NEVER A TRUER WORD SAID
If one quote perfectly summed up the attitude to English football, and the modern game generally, it came from Arsene Wenger after Arsenal’s game at Premier League champions Leicester in August. When confronted about the money he would or would not spend in the transfer market, the Gunners boss asked whether how much he spent directly impacted the perception of him from the media. He then went on to make a sarcastic point about one of his summer signings, Rob Holding, who started and played so well in the 0-0 draw at the King Power Stadium.
“Nobody is speaking about the performance of Rob Holding today. You should be happy; he is English, he is 20 years old, but I’m sorry he didn’t cost £55m, so it cannot be good, he said.”
In saying that, Wenger raised a wider point about the obsession with a player’s reputation and transfer fee, two things that go hand in hand more often than not. Whether he was talking specifically about John Stones, who moved from Everton to Manchester City for around £50m around the same time Holding was signing for Arsenal from Bolton Wanderers for an undisclosed fee, only he knows, but it certainly sounds like he may have been.
At the time, there was no doubt which defender had more pressure to contend with, and not just because of his huge price tag. Stones was billed as the perfect central defensive option for new City boss Pep Guardiola because of his propensity to play the ball out from the back, a rare credential in a player in his position from England.
HOLDING GOES FROM STRENGTH TO STRENGTH
Very few beyond the Arsenal scouts and Bolton fans will have known much about Holding when he joined, and because of that he will have had to prove even more than Stones, dealing with a different kind of pressure. Now 21, he has only played nine Premier League games, but he has shown that he certainly is not out of his depth.
It would have been easy to write him off, given he only had 26 Championship games in a team that got relegated under his belt before moving to the Emirates Stadium. But his role was vital and came at a very tough moment in Arsenal’s season. The Gunners won all seven of the games he played in after Leicester, including the last five of the season when Wenger had changed from a conventional defensive four to three centre backs and wingbacks. He then played in the FA Cup final, when Shkodran Mustafi, Laurent Koscielny and Gabriel Paulista were all absent, only to help them defeat Chelsea 2-1 at Wembley.
Stones, meanwhile, has failed to live up to the money spent on him. Some high profile errors, which Guardiola professes to accept so long as his possession-based principles are being followed, have marred his campaign, but the team have struggled generally, finishing third in the Premier League and failing to win a trophy for the first time in the coach’s career. Central defenders are at a premium in the transfer market right now, not just Stones, but the fact that he is English and plays in a similar way to Gerard Pique, for example, means he maintains a top reputation despite inconsistent performances.
PRICE SHOULDN’T BE A FACTOR
The financial impact on football is seemingly growing by the week, and while Wenger has had his critics this season and over the years, the signing of Holding shows his eye for talented young players he and his scouting team have. He is also correct in what he says, Holding was assumed to be a weak link because he didn’t cost a huge amount and came from the lower leagues.
Such an attitude is strange and ironic, because the idea Stones, or any other player with a big reputation or value, can make the step up to a higher level is as much an assumption as the idea Holding and others without them can’t. It is hard to know which is tougher, stepping up the divisions or making a move with a huge price tag, but it is unfair to suggest one is easier.
The man Holding marked on that day at the start of the season, Jamie Vardy, is the most successful player to have come through the levels. His story is so full of romance, having worked up from non-league to the Premier League title and scoring 24 goals in a top-flight season in just six years, that it will soon be made into a film.
Harry Kane, the Tottenham striker, who scored 29 goals last season to win the golden boot, shot onto the scene in his first full campaign three years ago by scoring 21 goals in 2014/15, despite having less than successful loan spells at Leicester, Norwich City and Millwall beforehand. Many expected his form to be little more than a purple patch, just as with Vardy, because neither were seen as ‘wonderkids’, but they continue to show their quality on a consistent basis.
LACK OF REPUTATION NOT AN ISSUE
Holding may not have played much over the last year, but he has put himself in a position to grow and develop even more next season. The World Cup is just 12 months away, in Russia, and while Stones is almost a certainty to be on the plane once qualification is assured despite a tough first season at City, Holding is barely in contention as of yet, having only made two under-21 appearances, even though he has look assured whenever he has played.
The European Championships at that age group in Poland this summer will give Holding a great chance to shine, but he will have to do a lot to impress Gareth Southgate next season.
Arsene Wenger will once again be under pressure to spend big this summer, especially after Arsenal failed to qualify for the Champions League and he signed a new two-year contract against the will of some fans. But he has may have uncovered a gem in Rob Holding, and that would be widely recognised had he cost a hefty fee from a Premier League rival. He is the latest to prove that reputation isn’t everything.