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Rob Holding and the importance of heading

Mikel Arteta chose to rest Rob Holding against Sheffield United in Arsenal’s FA Cup quarterfinal, and while the Englishman is needed in the league, he was sorely missed. Holding illustrates the importance of an aerial presence in the team.

Against Southampton, Rob Holding earned Arsenal‘s Man of The Match, having won a more tackles than anyone on the pitch, and all of his aerial duels. His height, against a team so keyed for knockdowns and hold-up play, was a major asset.

Sheffield United have height and aerial ability in spades, and all of their big chances in the first half at Bramall Lane came off of set pieces, and from crosses and lofted balls, where they are strongest and Arsenal are not. David McGoldrick and Ollie McBurnie gave David Luiz no end of trouble, and the Brazilian pulled up in the 52nd minute, allowing Holding to take his place.

He immediately made an impact, throwing danger-man McBurnie off his stride on a few opportunities. His size in the center forced Sheffield United to play on the ground more often, allowing for a snappier Gunners side to control a much-improved Blades team from the one we faced in the first half.

One key moment occurred in the 74th, where Holding won three headers straight to deny Sheffield United clear opportunities on goal. His dominance started a counter attack that forced Jack Robinson to go to ground and gain an intentional yellow card to stop Eddie Nketiah from sprinting through on goal. McBurnie was so frustrated by his lack of service that he followed through on Kolasinac a few minutes later, drawing some cautionary words from the referee. Frustration is the name of the game, and Holding plays it well.

But it’s not all perfect for Holding. Arsenal have routinely struggled on set pieces and against crosses through the years, proven by agonizing defeat after agonizing defeat, and evidenced by David McGoldrick’s 87th minute goal, conceded by a spell of poor marking by Holding. The Englishman may show us something we don’t see often, but he, like every Arsenal center-back, is prone to a mistake. This is where William Saliba comes into the fray.

The 6’4″ Frenchman has been an island of calm in a very solid St. Etienne backline this season, and unlike what we as Arsenal fans are used to, rarely slips up, in the air or on the ground. He will provide us next season with something Rob Holding has hinted at since his 20th birthday, but never fully pulled to fruition.

Next: Youth is winning, and little else matters

Many of the teams we face and are contending with in the league—Burnley, Everton, Sheffield United, and Brighton, to name a few—rely on the combination of a front two creating chances for each other and holding up play for the midfielders. A tall, commanding defender who can disrupt play and cut channels in the air is a must-have in order to stall the opposition’s rhythm. Rob Holding is that man, and William Saliba will be even better.

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