ORUntil the last possible moment, Rob Holding held out a shred of hope that the most grueling years could extend further. Anyone clinging to the positives of Arsenal’s season could have cited their increasingly consistent and mature performances at the heart of their defense, but they weren’t enough to win England’s first call-up for Euro 2020. the teams announced, I had my eye on him, ”he says. “You never know, so I was looking. It didn’t happen to me this time, but that won’t deter me or make me feel like it will never happen. “
Arsenal’s defensive record in 2020-21 was beaten only by Manchester City and Chelsea, although that was never going to offer much relief after such a sterile bounty campaign. If it cannot be exactly described as a breakthrough year for Holding, it was certainly a progression. He had never achieved a regular spot, a situation that didn’t help with ACL surgery in late 2018, and it seemed likely he was loaned out last fall. But he convinced Mikel Arteta enough to give him 39 starts, 30 in the league, and a new contract in January suggested little appetite on either side to move on.
“It was a pain to get into the coach’s thoughts after my injury,” he says. “In preseason it was up in the air if he would come out and have a year of playing time, but he kept me close and I managed to return that faith by doing a decent shift throughout the season.”
Collectively, that’s the least Arsenal need to produce this time. They won their last five games in the top flight, but they still missed any kind of European football; a catastrophic spell late last year effectively sealed his fate and Holding is honest about the hardships of a career that, with Arsenal barely able to buy a goal or even a point at an all-time low, came at a high price.
“We really fought,” he admits about that period between mid-October and the end of December. “We just couldn’t find the net and we were just trying to hang on to the games. The best result we were trying to get was 0-0 because we weren’t scoring so we were just trying to stop the rivals. It was something that followed us in every game, and it was difficult. Sometimes there were real casualties in the camp and it was about how we could refocus and try to go into games with a different mindset. “
Holding sees the 3-1 win over Chelsea on Boxing Day, when Emile Smith Rowe received his wings and Arsenal finally let loose, as the turning point that pulled them out of their routine. Chelsea return to the Emirates on Sunday for the first game of the Mind Series, a pre-season triangle tournament in which Tottenham will also participate. A near-capacity crowd will be in attendance for the first time in 16 1/2 months; Neither side will be fully cooked, but the context will create a more heady occasion than a workout accessory.
“When we played every three or four days and we didn’t have an audience, going back in front of an empty stadium, it felt like hard work,” he says. “Now that the fans are back, it’s crazy how different it feels, how much more energy there is on the field. When you make a tackle or a block and a big cheer comes up, then you’re excited for the next play instead of just blocking it, hearing nothing and then thinking, like, ‘Oh.’ “
Motivation must come from all angles. Arsenal should suggest that they can challenge towards the top again, so competing on equal terms with the Champions League winners would at least help the levels of optimism. That’s something they have tended to do with Arteta, winning three and drawing one of their last four meetings; Although the six-point gap between the teams in the table last season was no accident, Holding is not convinced there is a significant gulf to bridge.
“I see Chelsea as a competitive opponent for us,” he says. “I don’t see them as a team we aspire to be, and I don’t think they see us that way either. There is a mutual respect between us and a recent history with FA Cup finals and playing each other in the big games. I don’t think that, because they won the Champions League, we should be more like Chelsea. Our results and position in the league must improve, of course, but when we play against each other it is competitive. “
It will still be difficult to draw conclusions at this point in a slow preseason. Arsenal played two friendlies in Scotland, much to the delight of Ambassador-in-Residence Kieran Tierney: “He’s been telling us how great he is for the last two years; Every day there were blue skies so he’s excited that he has that to control us, ”Holding laughs, before seeing plans for a trip to the US tainted by positive tests for Covid-19. They will soon bring in Ben White from Brighton as an intense competition, or perhaps a partner, for Holding, but they have not yet reached the level of midfield or attacking reinforcements they need and have yet to dispatch multiple players. Flow over the next few weeks is likely to be substantial, but Holding knows where to go.
“We have to aspire to return to the Champions League,” he says. “Without Europe this season, we don’t have distractions or match congestion and we can really focus on our Premier League matches. I think Liverpool did the same a few years ago, and Chelsea did the same when they won the league in Antonio Conte’s first year. So it can be a blessing in disguise in some respects. We have to think about it that way and start working. “
Holding believes that a more conventional buildup than the rapid change between the last two pandemic-filled seasons will help Arsenal and Arteta, who have made no secret of their frustration at having to work on the helmet for long periods since their appointment, to develop identity. and the coherence that they have lacked. On August 13, they will play the season opener in Brentford and, after all the turbulence, perhaps they will benefit from a pause to breathe and a new beginning.
“I think that comes with the six-week break that we had,” he says. “Instead of moving from one season to the next, we can let the dust settle a bit and start with a clean slate. The first six games are huge to set your pace and Brentford away on a Friday in their new stadium will be a great occasion. “
The recipe for a successful campaign, when offered, sounds incredibly simple: “If we can find the goals and keep the defensive record, we should be ready.” Scanning the England squad roster can become a particularly enjoyable pastime if those ends can be met.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism