Why Arsenal are LUCKY to have Rob Holding – and why losing him would be a big mistake

Research tells us that when a population are stressed, their willingness to try new things is limited. They visit the same restaurants, choose the same table, the same food and drink the same wine, so to speak. Routine and experience provide stability in times of chaos — and as always, football imitates life. 

Or as I like to think of it, life imitates football.

Though often seen through a satirical lens, the Rob Holding ‘routine’ in Arsenal’s hours of need this season has proved very effective. When needing to see out a game, when under stress, Holding has proved adept at coming in as a “backs to the wall” defender to deal with aerial threats and snuff out late chances. Coming off the substitute’s bench 6 times in the Premier League this season, Arsenal have won 5 of those games and conceded 1 goal with Rob Holding on the pitch; Rodri’s winner against Manchester City.

But despite these often inspired cameos, a lot of Arsenal fans would probably tell you that if a decent offer arrived for Holding this summer, he should go. Some would say any offer would do. In our Fifa-inspired squad building fantasies, even the most ardent Holding fans probably aren’t willing to let him out of the departure lounge for too long.

And I think that shows something. I think it shows that most Arsenal fans really don’t know how lucky we are.

Rob Holding has seen his game time limited this season, and with good reason. Holding has played 90 minutes just 10 times in all competitions this season as Benjamin White and Gabriel Magalhæs at al have provided a respectable 13 clean sheets in the league. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. To assess Holding’s empirical value then, we must consider; What should we expect from a player who has lost their place?

That player will likely play a smaller percentage of the Premier League minutes and some cup football, so they should be able to provide cover for the players who play more, enabling rotation with as little drop off in quality as possible. They need the patience not to play every week. They need to be ready to come in at the drop of a hat, mid-game or otherwise and be professional enough to accept their role and not create a cultural issue. They would ideally have experience, be a calming influence and know their role slotting into the team inside out.

Sound familiar?

Holding is not perfect, but he is perfect for the part he now plays and Rob Holding’s specific qualities make him a secret weapon who stands out from other ‘rotational’ centre backs. Though Arsenal will certainly need a player to come in and match Gabriel and White more stylistically, be that Saliba or otherwise, Holding can be a different type of defender for different game states — surprisingly hard to find at the top level. According to football data site FBref, Holding is in the top 1% for successful ‘blocks’ & ‘shots blocked’ as well as the top 9% for ‘clearances’, all when compared to other central defenders in the top 5 leagues. He has also made 0 errors per 90 this season, is rarely dribbled past and tackles dribblers well.

If you’ll excuse the pun, for ‘holding’ on to leads, playing predominantly in your own third and looking to remain compact… he is the ace in our proverbial deck. And the kicker is – there aren’t many like him at the top clubs. If you’re looking for stylistic similarity on the metrics mentioned above, the data has you looking at players like Grant Hanley at Norwich and Chris Smalling — not good enough for a top club.

So why is he a secret weapon? 

Look around. Manchester City have a group of expensively assembled centre backs who all are dependable on the ball — but no one who is perfect to come on in a ‘siege’ game state, hunker down and see out a game under a lot of intense pressure. You could argue they rarely end up in that situation, but I bet they would have liked a Rob Holding on 88 minutes against Real Madrid the other night. Chelsea lack that profile of player too, and while Liverpool rarely end up in that situation as their centre backs are more well rounded it’s a similar story there as well. Manchester United… the less said the better.

Moreover, if those clubs wanted someone to come in with those qualities, it would be almost impossible to go into negotiations for someone to only give them the amount of minutes Holding plays, with the profile and quality you’re after to tackle those game states and indeed who’s willing to sign a long term deal like Holding has.

