EPL 2016/17: The rise of Arsenal's Robert Holding
Arsenal are in turmoil. This season has been branded as the worst in Arsene Wenger’s tenure, one that has spanned more than two decades. An FA Cup triumph and a top four finish is a possibility, yet the chastening defeats at the hands of Spurs, Chelsea, West Brom and Crystal Palace highlight the all too familiar failings of the club since their move to the Emirates.
The fans are a divided bunch and the club’s transfer policy is one they are collectively against. There have been lots of questions aimed at the club and the manager in recent years about the scouting network and the lack of quality acquisitions.
One of the major reasons for the club’s success early on in Wenger’s tenure was the quality of the players they brought in. Patrick Vieira, Thierry Henry, and Nicolas Anelka were relatively unknown French players brought in for peanuts and transformed into world class talents.
However, over the last decade, apart from Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil, the club have struggled to attract top talent. They have also failed to really find any quality youngsters or promote from within, something that has cost them heavily in the Premier League and the Champions League.
That trend though seems to be changing again as, in the last couple of years, the Gunners have unearthed gems in Hector Bellerin and Rob Holding. Bellerin has gone from strength to strength and transformed into a world-class right-back and Holding seems to be following suit.
A £2 million signing from a relegated Championship side
There were eyebrows raised when the Gunners hierarchy captured the signature of 20-year-old Rob Holding for a measly £2 million from Bolton Wanderers, a sum that pales in comparison to the £55 million that Manchester City had to let go of to acquire the services of John Stones.
After a whirlwind preseason during which he made his debut and scored, he was forced to adjust quickly to a new system. Holding was then handed his Premier League debut on the opening day of the season against Liverpool, however, following the 4-3 defeat, his appearances were sporadic up until the FA Cup semi-final tie against Manchester City.
Rise to prominence
Holding was brought in to cover for the injured Shkodran Mustafi, who was the first choice defender, and came up against the likes of Sergio Aguero, Raheem Sterling, and Leroy Sane.
The Gunners fielded three at the back instead of the back four they usually played with and Holding was phenomenal in the new system as he barely put a foot wrong throughout the game. One moment in the game perfectly captured not only his solid performance in the game but his vast potential overall.
In the 67th minute, Vincent Kompany played a long ball over Arsenal's defence for Holding and Aguero to chase. Incredibly, Holding outpaced the City striker to get to the ball first, before performing a neat turn to get away from the Argentine. Aguero then chased after Holding but once again, the Englishman fooled him with another trick, this time using his quick feet to dribble past the striker. He eventually won a throw-in.
He could have written his name into Arsenal folklore had he directed his header into the goal later on in the game, however, it was not to be. He did, however, finish the game with eight clearances, four take-ons, one interception and two successful aerial duels.
He was then drafted into the side for the game against Manchester United in the Premier League. Against United, Holding delivered another exceptional performance. He was strong, composed and always looked to get on the front foot.
Five clearances, three blocks and three successful tackles aside, it was his determination to win the ball back in United’s own half that created the second goal. He contained the threat of Rooney and Martial well and never seemed troubled by the magnitude of the fixture. He was equally impressive against Southampton in the following week and against Stoke as well.
In all, Arsenal have lost just one game in the 13 games he has played across different competitions.
At a time when being young and English shoots up a player’s price, it is indeed shocking that Arsenal have unearthed a gem in Holding for just £2 million.
Style of Play
For £2 million, Arsenal have found a youngster with the abilities of a world-class defender. The Tameside-born defender averages 8 defensive actions per game with most of them being clearances. He is very good on the ball and has an average pass accuracy of 82%.
He often looks to pass the ball out of the back, to drive forward and set the tempo, something hugely impressive for a player of his age and experience.
He is an intelligent reader of the game much like the Gunners’ forgotten captain Per Mertesacker. The German is an ideal candidate for the young Englishman to look up to in search of guidance.
The 21-year-old is positionally astute. Despite being a precise tackler, he avoids committing to challenges, preferring to restrict the offensive play of his opponents through his positioning and marking. Holding can start attacks from the back and likes bombing forward as evidenced by his lung bursting runs against United, City, and Southampton.
An England call-up next?
Gareth Southgate, the England manager, knows all about Holding having managed him at the youth level. Holding was part of the under-21 squad, managed by Southgate, that won the Toulon’s tournament in 2016.
If he continues his development and become a mainstay in the Gunners defence, it won’t long before he gets a call-up for the national team.
Football is all about seizing opportunities and Holding has done exactly that. Now it’s up to him to make the spot his own for the foreseeable future and live up to his potential.