Sports Gazette

by sports journalism students at St Mary's University, London

Holding out for a hero no longer! The coming of age of Rob Holding

Posted on 12 May 2021 by Sam Stephenson

In the summer of 2016 two young English centre-backs made headlines in the transfer window.

The higher profile of the two moves was that of John Stones to Manchester City. In a deal worth a reported £47.5 million, Stones’ move from Everton made him, at the time, the second most expensive defender in history.

The same, however, cannot be said of the deal to bring then 20-year-old Rob Holding from Bolton to Arsenal, which only saw the north London club part with a measly £2 million.

Both players would be impacted by their transfer fees in very different ways.

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Holding sporting some classic Arsenal merchandise at his unveiling

For Stones, the big price tag and the weight of expectation clearly impacted his game and arguably it’s only in the last 12 months that he’s managed to answer his critics.

On the other hand, Holding’s modest fee saw the move mocked in comparison, a metaphor for the financial gap that was opening up between Wenger’s side and the rest of the ‘big-six’.

Yet Wenger was quick to defend his man, stating in the press conference that followed Arsenal’s match against Leicester in the early weeks of the season:

“Unfortunately, no one speaks about the performance of Rob Holding today, you should be happy, he’s English, he’s 20 years old. But I’m sorry he didn’t cost 55 million so he cannot be good.

“I believe he had an outstanding performance for a young boy playing in the Premier League for the first time today against top strikers.”

Holding was clearly a player for the future in Wenger’s eyes, yet he still handed the Manchester-born defender nine starts, racking up just over 800 minutes in the league, along with giving him the nod in that season’s FA Cup final victory (indeed I wouldn’t be surprised if Diego Costa still has nightmares of that game).

Yet over the next four seasons, Holding, owing to a combination of injuries and somewhat underwhelming performances, was never able to better those statistics from his first season.

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Never one to shy away from a conflict, Holding makes it clear to Diego Costa who’s in charge

However, the 2020/2021 campaign has been a very different story.

At the time of writing, Holding has clocked up 27 appearances in the league, for a total of 2288 minutes of football.

In that time, per game he has averaged a pass completion rate of 86%, won 2.5 of his aerial duels and completed 38 tackles (second only in the side to Granit Xhaka’s 47).

Whilst the nine clean sheets Arsenal have kept with him in the side is hardly a cause for great celebration, the leaky nature of the Gunners back line has at times been more down to individual errors by the likes of David Luiz and Bernd Leno than any misdemeanour on Holding’s part.

But crucially in a season where the team’s back line has come under so much scrutiny, Arteta has been able to call on the 25-year-old numerous times and Holding has repaid his trust.

A commanding voice in the backline, Holding has only been dribbled past five times in the Premier League and Europa League combined, along with rarely ever giving away a foul.

Some of his most memorable performances this season include a 0-0 against Manchester United at home, and the fan favourite 4-0 victory over West Brom away, in which Holding made seven clearances, two tackles and even grabbed an assist.

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It has been suggested that a sizeable amount of the game time afforded to Holding has arguably come from factors outside his control, be it through injuries (Luiz and Gabriel), suspensions (Luiz) or inexperience (Saliba).

But even so there is a certain calmness about Holding on the ball, with the centre-back having made no errors leading to a goal this season, unlike Xhaka (2) or Gabriel (1).

These dependable performances have not gone unnoticed by the powers that be, however, with Holding being awarded a new three-year contract, with the option for extra 12 months back in January.

Time will tell if Holding will remain as important to Arteta going forward, with all the rumours suggesting that the club are going to try and bring in more reinforcements to the centre-back role over the summer.

Yet this season he has shown just how crucial a player he is for Arsenal, being both content with flying under the radar and capable of stepping up when it matters most.


Feature image credit: Chensiyuan, Wiki Creature Commons Licence