From a mental and cultural point of view in terms of recruitment, do you want someone who would be happy with that squad role at a top club? Maybe not, and you could levy that argument at Holding himself, sure. But the reports around the training ground speak of an excellent trainer, a popular figure, and someone who advocates for their team mates — especially as an outspoken ally, something we need more of. To replace his match-saving abilities with the minutes on offer, you would probably only be able to promote from the academy or sign a young player with a high ceiling — none of which are as good as having the experience already there. The club even have an option to extend his contract to 2025. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

As I say, Arsenal will definitely need more stylistic analogs to White and Gabriel at some point. But I’m also slightly pigeon-holing Holding as a one dimensional ‘old-school’ defender only suitable for one game state; which is a little unkind on Holding’s ability on the ball. That may have been his starring role this season, but that’s certainly not all he can do. Because the best part of this all is that he’s actually a far more well-rounded defender than people give him credit for.

This data is from last season as there was a bigger sample size in terms of minutes played — credit to Scott Willis.

His strengths are obvious, but what might be less obvious is how well rounded he is, as this shows. How progressive he can be, and his potential in terms of attack value added. His low ‘dribbled past’ and ‘interception’ metrics compared to this season may be explained by his different role last season, tasked with what we might now see as more of Benjamin White’s responsibilities. But take a look at the data for Benjamin White, and you’ll see that Holding isn’t too far behind him in the things we think White is best at… maybe for another article.

The other side to this is the cost analysis. According to Spotrac, Rob Holding is currently earning around £40,000 per week – an annual salary of just over £2m per year. To put that into context of other centre backs who have played 25 games or less in all competitions this season at the top clubs, Joe Gomez at Liverpool earns £75,000 a week, Eric Bailly earns £82,000 a week and Nathan Ake at Manchester City earns around £92,000 per week. The average Premier League player earns around £3.2m in salary pre tax – £1m more than Holding earns. 

So Holding is cost-effective and reliable. Replacing him would be expensive and time consuming in a summer market where Arsenal will have a lot to do.

Money is money though — character is everything.

In a recent media day with Aaron Ramsdale, completing responsibilities for the likes of BT Sport and Sky, he displayed excellent rapport with Aaron and a lovely open nature with the interviewers, often helping them by elaborating on their questions to offer more insight. He speaks openly, clearly and seems ‘on board’, laughing and joking. Taking part in an another Sky Sports interview a while ago, he displayed an impressive awareness of the Arsenal Women’s team. He is clearly comfortable at London Colney.

But in light of the manager’s new deal, the most important thing is what Mikel thinks. After Holding’s heroics at Wolves earlier on in the season, Mikel said: “His attitude, his commitment to the team whether he plays every week or plays one minute, it’s incredibly good. He’s a really good influence for the rest. Thanks to him we won the game.” 

Mikel knows it’s extremely hard to find someone in the prime of their career at 26, with qualities both on and off the pitch like Rob Holding — we are very lucky. 

Football is a squad game, and there are a lot of mercenaries around as Arsenal have discovered. You don’t compete for a league title or indeed win anything with 11 players. Characters like Mohamed Elneny & Holding create a supportive framework for the team to flourish. They love Arsenal. They support your wage structure, protect and nurture your young players as well as providing an example and they give you reliability in performance. They may not be the leather seats on the private jet, but you wouldn’t want to jump out of it if you didn’t trust your parachute. 

As for whether we should decide to move him on from the club perspective, there may come a time where Arsenal are ready to do so. When the squad is less fragile, it may be right. But we’ve seen this season that even a few injuries threaten to derail the excellent work that Mikel and his staff are doing. Removing stability, removing routine and experience too soon could create chaos and stress. I for one will want Holding there to see out games next season for us. In a side full of kids, we need as many dads as we can get.

This is not to say Holding is un-ambitious. I am sure he will be wanting to play more minutes at some point. It’s to say be careful what you wish for. Because holding onto Holding just makes sense. For £2m, we have certainly extracted a lot of value. 

Let’s keep drinking the same wine just as long as we can get it.

I’m only sorry he didn’t cost £55m — so he cannot be good. 

Alexander Moneypenny (@DiffKnock)

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