Arsene Wenger repeated one particular word in his press conference on Wednesday. “It just shows you how unpredictable football can be,” said the Frenchman, bemoaning a situation that, for once, he could not be held accountable for.
“It’s absolutely unbelievable and unpredictable, and we have been hit hard in a position where we will need to be strong on Saturday,” he continued, perusing a cupboard once full of centre-halves that was now bare. “We’ll have to find solutions and hopefully I will find the good solutions.”
By the time Arsenal face the Premier League champions in Saturday’s FA Cup final, the suspended Laurent Koscielny and injured Gabriel are expected to be joined on the sidelines by a concussed Shkodran Mustafi. Christmas has come early for Eden Hazard and his Chelsea cohorts.
For Wenger, “unpredictable” is a fair description. He could not legislate for Koscielny’s mindless, reckless, needless tackle on the final day against Everton; he could hardly plan for injuries to Gabriel and Mustafi. But, by his own admission, he is tasked with finding the “solutions” that will spare Arsenal’s season from being an unmitigated failure.
A man with degrees in engineering and economics is no stranger to problem-solving, but then Wenger was at least given the right numbers. On Saturday, he must figure out the equation of how to stop the Premier League’s most potent attack without his three first-choice central defenders.
Per Mertesacker could return, the erstwhile captain who has neither started a competitive match since April last year nor been tested in the current formation. Nacho Monreal could fill in, a left-back square peg to fill the central-defensive round hole, albeit one who has played their before. Francis Coquelin could even be considered, but surely not. It all leaves Wenger Holding out for a hero for his Wembley fight.
Had you been told that would have to rely on one of his cheaper signings from last summer to deliver a silver lining to the darkest cloud of his reign, you might have wondered how Takuma Asano had edged ahead of Olivier Giroud in the striker pecking order. Wenger spent over £90million last year, and a player signed from Bolton for just over 2% of that total figure is the only qualified success.
Rob Holding, the spare tomato soup at the back of the cupboard, was a semi-regular starter for a relegated Championship side last season, a 20-year-old Bolton player with bags of potential but very little experience. He will walk out at Wembley on Saturday as Arsenal’s form defender, maybe even their form player, and perhaps the only one who has managed to completely unify opinion amongst a fractured and frustrated fanbase. He is better than Cannavaro, after all.
It was never meant to be this way. The 21-year-old started the club’s first three games only as a result of poor planning, with Koscielny enjoying an extended Euro 2016 break, and Mustafi not arriving until later on. His debut pitted him against a Liverpool attack that would have toyed with any defence.
It was after the second of those fixtures, a 0-0 draw with Leicester, that Wenger would back a player thrust into the spotlight and expected to thrive instantly. “Unfortunately no one speaks about the performance of Rob Holding,” he said in August. “You should be happy, he is English and 20 years old. I am sorry he didn’t cost £55 million, so he can’t be good.”
For all his manager’s kind words, Holding would start the next game, but then faced an eight-month wait for his next Premier League appearance. He was handed games in cup competitions, but opportunities were scarce. So much so that a winter loan was expected.
“I didn’t leave in January as the boss wanted me around the team. He saw me playing,” Holding said earlier this week, but even his return to the first team in April was conditional. Wenger’s formational switch has afforded the defender an opportunity that he has quietly shielded off the ball and calmly distributed into midfield.
Holding, to his credit, has taken it all in his gangly stride. Arsenal are unbeaten in the last ten games in which he has started, and his game as a tough-tackling, ball-playing defender has developed considerably. He is one of few individuals to emerge from this forgettable season – his debut top-flight campaign – with credit.
Gareth Southgate will be at least tentatively impressed. The England manager was head coach of the Under-21s last May when he praised Holding, noting that he “stood out in a difficult season for his club and has some good leadership qualities that are clear on the field”. Twelve months on, and little has changed. A senior national team call-up should not be entertained just yet; the Under-21 European Championship takes places this summer and it will be interesting to see how Holding handles his first inevitable dips in performance. But he remains an exciting prospect for club, if not country.
The 21-year-old’s time at Arsenal has thus far been based entirely around circumstance. From the start of the season to his return and now to Wembley, where injuries and suspensions will leave him as the club’s best available centre-half. Each time Wenger has needed a solution, the best choice was to keep Holding on.