It was a pointed remark, and Arsene Wenger knew exactly what he was doing by making it.
“Nobody is speaking about the performance of Rob Holding today,” he told reporters in his post-match press conference after Arsenal’s 0-0 draw with Leicester City last August. “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.”
Some interpreted the comment as a dig at Pep Guardiola and Manchester City, who had recently completed the signing of another young, homegrown defender – John Stones – for £47.5m. It was, however, more likely a general riposte to the idea that an acquisition can only be worthwhile if a huge sum has been spent on the player in question. Wenger, of course, has regularly been criticised for his alleged parsimony over the years, a theme he returned to in the same press-conference.
“I don’t understand why you say I am reluctant [to spend money]. If I buy you for £45m tomorrow, does it mean I have done well? If I listen to you then I will have done well because I spent the money, but spending the money in itself is not the quality.
“Spending the money and getting a top player; that is different and we are ready to do that. I will spend £300m if I find the player, if I have £300m. We are a club who have 600 employees, who need to have a responsible attitude as well.
“The fans are highly influenced by the media and that’s part of the process today. We try to make the right decisions. We have a whole team working on strengthening the team. I am not the only one. If we can find players who can strengthen our team then we will do that.
“It is a bit surprising that we come out of a football match and we do not speak about the football, we speak about money.”
To be fair to Wenger, he certainly had a point; at the same time, though, supporters who pay the highest season ticket prices in the Premier League are entitled to be frustrated when they see their club keeping money in the bank rather than using it to improve a squad that has been unable to challenge for major honours for several seasons now.
On the specific issue of Holding, though, Wenger and Arsenal deserve great credit for identifying and securing the former Bolton Wanderers man’s signature. The 6ft 2in stopper had only made 31 senior appearances as a professional prior to his arrival at the Emirates Stadium, but he did not look at all out of place during his debut campaign in north London.
An early injury crisis meant Holding was thrown in at the deep end, the youngster starting Arsenal’s first three league matches against Liverpool, Leicester and Watford. Holding experienced some shaky moments in the chaotic opening-day loss to the Reds, but overall he caught the eye with his assuredness, composure and fine reading of the game.
Despite his impressive showings, the now-21-year-old dropped out of the team from September through to April. His return to the starting XI came midway through the latter month and caught onlookers by surprise – not because Holding was selected again, but rather because Wenger had opted to switch to a three-man backline for the first time in two decades. The Gunners did not entirely convince in their new-look 3-4-2-1 formation against Middlesbrough, but victory that night persuaded the manager to stick with the setup for the remainder of the season.
Holding thrived as one of the two outside centre-halves, with his ability to bring the ball out from the back particularly noteworthy. He showed plenty of aggression when necessary, too: the youngster stood up to the physical threat of Diego Costa in the final of the FA Cup, for instance, which helped Arsenal get their hands on the trophy for the third time in four campaigns.
Having made nine starts last term, Holding will hope to become an indispensable part of the Arsenal side in 2017/18. If he is able to do so, Wenger’s faith in him will be vindicated.