“He’s English, he’s 20-years-old, but I am sorry he did not cost £55 million so he can’t be good.”
Arsene Wenger’s comment on Rob Holding after Arsenal’s 0-0 draw away to then reigning champions Leicester City in late August was not only a classic Wenger quip, but it proved to the media, and to fans, that the price tag does not define the quality of a player.
The specific fee of £55 million was a reference to the amount John Stones left Everton for to join Manchester City in the same transfer window, £53 million less than what Arsenal paid Bolton Wanderers for the signing of Holding.
Although Stones performed well in his debut season for City, making 27 appearances in the league and even scoring in the Champions League against Monaco, it’s clear to see that Arsenal got the better deal with Holding in terms of value for money.
Value out of nothing
Not much was expected of Holding when he signed for the Gunners. The Bolton born-and-bred defender was seen as nothing more as a defensive signing to bolster the numbers should something happen to Laurent Koscielny or Per Mertesacker. The late arrival of Shkodran Mustafi in the transfer window further cemented Holding’s squad status as merely a backup.
But, as things normally go at the club, injuries occurred, specifically to Koscielny, Gabriel Paulista, and Mertesacker at the start of the season, meaning that Holding was thrown into the deepest of deep ends in his first professional game as an Arsenal player, lining up alongside Calum Chambers, against Liverpool.
As you would expect, Arsenal lost, 4-3 to be exact. However, the individual performance of Holding was positive in the opening day defeat. Had it not been for the brilliance of Sadio Mane complimented with the rustiness of Nacho Monreal, the game could have ended a lot differently.
Holding started the next two games for the Gunners, away to Leicester in a stalemate, and away to Watford in a 3-1 win, this time alongside Koscielny on both occasions, and it soon became clear that Holding was more than just a cheap pickup to make up the numbers.
A change to the system
For most of the season, Holding was seen as a squad player. The defender to pick during cup games, the defender to bring on in the 85th minute to close out the game. But that all changed when Wenger made the most unpredictable change in a long time, changing the system to a three at the back.
Wenger is a stubborn manager, everyone and their mother's know that, but to see the Frenchman actually cave into a trend is something that rarely if ever happens. And that’s what happened away to Middlesbrough in mid-April.
Not only did the 3-4-3 actually work for the Gunners, as Arsenal won nine out of their ten games using the new system, but it allowed Holding to break into the first team, as the 21-year-old made eight appearances in the run in.
A surprising Cup run
There were fears that Holding would not be able to handle the pressure, that the quality upfront for both teams would be too much for a player that only a year ago was playing against Cardiff City.
But not only did Holding impress in both games, he looked like a man playing way beyond his years. In the semi-final against City, Holding made marking Sergio Agüero look easy, with Holding even managing to beat the Argentine for speed and strength in the game at Wembley. And in the final, Holding kept Diego Costa in his back pocket for most of the 90 minutes
The future for Holding
But what does the future hold for the young centre back? The next logical step would be to clamp down a place in the starting XI, and that all depends on what system Wenger constructs next season.
If Wenger goes back to a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-3-3, there is no chance Holding will get a sniff of the first team in Premier League games. But with Arsenal competing in uncharted territory in the form of the Europa League for the first time since 2000 next season, Wenger might do the logical thing and play the younger players on the fringe of the first team in this competition, which means minutes and European experience for Holding.
However, if Wenger decides to keep on using three at the back, the Frenchman may be keen to keep Holding in the starting XI due to how well the England youth international has flourished in the new system.
And with recent rumours suggesting that Gabriel could be on his way out of the club, Holding could be given more opportunities to thrive and develop in the Arsenal first team should the Brazilian defender leave the club.
Arsenal in recent years have been unlucky with players in recent years who were unable to realise their potential. But with Holding, things seem to be a lot different with the player that Wenger has touted to be a future Arsenal captain, and a future England superstar.