Rob Holding is in line for his first Arsenal senior appearance since his horror injury suffered against Manchester United in December 2018. Arsenal fans, myself included, have been eagerly anticipating his return as a huge upgrade on our current back-line. Recently, however, I’ve started to ask myself why I think this relative novice will be an improvement on two fully-fledged internationals with 146 caps between them. Yes, he was promising before the injury, but he was not world-class, which is how many fans expect him to return. I fear that Holding will not be able to live up to the high expectations that Arsenal fans have of him, and here’s why.
The unbeaten run
Where I think the key misconception about “Rob Holdini” began was actually when he was not playing. Injured on the 5th December 2018, Arsenal saw their 22 game unbeaten run come to an end 11 days, and two games, later. Therefore, it is easy to associate the Mancunian with three points and by extension, defensive solidity. Dig below the surface, however, and this idea very quickly comes undone.
The unbeaten run Arsenal went on was not based on a watertight rearguard- they conceded 19 goals in this period, including against teams such as Cardiff (2) and Vorskla Poltava (Also 2). For comparison, 2nd place Liverpool conceded 22 across the entire league season. Holding was on the pitch for 15 of the 22 games unbeaten, in which Arsenal conceded 12 goals. This equates to 0.8 goals per game, compared to 1 per game conceded when he did not play. A small improvement then, but not an incredible difference, and certainly not a massive upgrade.
Wider Defensive issues
Of course, he is not solely responsible for conceding goals, nor were all of the 12 goals his fault. One example is Arsenal’s 2-2 draw with Crystal Palace, where both Shkodran Mustafi and Granit Xhaka conceded penalties, neither of which had anything to do with Rob. Therefore a case can be made for this statistic being unfair on the Mancunian.
Surely, if Arsenal lost so soon after he got injured, he must have been key, right? This is not so. Arsenal went into the game in question (a 3-2 defeat to Southampton) with a whole host of defensive injuries and suspensions, not just Holding. Emery was forced to field a back three comprising of Laurent Koscielny, Granit Xhaka and Stephan Lichtsteiner. T
he only recognised centre-back, Koscielny, was making his first appearance back from an injury lay-off. That back three was always going to be a recipe for disaster, and I was honestly surprised that they only conceded three. Had any other centre-backs, not just Holding, been fit, it could have been a different story.
In addition to this misconception, you have to look at the calibre of the opponents faced. Five of Holding’s appearances came against bottom-half opposition, a further five against mediocre Europa League opposition, and one more against Championship Brentford. He, of course, has no control over the opposition, but it seems unfair for Arsenal fans to expect so much from a centre-half who will be coming back from a long injury layoff and who, whilst promising, was not incredible last season.
Better than bad?
It is incredibly difficult to judge a centre-back based on statistics- ask anyone who has compared Mustafi and Virgil Van Dijk‘s statistics for the 2018/19 season. Perhaps crucially though in Arsenal’s case is the “errors leading to goals” column. Unsurprisingly, Granit Xhaka and Shkodran Mustafi lead the way for the Gunners.
By contrast, Rob Holding is yet to commit such an error, which suggests that perhaps he is able to concentrate more than the Swiss or German international. His ability to not make stupid decisions, combined with his conservative nature of defending means that perhaps his performances are blown out of proportion. For example, he committed fewer fouls per 90 than either Mustafi or Sokratis last season. This is because he is not as prone to diving into challenges.
On the other hand, however, both the German and the Greek ended the season with higher average match ratings according to Whoscored. The sample size available for Holding surely skews this statistic, but given the opposition that he faced it is surprisingly, perhaps worryingly low.
The bottom line
My entire article may have seemed like a criticism of Rob Holding, leading to the conclusion that he is not good enough. The truth is very much the opposite. I think that Rob Holding is a good defender who should start for Arsenal. This is not least because he is the least impulsive defender that the club possesses, but also because at 23 he is the most likely to improve in the future.
The aim of this article has been to provide a dose of realism to the Arsenal fans who think that he will solve the club’s defensive issues single-handedly. Arsene Wenger famously taunted ‘i’m sorry he didn’t cost 55m, so he can’t be good’ after one of his performances. He is good, but he still has a long way to go, and high expectations on players can lead to problems down the line.
Realistically, this season he won’t live up to the high expectations that we as a fan base have set him. However, they are so high that its okay if he falls short, as he will still prove a valuable addition to Arsenal’s defensive ranks.