15 months after his ACL injury at Old Trafford, Rob Holding still isn’t playing regularly for Arsenal, but arguably that’s not a bad thing for him or the club.
In that brief period of Unai Emery’s early tenure at Arsenal when it seemed like things might actually go well, Rob Holding was one of the key components of the side.
Coming into the team after an injury to Sokratis, Holding made 16 appearances in 17 consecutive matches for Arsenal. As you may remember, the Gunners didn’t lose a single one of those games. Then, the centre-back tore his ACL.
No one is under any delusions about how serious a knee ligament tear is. We all know it means six to nine (realistically, nine) months out, and a slow return to full fitness after that. Expectations with Holding were warped by the circumstances though.
With Arsenal’s defence performing so poorly, the fans often wistfully cast their minds back to that wonderful unbeaten run and the centre-back who played such a big part in it.
The supporters were counting down the days until his return. They wanted to believe he’d immediately step out onto the pitch at his old level as soon as nine months were up.
This rose-tinted view of Holding only got worse when he eventually did return. Against a severely underperforming Nottingham Forest side that day in September, the defender played 90 minutes, kept a clean sheet and even scored. It couldn’t have gone better.
The centre-back followed that up with a clean sheet against Standard Liege in another dominant Arsenal win. That was as many clean sheets as Emery’s side had kept in the previous 15 games before Holding’s comeback.
Unfortunately, this raised expectations above the level they should have been at.
As Gunnerblog mentioned in a recent article, the experts expect player recovery to take six months medically, nine months physically and a year psychologically.
Holding was nowhere near the year mark then, nor when he came crashing back down to earth in the 5-5 at Anfield, the narrow 3-2 win over Vitoria or even the 2-0 Premier League defeat to Leicester.
The problem was that we expected and needed him to be ready for those games. He should’ve been picking up minutes here and there, coming off early, avoiding the trips to Anfield or the King Power Stadium. But we needed him, so he played.
After that, the defender had to deal with a setback to his knee, with bruising keeping him out from early November until the end of 2019. He’s back again now, but still not playing regularly, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing.
Arteta has options now
There’s currently no necessity to start Holding. Shkodran Mustafi is in unexpectedly good form and David Luiz is playing well. Sokratis Papastathopoulos is ready to fill in if either of those two need a rest.
What’s more, Pablo Mari joined on loan in January and had a positive debut against Portsmouth on Monday. He may well find himself a regular starter, if for no other reason than the fact he’s left-footed and good on the ball.
If Arsenal ever suffer an injury or two at the back in a given match, Granit Xhaka is proving capable of filling in.
There’s no footballing reason to rush Holding into a game he isn’t ready for.
If he needs more matches with the u23s, that’s not a problem. If he needs a few substitute appearances before he’s ready to start regularly again, put him on the bench and wait for the right moment.
The important thing is we take this at Holding’s pace, so he can feel comfortable and avoid further setbacks. That’s the only way I see for him to regain his psychological edge. There’s no point unnecessarily trying to force it with him.
Better to take things step-by-step for now and have him back to his best next season. A low-key few months, a break and a full pre-season schedule would do him good.