A gruelling season of transition and attrition for both Chelsea and Arsenal will culminate in an all England Europa league final.
Yesterday was a good day to be Arsenal fan for what felt like the first time in months.
A hard-fought victory over Manchester City at Wembley sealed a record 20th FA Cup final appearance for the Gunners. The 2-1 victory (after extra time) was achieved in a belligerent style not usually associated with Arsene Wenger’s teams – there was defensive organisation, calmness under pressure and a physicality that has been notably absent of late.
Central to this improved defensive attitude was the performance of 21-year-old centre back Rob Holding.
Holding has impressed whenever he has played this season. His calm and patient style of defending has been a welcome contrast to the all or nothing style of Shkodran Mustafi. However, it was an injury to £35-million summer signing – combined with a tactical switch to three at the back – which persuaded Arsene Wenger to give the young defender a chance.
It would have been easy for Wenger to revert to a back four against City yesterday – trusting the more experienced heads of Laurent Koscielny and Gabriel. That he stuck with Holding shows the immense faith the Arsenal manager has in the young man. His faith was repaid with one of the most assured displays from a young defender you are ever likely to see.
For much of the first half Arsenal were forced to defend deep – allowing City to have possession of the ball in front of what was essentially a 5-4-1 formation. What stood out from Holding’s performance was his patience as part of that five man defensive unit.
Playing on the left of the back three he was often required to move out to wide areas and support left back Nacho Monreal. However, not once during the first half did we see Holding make a rash decision. When needed he stepped out of defence to make interceptions – snuffing out City attacks in their infancy.
However, he was never caught out of position trying to win balls that were not there to be won. In addition his ability to stay on his feet and stay in front of his man – forcing the attacker to make a decision – was an impressive feature of his play.
Too often this season Arsenal defenders have slid to ground recklessly – essentially beating themselves – and giving their opponent an easy decision to make. Not young Rob Holding.
As the second half began and Arsenal began to grow into the game we saw another impressive side of Holding’s game. His distribution from defence is exceptional as is his ability to carry the ball out from the back. One moment in the second half highlighted this – Holding eased City striker Sergio Aguero off the ball near the corner flag and skipped beyond the Argentine’s challenge making 20 yards before winning a throw in.
Holding shows much of the same calmness with the ball at his feet as he does when defending. This serenity both on and off the ball was crucial as Arsenal saw the game out in extra time. Time and time again Holding made crucial interventions and showed the composure to find a pass to ease the mounting pressure on the Arsenal backline.
It feels like we have been here before with young Arsenal centre backs – Philippe Senderos and Johan Djourou showed promise before crumbling under the pressure of Didier Drogba – while Thomas Vermaelen started well until he succumbed to injuries and ill-disciplined defending.
Arsenal has certainly not been the best place for defenders to develop of late. The focus over the past decade has not been on defensive solidity and as a result arsenal defenders have often been left exposed and asked to do the impossible.
Let’s hope that Holding’s impressive performance is not another false dawn. What is clear is that Holding needs to be a much bigger part of Arsenal’s defensive plans moving forward.