Holding and Saliba
ST ALBANS, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 12: Rob Holding of Arsenal during the Arsenal Training Session at London Colney on September 12, 2019 in St Albans, England. (Photo by David Price/Arsenal FC via Getty Images)

The best news that Arsenal fans have had recently is that Rob Holding is now back in first-team training after the serious knee injury that he sustained against Manchester United last December.

Holding may never quite live up to the “Burnley Cannavaro” nickname that Arsenal fans have already given him, but he is nevertheless a major upgrade on the team’s current centre-backs, David Luiz and Sokratis Papastathopoulos.

The only problem is that even if Holding makes his first-team return soon, it will be at least another nine months before he joins up with William Saliba, the much-vaunted young French centre-back who Arsenal signed in the summer for Saint-Etienne before immediately loaning him back to the Ligue 1 club.

Gunners Need Holding and Saliba for Long-Term Stability

History of Solidity

In truth, Arsenal need Holding and Saliba to start playing together as soon as possible, in the hope that they will give the club the defensive solidity that it has been lacking for more than a decade now. It is arguable that no club has ever won a major trophy (either domestically or in Europe) without having at least a good centre-back partnership, if not a great one.

There are numerous examples of such partnerships throughout Arsenal’s history, from Frank McClintock and Peter Simpson in the original 1971 double-winning side to Tony Adams and Steve Bould in George Graham’s two-time league champions of the late 1980s and early 1990s, all the way through to Sol Campbell and Kolo Touré (who was once nicknamed “the African Cannavaro”), who provided the bedrock behind the fabulous attacking talents of the 2004 Invincibles side.

Unfortunately, however, there has been nothing like those kinds of powerful defensive partnerships since the break-up of the Invincibles. Initially, it was hoped that William Gallas would be able to replace Sol Campbell as Touré’s defensive partner.

From Bad to Worse

However, a combination of factors (especially Touré contracting malaria and Gallas suffering a kind of mental or at least spiritual breakdown during the infamous 2-2 draw with Birmingham City in 2008) meant that that partnership never came close to matching the fabled Arsenal centre-back pairings of the past.

Even more unfortunately, things only got worse after the Touré-Gallas partnership fell apart. In the last decade, Arsenal have had a few good (if not quite great) central defenders in Thomas Vermaelen and in particular Laurent Koscielny, but the Gunners have been unable to find the kind of lasting partnership at centre-back that has defined so many great Arsenal teams of the past.

Vermaelen had one good season at Arsenal before succumbing to the kind of injuries that have dogged him throughout his whole career, while Koscielny was forced to play with a succession of sub-par centre-backs, from Sebastian Squillachi to Per Mertesacker to Nacho Monreal (who, of course, was not really a centre-back at all but a left-back who deputised there).

It was the failure to put two good central defenders together for any length of time that was arguably the single biggest factor in the decline of Arsène Wenger’s Arsenal sides.

Up to Unai

Equally, it is probably the single biggest reason why Unai Emery has not yet been able to make the hoped-for progress at Arsenal since he replaced Wenger at the Emirates in the summer of 2018.

Emery has made some genuine improvements, particularly in the promotion of youth players such as Joe Willock and Reiss Nelson. However, like Wenger before him (or at least Wenger during his last ten years at Arsenal), he has done nothing to suggest that he is the man to give Arsenal the long-term defensive stability that they so desperately need.

Unfortunately, the events of the summer, particularly in the transfer window, have only compounded that view of Emery.

Having had an entire season to see just how poor Arsenal were in defence generally and in central defence specifically, culminating in the annihilation in Azerbaijan that was Arsenal’s Europa League Final thrashing by Chelsea, it frankly beggared belief that he would not make every effort to improve the Gunners at centre-back. And yet all the signs so far this season are that Arsenal’s already poor defence has, almost unbelievably, got worse.

No Improvement Over the Summer

That is largely down to the fact that Arsenal let their best central defender, Laurent Koscielny, return to France. It is undeniably true that the persistent injuries that Koscielny had suffered in recent seasons had both slowed and weakened him, but he was still a far better out-and-out defender than the man who was supposedly brought in to replace him, David Luiz.

Luiz has already shown, particularly with his headless chicken impersonation at Anfield, that he might just be capable of playing well alongside two other centre-backs, as he did so memorably in Chelsea’s title-winning campaign of 2016-17, but alongside just one other centre-back he is not capable of doing so, especially if that one other centre-back is as ponderous and prone to mistakes as Sokratis.

It is in that context – a decade-long decline that has been compounded by the unique problems of summer 2019 – that Arsenal fans are so desperate to see either Holding or Saliba in the team, let alone both.

Holding has not done a great deal in his short Arsenal career so far, but his tremendous performance in the 2017 FA Cup Final victory over Chelsea, allied to the great improvements that he showed under Emery in the first half of last season before he was so badly injured, have at least provided cause for optimism.

Of course, even less is known by Arsenal fans about William Saliba, who, like Holding, only really played half a season in 2018-19, making just 16 first-team appearances before Arsenal spent £27 million to acquire his services, even if successfully completing his transfer meant that Arsenal had to loan him back for this season.

Nevertheless, all the reports are that he is both fast and strong, which immediately puts him above most Arsenal centre-backs of the last ten years.

Hope for the Future

The long-term hope among Arsenal fans and indeed among the Arsenal hierarchy is that Holding and Saliba can both show that they are fully fit this season before hopefully forming a successful partnership next season.

After so many poor players have undermined Arsenal’s traditional reputation for defensive resilience, there is at least the possibility that these two young central defenders can dovetail together well, providing Arsenal not only with their first decent centre-back pairing for a decade but a decent (or better!) centre-back pairing for the next decade.

However, the absolute earliest that Holding and Saliba can actually play together for Arsenal is the start of next season, when Saliba’s loan-back to Saint-Etienne ends and he can finally join the club that has bought him. Consequently, it seems inevitable that Arsenal, and particularly the Luiz-Sokratis centre-back partnership, will suffer yet more bumps in the road before then.

That process could even begin this weekend with the potentially tricky trip to Watford, which has all the ingredients (the first match back after the international break, against a team with not only a new manager but two powerful centre-forwards in Troy Deeney and Andre Gray) for yet another Arsenal away-day shocker.

If that does turn out to be the case and Arsenal struggle all season in central defence, such that they are unable to qualify for the Champions League yet again let alone entertain any ambition of achieving anything more than Champions League qualification, then Unai Emery may never get to see Holding and Saliba play together under him. That is because he will be sacked long before they pair up together.

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