Arsenal defender Rob Holding is expected to return to first-team action after the international break. The 23-year-old has been out for nine months with an anterior cruciate ligament injury but has been stepping up his comeback in recent weeks for the Under 23s.
Fans have been keenly awaiting his return to the starting line up after impressing during the opening months of last season. Many believe he will provide the backline with a calm and composed presence that the Gunners’ need, and if we look at the statistics the belief could well be justified.
On the face of it, Arsenal’s defence didn’t actually improve that much when he was a regular in the team. The London club conceded, on average, 1.14 goals per 90 minutes during his 16 appearances between September and December last year. Compare that to the season overall, which was 1.22, and you can see his inclusion in the starting eleven didn’t have the massive impact you would expect.
However, goals conceded doesn’t always tell you the full story. In some games, teams can score one goal or even two with very few efforts on goal. Like in all sports, in some matches, you can simply be unlucky. This is where xG comes into play.
It is a metric that can be overused, but what it can tell you is the frequency of big chances that a defence gives away. For Arsenal, last season, their average xG conceded per game was 1.25. For Holding’s 16 matches that dropped that 0.97.
If you think that is a marginal difference, you need to look at the average over the whole season. Arsenal played 58 games last campaign, and the xG conceded is roughly 73. If Holding was in the side, that drops markedly to 56.
Of course, a lot depends on Holding getting back to the same level he was playing at last season after a long injury layoff. It also depends on his centre-back partner.
Considering Sokratis’s poor display in the North London derby, manager Unai Emery may look to partner Holding with David Luiz, and when you take into consideration that Kieran Tierney is also expected to be back very soon, you have the ingredients for a more solid back four.
After conceding six goals in three games, that will certainly be a hugely positive development for Emery and the team as a whole. The hype around Holding’s return is justified so let’s hope his comeback goes smoothly.