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Rob Holding deserves more playing time

Rob Holding has started three games since the restart and has delivered standout performances in two of them. Now, it’s time for Mikel Arteta to give the Arsenal defender a consistent run of matches.

Rob Holding has never been a flawless defender. Even at the beginning of last season when he sustained his best purple patch to date in an Arsenal shirt, he got caught out at times. His confidence in his own ability meant he often took risks which left him scrambling back to attempt to stop onrushing attackers. But still, when he is at his best, he is the best central defender in the squad.

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During the coronavirus-induced pause, Arsenal started a series on their website called Arsenal Reloaded. This involved the club’s media team replaying classic encounters from the last few seasons. One of the games they showed was the fabulous 4-2 North London derby win of the 18/19 campaign. Amid a superb return from the likes of Lucas Torreira, Aaron Ramsey, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette, after rewatching the game, I realised one performance went severely under the radar.

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Holding looked far and away the best defender on the pitch. He rolled through the Spurs attack with ease and was calm and composed on the ball. The confidence in his passing he exemplified throughout Arsenal’s 22-game unbeaten run surmounted to an aura of arrogance developing around the player. And such trust in his own ability was justified. Despite taking countless risks, not a single one of his errors led to a goal. He was a man in form.

Then, disaster. Holding suffered a dreadful ACL tear which ruled him out of the remainder of the campaign. For the rest of the season, Unai Emery’s defence never looked quite as assured as it did during his early days. Why? People will point to the poor form of Shkodran Mustafi, the over-reliance on an ageing Laurent Koscielny and the injury to Hector Bellerin. These issues obviously contributed to such fragility at the back. However, the problems in defence started when Holding was injured, an injury which proved to be something of a fatal blow to Emery’s time at the Emirates.

Thus, due to good memories from the start of the 2018/19 season, fans had high hopes for Holding this season. In fact, so did Emery, portrayed by the fact that the Spaniard included Holding as one of his infamous ‘5 captains’. Unfortunately, with an ACL injury, it’s never as simple as recovering and returning to your best.

There are hiccups. There are lingering injury issues. There is a degree of fear which crawls into one’s game. Holding has suffered from all three of these inevitabilities. He looked very shaky prior to lockdown, perhaps partially caused by a lingering bruised knee problem, and he has dialled down the risk-taking in possession since his return.

For these reasons, many were fearful when he was selected to start against Brighton. Of course, the Brighton result was incredibly disappointing. But still, Holding was surprisingly decent. He deservedly kept his place against Southampton. Then, in that game, he was excellent. All the signs suggested Holding was about to push on and consolidate his position in the first team.

But no. After a calamitous performance at Manchester City, David Luiz regained his spot, somewhat unexpectedly, while Sead Kolasinac and Shkodran Mustafi were chosen ahead of him in the other central defensive positions. Holding was relegated to the bench. It’s probable that Kolasinac’s inclusion ahead of Holding is due to Arteta’s preference to start a left-footer at left centre-back. Nevertheless, the last couple of weeks must have been desperately disappointing for the 24-year-old.

Then, after an awful defensive display on the weekend against Spurs from the usual culprits, Arteta chose to make changes. Holding was welcomed back into the fold against Liverpool. Again, his passing did not look anywhere near as progressive as last year, but the Englishman defended wonderfully well. He won five of six tackle attempts, made two clearances, blocked two shots, won two of three aerial duels won and had one successful taunt of Sadio Mane. After such a performance, and allied with the inconsistent form of others in the squad, dropping him against Manchester City this weekend would be criminal.

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In fact, Holding should start each of the few Arsenal games remaining this season. It is clear that he has his defensive nouse back. Now he just needs to regain his confidence on the ball. This confidence will come through knowing that his boss has faith in him. Give him the game time, and the risk-taking Holding will be back in full flow in no time. After all that he has gone through over the last two years, he has earned this opportunity.

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