William Saliba continues Premier League ascension with stifling of Ivan Toney

From Gtech Community Stadium – For a couple of decades now, Arsenal have been considered a ‘soft’ team in Premier League folklore.

They miss Patrick Vieira. They don’t like it when games get rough. They hate it when you kick lumps out of them. They loathe it when you beat them over the head with a lead pipe.

It’s a tag that is sometimes unfairly bestowed upon them, a sort of running gag which has been approved by confirmation bias even if there’s a hint of truth in the allegations.

But make no mistake, Arsenal aren’t that sort of ‘soft’ anymore.

Even last season – when they undid all their good work, imploded down the stretch and gifted fourth place to rivals Tottenham – the Gunners still represented their unwanted reputation. If they were to succeed and secure Champions League qualification this time around, they would have to toughen up and act smarter.

The signings of proven winners in Gabriel Jesus and Oleksandr Zinchenko have helped Mikel Arteta in rounding out his vision, but the return and keeping of William Saliba has also been seismic.

Arriving back in north London following a spate of loans as a full France international, Gunners fans will have been eager to finally see their defensive prodigy in Arsenal red. They haven’t been disappointed.

Saliba has been one of the Premier League’s leading defenders upon his return to these shores, and his standing increased further in Arsenal’s 3-0 win at Brentford on Sunday.

The towering 21-year-old broke the deadlock with a deft, arcing header early in the first half, providing a tangible spark just as it looked like the Bees were growing into the game.

From there, Saliba owned the day and was the backbone behind Arsenal’s rout – very few teams will be able to silence Brentford with the various menaces at their disposal.

Saliba’s defensive staunchness made this the complete inverse of this same fixture from last season when Arsenal wilted under the lights and were manhandled by the Bees.

Where Ben White was roundly criticised for his failure to even put up much of a fight against Ivan Toney, Saliba joins a tiny list of defenders to have instead made his life hell.

Brentford’s talisman, the expected protagonist of the day after his England call-up and tweet saga against the Gunners, was smothered out of the game with a ruthlessness and professionalism that should be way beyond Saliba’s experience. It doesn’t make sense for a 21-year-old to be that dominant against one of the league’s most mischievous marksmen.

Because of Saliba, Gunners supporters were able to dance on the terraces of the Gtech Community Stadium taunting Toney (even if they misread what he actually said about them). It was his contributions at both ends of the pitch that allowed Arsenal to head into the international break as league leaders.

It’s still early days for Saliba – neither he or his team are the finished article – but his early promise reflects that of the team, rising in stature with every win, edging closer to a top-four return. It would be a shock if his trajectory towards the league’s summit doesn’t continue.

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