Saturday, February 4, 2023

Rob Holding his own

Morning all, wherever you are, I hope you’re well, you and yours are safe, healthy and not biting your nails too badly.

We have Europa League football tomorrow night as Molde FK come to visit. Mikel Arteta will meet the press (virtually) later on, so we should have some bits and pieces of team news, and perhaps some other interesting snippets to cover for you. It feels a bit like we’re seeing the squad split in two for these fixtures. Chances are we’ll put out a starting XI tomorrow made up entirely of players who didn’t start against Man United on Sunday.

More chances for young players like Reiss Nelson and Joe Willock, who were so good against Dundalk, but also for the likes of Granit Xhaka, Dani Ceballos and Nicolas Pepe, who have to react to the fact they’ve slipped a little in the pecking order. It will be very interesting to see how they deal with that.

It’s likely to be a bit of a makeshift defence again, and I thought the fact we brought back Rob Holding earlier than expected from a hamstring strain was interesting. First, it’s because he was fit, you don’t risk a guy in a game like Man Utd if you’re not confident he can make it through the full 90, but it also – to my mind at least – saw Mikel Arteta choose him over Shkodran Mustafi. Yes, the German has been out a long time, but he played an hour against Dundalk, and that might been to ensure his fitness for the next game.

As it turns out, it was Holding given the nod, and there were signs that he and Gabriel could have the makings of an interesting partnership. Arsenal basically played with a back four at Old Trafford, and there’s a lot of spotlight on the Brazilian because he’s been quite eye-catching so far this season. That’s partly because he’s new and we all like new things, but also because of the way he plays. The aggressive, combative displays have seen him take on his opponents in defensive duels – it’s one of his most striking attributes.

Yet, when you look at the stats, they’re interesting. In 575 Premier League minutes, Gabriel has been involved in 27 defensive duels with a win-rate of 59.3%. In all competitions (which includes a game each in the Carabao Cup and the Europa League) that rises to 35 in 767 minutes with a very similar win rate of 60%.

Meanwhile, Holding has 382 Premier League minutes and been involved in 43 defensive duels with a win rate of 58.1%, and in all competitions (665 minutes), hes had 72 with a win rate of 59.7%. Now, that might be in part because teams are choosing to attack that side of our defence because they want to avoid Gabriel or they feel it’s weaker, but it’s interesting all the same.

What do other metrics tell us? Well, Holding has won 23 ‘Aerial duels’ (win rate 39.1%) to Gabriel’s 31 (win rate 67.7%), so there’s a significant difference there. The Brazilian has made 3/4 sliding tackles to Holding’s none; clearances are 25 to 26; 7 fouls each; and Holding’s 42 interceptions are bettered by Gabriel’s 52.

In terms of passing, there’s not a lot of difference in terms of overall accuracy (Holding 88.4% to Gabriel’s 91.7%) but in terms of volume it’s 397 for the former and 665 for the latter. That’s more than any other Arsenal player so far this season, just edging out Xhaka, so I’m curious to see how the opposition react to that in the weeks and months ahead. Will they target him with greater pressing/closing down? If they do, and if Holding continues to partner him, is that aspect of his game solid enough to take some of that pressure off.

I suspect, in the short-term at least, Arteta still has a slight preference for David Luiz, because of his experience and passing range. However, at 33, with the legs creaking a bit, and injury absences becoming a touch more frequent, that’s a position he has to give serious consideration too.

Another thing to point out is that Holding has come back into the fold in a kind of unexpected way. He had been linked very strongly with a loan move to Newcastle, but with Sokratis out in the cold, Mustafi and Pablo Mari injured, and William Saliba not considered ready for any kind of significant action yet, he was needed and he stayed. He’s had a difficult time since the cruciate ligament injury he picked up at Old Trafford almost two years ago, so there was pleasing symmetry to his performance there on Sunday, and his willingness to push himself to be fit rather than simply wait the prescribed three weeks given to any kind of muscle strain will have made Arteta happy I’m sure.

As has been pointed out, in terms of goals conceded we have the best record in the Premier League this season. It’s still not perfect, but it’s definitely improved. The next thing is to work on that goals scored column, because it needs it in a big way, but we had to address our shakiness at the back and for the most part we’ve done that. It’s a collective effort, of course, but within that individuals like Holding and Gabriel have been important, let’s hope they can keep it up.

And for this morning, I’ll leave you with the resplendent image conjured up on the Arsecast Extra this week, and brought to life by the wonderful Poorly Drawn Arsenal, of Rob Holding, leaping like a central-defensive salmon. Till tomorrow.


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