William Saliba key to Arsenal's title push after last year's injury blow

At this stage of last season, William Saliba could only watch on from the sidelines as Arsenal’s title charge faded away.

Suffering from a back injury, the centre-back missed the Gunners’ final 11 Premier League games.

Arsenal kept just two clean sheets without him and Manchester City overturned an eight-point gap to beat Mikel Arteta’s side to the title.

Saliba hopes it will be a very different story this time around.

He helped his side beat Wolves 2-0 to go back top of the table on Saturday, continuing his remarkable run of being the only Arsenal player to play every minute in the Premier League this season, and is set to play a vital role if they are to get over the line.

Arsenal’s clean sheet at Molineux was their sixth in a row away from home, a new club record in the Premier League. But tougher tests lie ahead this week.

Arteta must find a way to silence the Premier League’s joint-top scorer Cole Palmer when the Gunners host Chelsea on Tuesday. Then, on Sunday, they travel to Tottenham for the north London derby.

Led by captain Heung-min Son, Spurs have developed into one of the most attacking teams around under Ange Postecoglou and they could be further boosted by the return of Richarlison this weekend.

But with Saliba fit, Arsenal look equipped to deal with the challenges ahead, and he was crucial to them bouncing back at the weekend.

After losing against Aston Villa and then crashing out of the Champions League at Bayern Munich, it was crucial that Arteta’s side got their season back on track.

The title is still in City’s hands, but victory against Chelsea would put Arsenal four points clear of them.

Pep Guardiola’s side would have two games in hand, starting with Brighton at the Amex Stadium on Thursday, but the pressure would be on them to respond.

City, like Arsenal, appear to be feeling the effects of a gruelling schedule that both Arteta and Guardiola criticised over the weekend.

Arteta has criticised the scheduling of Arsenal’s recent fixtures (Action Images via Reuters)
Arteta has criticised the scheduling of Arsenal’s recent fixtures (Action Images via Reuters)

Tuesday will be the Gunners’ sixth game in 21 days and signs of fatigue are creeping in. That is especially the case in attack, where Arsenal have lost the zip that helped them score 31 goals in seven league games after returning from a mid-season break to Dubai in January.

Arteta’s side have scored just nine goals in their past seven matches in all competitions, and it is why their defence is so crucial right now.

Grinding out results will be key during the run-in and Arsenal’s defensive record is the best in the league.

They were admittedly helped on Saturday by a Wolves forward line depleted of its best attackers. Matheus Cunha and Pedro Neto were both out injured, while Hwang Hee-chan was only able to play just over 45 minutes.

Wolves’ only real chances came when Arsenal were loose in possession and, other than that, they fed off scraps.

“The coach gave us a good boost before the game, he told us how good we can be,” said Saliba. “He told us to show our character and we responded well. It is more mental [at this stage in the season] and we have to give everything we have.”

Growing up, Saliba wore an Arsenal shirt with Thierry Henry’s name on the back, but as he got older he idolised Liverpool captain Virgil van Dijk.

The similarities between the two are easy to see, and Saliba is showing remarkable composure for a 23-year-old in only his second season in the Premier League.

With two big derbies to come this week, his coolness under pressure will be more important than ever.