.
But why is the 18-year-old so highly rated?
Nicknamed the new Lilian Thuram, Saliba has an x-factor his peers simply don’t possess. When you watch him stroll out from the back he gives off the impression he’s a seasoned veteran. There’s no uncertainty about him in possession. There’s nothing there to suggest he has fewer than 15 Ligue 1 starts to his name.
He has an authority about him. An aura.
Players either have it or they don’t. Virgil van Dijk has it. Sergio Ramos has it. Rio Ferdinand had it. As did Fabio Cannavaro and Marcel Desailly.
These days, defenders are tasked with much more than just keeping the ball away from the defensive third. They’re key parts of the team’s philosophy and with many now opting to play out from the back, their ability on the ball has to be that of a midfielder.
Saliba would be comfortable in midfield. He’s that good. He makes everything ball related appear effortless. He can thread a pass into an attacker. He can play an incisive ball into midfield to split the defensive lines. He can ping a pass 50 yards and switch play with the drop of a shoulder.
But the best thing about him is just how press resistant he is. With more teams now aggressively looking to press the ball, a defender’s ability to not only retain possession but to progress it is more important than ever before.
Those who are unnatural but forced to do it anyway make mistakes. Often costly ones. Yet Saliba, trained by Kylian Mbappé’s father, is like Teflon when approached by the opposition. Nothing and nobody seems to be able to stick to him. He’s calm when hunted and often plays his way out of dangerous situations. The 18-year-old rarely looks flustered or not in control of the situation.
For a team who play out from the back, he’s a dream to have. And his raw ability means he could be one of the best in the world if his skills are nurtured properly.
He’s not the biggest name on the market this summer but his signing could turn out to be a club’s biggest one.