With one run, Robaldinho became the hero to give fans ‘their Arsenal’ back
When fans of a football team fear for their club’s identity, consistent cult heroes can be hard to come by, but Rob Holding has been advancing his case at Arsenal.
Times have been tough since the centre-back came to north London in 2016, both in the last days of Arsene Wenger and the first of his successors, but the former Bolton man has the je ne sais quoi to remain high in supporters’ thoughts.
Part of this has come from his ability to push back when things have crumbled around him, often when he was too young and too inexperienced to deserve such responsibility.
However, in the opening day victory over Fulham, he gave a small explanation of what makes him what he is, blending the quality which prompted Wenger to invest in his future with a confusion at having that ability to begin with.
Holding’s run upfield might have been described as marauding if it had come from a Tony Adams or even a Kolo Toure, and indeed the nosebleed nature of his progress had a little in common with Adams’ famous run and finish against Everton back in 1998.
Plenty of Arsenal players have been able to produce magic on the grounds that they wouldn’t be required to reveal their secrets after the fact. The thing is, few of them have been centre-backs.
For all of Wenger’s innovations on and off the pitch, he has often been wedded to defensive players who sign up to a system which requires little of them further up the pitch, set-pieces notwithstanding.
In such a set-up, moments like Hector Bellerin’s lung-busting run in a 2015 victory over Bayern Munich will stand out, and the same goes for Holding’s dribble at Craven Cottage. It becomes as much about moments which reinforce the love as cult hero origin stories.
🏃♂️💨 "I'm going on an adventure!"
Introducing… 𝗥𝗼𝗯𝗮𝗹𝗱𝗶𝗻𝗵𝗼 🇧🇷
— Arsenal (@Arsenal) September 13, 2020
It’s part genius, part improvisation, with no temptation to hide the amazement at his own capabilities.
Like a young Cristiano Ronaldo hitting his forehead when scoring with a rare header, before such a thing became second nature to him in Madrid, the quality is there but the application has never been required.
This is not to compare Holding to Ronaldo (or to Ronaldinho, as was the case on Arsenal’s social media channels), but to provide a reminder that the talents Wenger saw in him at Bolton haven’t disappeared.
At 24, Holding is approaching a stick-or-twist point in his career, with loan interest and the return of William Saliba from a spell back in France raising questions of where his longer-term future lies. “I said to him, change your mind because you are not going anywhere,” Mikel Arteta told BT Sport after the win.
This is not to say a single run with minimal impact should be enough to change the course of a player’s career, but his enjoyment and that of the fans watching at home can at least give people pause.
“And it’s Adams, put through by Bould… WOULD YOU BELIEVE IT?! THAT SUMS IT ALL UP!” 🏆
— Arsenal (@Arsenal) May 3, 2019
The appeal of Holding, while not immediately obvious to anyone watching from the outside, quickly begins to make sense.
While he arrived with promise and undoubted talent, a combination of injuries and surrounding chaos ensured his failure to hit those heights immediately was understandable.
The rules around a player can change when the players and coach then shift with such speed, and as fellow cult hero contenders like Alex Iwobi, Carl Jenkinson and even Wojciech Szczesny have moved on, it has been Holding who has stepped up to fill the void.
He has that blend of enjoying the opportunities which fall his way without the immediate attachment of academy products, while being able to point to games which demonstrated real quality and heights which have never been hit consistently through no fault of their own.
After a summer of heavy investment which has nonetheless left Arsenal with a big gap to close on the top four, the existing squad will be required to step up just as much as the additions.
However, the way in which they need to step up isn’t restricted to end product. Somehow it can be through intangibles which give fans ‘their Arsenal’ back, however fluid that phrase may be.
By Tom Victor