Although it was Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain who took the headlines after his brace against Reading, Arsenal’s best performer was arguably at the other end of the field. Despite being the youngest member of Arsenal’s back four, Rob Holding was absolutely outstanding in the 2-0 victory.
It’s worth tempering the praise by pointing out the quality of the opposition. This was a Championship side, and one starved of possession for long periods of the game. However, Holding’s performance was no anomaly, and he has already shown that he can excel at Premier League level, playing 90 minutes as Arsenal kept a clean sheet away to champions Leicester back in August.
Since then, Arsenal have acquired Shkodran Mustafi. The German’s arrival, along with the return to fitness of Gabriel Paulista, have seen Holding’s first-team opportunities limited. Nevertheless, every time he is called upon his potential is obvious. Signed for a couple of million pounds from Bolton, he looks an absolute steal.
What’s most striking about the 21-year-old is his composure—both with and without the ball. He never looks flustered. Against Reading, he demonstrated a new string to his bow when he began bringing the ball out of defence and starting Arsenal’s passing moves from deep. Despite being nearly five years younger than Gabriel Paulista, he played like the senior partner.
He’s strong in the air too. At 6’2”, he’s an intimidating physical specimen, capable of towering above all but the tallest strikers. He might not be the quickest, but he has a preternatural ability to read the game. Holding rarely resorts to last-ditch interventions, instead proffering to intercept the danger at source.
In many respects he is reminiscent of Arsenal skipper Per Mertesacker. However, given the capabilities he is demonstrating at such a tender age, it’s not beyond the realm of possibility to imagine he might prove to be a better all-round footballer than his German team-mate.
Much will depend on how he develops over the next few years. Arsene Wenger does not have the best record when it comes to educating young centre-halves. His best defenders have typically been either inherited, such as Tony Adams or Martin Keown, or bought, as in the case of Sol Campbell. In his two decades at the helm he’s had a succession of gifted young centre-backs—Mathew Upson, Philippe Senderos, Johan Djourou and others—who’ve never come close to fulfilling their potential with the Gunners.
Arsenal fans will desperately hope Holding’s career pans out differently. The key for Wenger is striking a balance between affording him the first-team football he needs to develop and preventing him from suffering from over-exposure. The Swiss pair of Senderos and Djourou had plenty of promise, but their confident was irreparably damaged by being thrown regularly into the limelight too soon.
Right now, Holding is a good position. In Mertesacker, Gabriel, Laurent Koscielny and Shkodran Mustafi, Arsenal have a quartet of senior centre-backs to rely upon. Holding can be dropped into the first team for the occasional cup game, slowly accumulating the experience that will gradually ready him for regular football. 21 is young for a centre-back—he may not reach his prime for several seasons yet.
In the long run, a loan spell could be beneficial. It would allow Holding to iron out any inadequacies in his game away from the dazzling lights of the Emirates Stadium. It’s an approach Wenger never employed with Senderos and Djourou, but he appears to be more open to the benefits of the loan system now. Right now, Calum Chambers is stationed at Middlesbrough—when he returns next season, Holding could be allowed to move elsewhere.
His long-term future, however, is surely with Arsenal. The Gunners spent the best part of £100 million this summer accumulating an array of outstanding global talent. However, the boy from Bolton is still managing to make his presence felt. The future of Arsenal’s defence could rest safe at Holding’s outrageously composed feet.