With Arsenal’s first pre-season fixture out of the way, the need for reinforcements for our final third is as clear as ever. With all now quiet on the striker front, column inches pile up about Riyad Mahrez with a bewildering array of entirely contradictory theories emerging daily.
Among all the desperation for a goal scorer, Stan Collymore telling us we need bigger names than Sanchez or Ozil, and Monsieur Wenger’s poker face, it’s easy to forget that another player had arrived, if relatively under the radar.
As a transfer, the signing of young defender Rob Holding is not a sexy one. A defender with only one season of Championship football behind him, and that in a team spiralling out of control off and on the pitch, ultimately plummeting through the trap-door to League One, Holding is not much of a gossip columnist’s wet dream. Most of us had never heard of him until the links with Arsenal first started in late April.
At a time where the need for a mood-boosting signing, and especially a striker, remains paramount, some relatively anonymous kid from a failing team doesn’t get the pulse racing.
But, like one of Picasso’s sculptures, the longer you look at it, the more sense it starts to make, for a number of reasons.
Age: At just 20, Holding is the perfect age bracket for a squad player relatively low down the pecking order. Not only does it increase the likelihood of continuing the dramatic development of a player expected to only make a handful of appearances last season, but it also has no impact on the 25-man senior squad size limits. It also allows the player to learn ‘The Arsenal Way’ whilst retaining a strong foundation developed elsewhere.
Versatility: Without sounding all Callum Chambers, Holding is almost as comfortable at full-back as he is at centre-half and has sufficient technical ability to step into a holding midfield role if required. Unless you are Fabregas-good as a teenager, it is this versatility that affords younger players opportunities to impress at a club of Arsenal’s size.
Pedigree: This may seem an odd word to use in relation to someone whose debut was 11 months ago, but Holding was Bolton’s player of the Year last season, in a squad not lacking in established young talent (though sadly for them riddled with injuries and mediocre veterans). He was also one of their only players to maintain any consistency during managerial changes, financial meltdown and unpaid wages. He also looked comfortable alongside Chambers at England’s victorious appearance at this summer’s u21 Toulon tournament. This isn’t like when we signed über-Gooner Carl Jenkinson, who had a grand total of seven league starts for Charlton, filling in a number of positions in an injury crisis. Holding went from untried kid to undisputed first choice in a few weeks.
Nationality: Without coming over all UKIP, there is a reason why ‘The British Core’ was so vaunted and why they are all still at the club despite mixed performances. Every team needs a decent home-grown contingent, and not just for issues of identity and club culture. Quite apart from the fact that younger, developing players tend to get more leeway at Arsenal if they are English, there is also the simple fact of the domestic quota system. And given the massive price and wage premium on comparatively mediocre English talent, recruiting them young and cheaply is a wise policy.
League familiarity: It’s often underestimated, but there are a huge amount of issues faced by players coming from overseas, not least different standards of acceptable physicality, refereeing interpretations and linguistic subtleties. As has been well documented, Arsenal have been behind the eight ball at times in terms of mining the lower leagues, as the likes of Leicester and Spurs have highlighted this season. It’s good to see the Arsenal scouts look inward as well as outward.
Style: Holding is a very competitive and robust but technically very competent defender, with an ability to bring the ball out of defence like Koscielny and a similar penchant for interceptions, with only three players in the division averaging more per game. Stylistically he has a lot in common with rumoured £60m man John Stones, but trades off a little of the Everton man’s height, smoothness and economy of movement for physicality, organisation and, frankly, less messing about in dangerous areas.
Character: Not only did Holding maintain and even improve his form as Bolton’s season descended into tragic farce but both his managers and teammates made regular references to his maturity and strength of personality. He also found himself as the team’s chief defensive organiser after only a few games. This may well be a reflection of the chaos that engulfed Bolton, but it clearly suggests that Holding is a young man happy to take personal responsibility.
All the above add up to an intriguing package, particularly at a fee reported to be around the £2m mark, which pretty much guarantees a future appreciation in value unless things go horribly wrong.
Having been given a first team squad number in Rambo’s old number 16 shirt, Holding is clearly in the manager’s plans for the coming season.
Of course, the hope is that the young Mancunian’s signing will seem like a footnote come the end of August, but from the few snippets of games I’ve seen from him, and the consistency of positive comments from Bolton management, players and fans suggest that this transfer may be a significant one over the coming seasons. And at the very worst, it shows the club are trying to explore more avenues than has sometimes been the case.
Now chaps, about that striker we mentioned…