Community Shield in the bag, two new central defenders lying in wait to take his place.
Or so we thought. A sudden u-turn with the future of Rob Holding came about in classic Arsenal fashion, as five of the eight central defenders in the squad were injured. Very little changes, except for the year.
The injury to David Luiz will have played some part in the decision to ease off loaning Holding out to Newcastle, yet it’s a fair to assume that William Saliba isn’t quite ready for Premier League football just yet.
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Left out of the squad entirely, the only defender on the bench for the Gunners was Sead Kolasinac. Big things are expected of our ‘French Van Djik’ (one of the numerous overzealous tags attached to any young player who has attracted attention from more than one top-flight side). Yet it’s clear to see he isn’t there yet.
That will come, and we’ll all bask in his undoubted brilliance in the not too distant future, but in the current groove, it’s Holding’s name who fits the bill in defence.
What role will that be? Can we safely assume that once Luiz is back from injury – it’s rumoured to be anywhere up to six weeks sidelined – that Holding will drop out and return to his more frequent spot alongside the water bottles? Very probably, yes. But until that time, his role will be utterly vital in reshaping the public image of himself, as well as mentoring his new Brazilian partner.
Watching the pair celebrate wildly after Gabriel Magalhaes got off the mark at Craven Cottage is the kind of wholesome content we, as fans, yearn for. In the weeks building up, it’s clear that Holding and Gabriel have been working close together to ensure every facet of their partnership was up to scratch, even more so than with Kieran Tierney.
In possession, Arsenal fluctuated to a back four, with the brunt of the distribution duties falling on Gabriel’s lap. He was the one who would carry the ball a few yards forward, before zipping a low pass into the feet of the forward line.
Holding’s role was based more on containment than creation.
He’s not an exceptional passer of the ball. Other traits he boasts can be considered as solid, but with the ball on he floor he doesn’t have the accuracy, mobility or the range to drive forward and feed balls into advanced areas. It’s evident that Mikel Arteta knows this too, bestowing the lion’s share of those duties on his new debutant.
By that reckoning, you could foresee Gabriel teaching his English teammate a thing or two. Not the other way around.
This is not the case, though. It was the 24-year-old who has instructing his fellow centre-half on which positions to take up. Ensuring the line was straight and avenues in behind cut off, Holding marshalled the new boy using probably the ten or so defender-related words he’s garnered a decent grasp of so far.
As a duo their qualities differ, but just because we’ll see Gabriel getting attacks in motion more often does not diminish Holding’s role in this all. Although, we did see our Rob turn into prime Thierry Henry in that second half. They’re clearly rubbing off on each other.
In regards to the rest of the season, depending on the development of Saliba, Holdinho could even become a regular starter. Whether Arteta persists with the impressive Ainsley Maitlnd-Niles as left wing-back or moves Tierney into that role when other defenders become available for selection will be interesting to see.
If that is the case, then a Gabriel-Luiz-Holding back three could became the mainstay for league duties this season. Should Saliba be integrated slowly, perhaps more in cup and European affairs, then Holding’s slot as the regular centre-back could be the springboard for a return to former form.
Is he good enough to be a top four defender? There are flaws to his game that suggest otherwise. But as the league draws on and he gets minutes under his belt, the progression being made in the club’s transfer strategy and with Arteta’s selection headaches could be made easier by continued 7/10 displays from the former Bolton man.