FA Cup final, 2017. The match was barely underway when Rob Holding was already hustling and hounding Diego Costa – Chelsea’s ‘A’ class shithouse. As the two tangled together, the Spaniard brought him down and wildly flailed a leg, just missing the defender. Holding, having been warned by Per Mertesacker of Costa’s antics before the game, gave a knowing smile and pointed to his head as if to say “I can do this all game”. He was in his element.
Having arrived from Bolton Wanderers that season on a fee of £2 million, the then 21-year-old was thrust into a back-three for the first time in the final and looked a revelation. “This man has just stepped in there today, his first FA Cup final and he’s just bossed it like it’s nothing” gushed Alex-Oxlade Chamberlain as the Gunners began their on-pitch celebrations at Wembley. “Future of Arsenal.”
Things were to be more complicated than that, however, with Holding continuously suffering injuries in the following seasons, including an anterior cruciate ligament rupture in 2018. Despite the young central defender initially showing great promise, he featured little for the Gunners over the next few seasons, never playing more than 12 league games.
When he did start on the odd occasion, the Englishman’s rustiness showed and without the hype that comes with youth, sections of the fan base dismissed his potential and acknowledged his time at the club was drawing to a close.
This season already marks a career high in Premier League appearances for Holding and he looks to have to overcome his niggles. Having played a consistent run of games lately, his recently formed partnership with Pablo Mari has played an integral role in Arsenal’s run of three wins on the trot. The duo, who appear to be Mikel Arteta’s first choice pairing for the time being, have conceded only once in the three matches – a massive turnaround from the side’s late-autumn woes.
Holding, whilst admittedly not being tested much against Brighton and West Brom, looked assured when playing out from the back and made little to no defensive errors – more than what can be expected of Arsenal’s other options. Now, as if the club hierarchy has seen enough to be convinced of what he brings to the side, there is talk that a new long-term contract in the works for the 25-year-old.
For such a positive recent run and enthusiasm having returned to fans, though, the news was met with mixed responses across social media and the reasons were understandable. Despite the ‘better than Cannavaro’ chants, Holding is unlikely to win you a league title. He doesn’t have the pace nor the physical attributes to deal with whatever is thrown at him week-in week-out. It was only a couple of months ago that he was slated for some awful defending against Aston Villa’s Ross Barkley.
Whilst fans see the future in new signing Gabriel – tenacity, aggression and excellent tackling – Holding is the un-sexy centre-back option, the equivalent of when your mum says “There’s rice at home”. Likewise, Holding’s distribution skills are a way behind David Luiz and even Shkodran Mustafi, being skilled enough to play out from the back but ultimately lacking those line-breaking passes to the forwards.
Another factor in people’s frustration towards Holding’s possible future role at the club is tied with the calamitous William Saliba situation. Saliba arrived and fans expected Virgin van Dijk. Instead, he’s been sent out on loan to Nice with his future up in the air. The attitude towards Holding being Arsenal’s starting right-sided centre-back is perhaps more of a protest against the poor decision making and signings at the club in recent years than his actual performance levels.
So, if he were to sign a new contract as planned, what would Holding bring to Arsenal in the long and short-term? For one, consistency. He’s capable of executing Arteta’s tactical requirements without looking out of place (Sokratis) and doesn’t give you heart palpitations by feeling the need to dive into challenges (Mustafi and Luiz).
Now midway through his fifth season at Arsenal, not only is Holding a home-grown English central defender – a rarity at elite level – he brings much-needed experience to an otherwise youthful side. Having someone who knows first-team pressure and what it means to start for the club around can only be a good thing for the young guns who are blossoming in their own right.
Still, perhaps the most crucial thing is that keeping Holding buys Arsenal more time for Saliba to come good. Arsenal bought the 19-year-old for £27 million and whilst he’s clearly not deemed ready for Premier League football, Arsenal would be foolish to waste such a big investment. For now, Holding is a proven and reliable constant amongst so many other variables.