Until the last possible moment, Rob Holding held out a sliver of hope that the most gruelling of years might yet be extended further. Anyone grasping for positives from Arsenal’s season might have cited his increasingly consistent, mature performances at the heart of their defence but they were not enough to earn a first senior England call-up for Euro 2020. “When the squads were being announced I had my eye on it,” he says. “You never know, so I was looking. It didn’t happen for me this time but that’s not going to deter me or make me feel it’s never going to.”
Arsenal’s defensive record in 2020-21 was bettered only by Manchester City and Chelsea, although that was never going to offer much succour after a campaign of such barren reward. If it could not exactly be described as a breakthrough year for Holding, it was certainly a progression. He had never quite nailed down a regular spot, a situation not helped by anterior cruciate ligament surgery late in 2018, and appeared likely to depart on loan last autumn. But he convinced Mikel Arteta enough to give him 39 starts, 30 in the league, and a new contract in January suggested little appetite from either party to move on.
“It was a grind to get into the manager’s thoughts after my injury,” he says. “In pre-season it was up in the air whether I’d go out and get a year of playing time, but he kept me around and I managed to repay that faith by putting in a decent shift all season.”
Collectively, that is the least Arsenal need to produce this time around. They won their final five top-flight games but still missed out on any kind of European football; a catastrophic spell late last year effectively sealed their fate and Holding is honest about the difficulties of a run that, with Arsenal barely able to buy a goal or even a point at its nadir, took a heavy toll.
“We really struggled,” he admits of that period between mid-October and late December. “We just couldn’t find the net and were just trying to hold on to games. The best result we were trying to get was a 0-0 because we weren’t scoring, so we were just trying to stop the opposition. It was something that followed us around in each game, and it was tough. At times there were real lows around the camp and it was about how we could refocus, and try to go into matches with a different mentality.”
Holding views the 3-1 win over Chelsea on Boxing Day, when Emile Smith Rowe was given his wings and Arsenal finally cut loose, as the turning point that jolted them out of their rut. Chelsea return to the Emirates on Sunday for the first match of the Mind Series, a triangular pre-season tournament in which Tottenham will also participate. A near-capacity crowd will be present for the first time in 16 and a half months; neither side will be fully cooked but the context will create an occasion more heady than a training fixture.
“When we were playing every three or four days and had no crowd, going again in front of an empty stadium, it did feel like a slog,” he says. “With fans coming back now, it’s crazy how different it feels, how much more energy there is on the pitch. When you make a tackle or a block and a big cheer goes up, then you’re excited for the next bit of play rather than just blocking it, hearing nothing and then thinking, like, ‘Oh’.”
Motivation should come from all angles. Arsenal need to suggest they can challenge towards the top again, so competing on equal terms with Champions League winners would at least help optimism levels. That is something they have tended to do under Arteta, winning three and drawing one of their last four meetings; although the six-point gap between the sides in last season’s table was no accident, Holding is unconvinced there is a significant gulf to bridge.
“I see Chelsea as a competitive rival for us,” he says. “I don’t see them as a team we aspire to be like, and I don’t think they see us that way either. There’s a mutual respect between us and a recent history with FA Cup finals and playing each other in big games. I don’t think that, because they won the Champions League, we need to be more like Chelsea. Our results and league position need to improve, of course, but when we play each other it’s competitive.”
It will still be hard to draw conclusions at this point in a slow-burning pre-season. Arsenal played two friendlies in Scotland, much to the delight of ambassador-in-residence Kieran Tierney – “He’s been telling us how great it is for the last two years; it was blue skies every day so he’s buzzing that he’s got that to hold over us,” Holding laughs – before seeing plans for a trip to the US scotched by positive Covid-19 tests. They will soon bring in Ben White from Brighton as intense competition, or perhaps a sidekick, for Holding but are yet to make the level of midfield or attacking reinforcements they need and must still ship out a number of players. The flux over the coming weeks is likely to be considerable but Holding knows where it needs to be directed.
“We’ve got to be aiming to get back in the Champions League,” he says. “With no Europe this season we’ve got no distractions or fixture congestion and can really focus on our Premier League games. I think Liverpool did the same a few years ago, and Chelsea similarly when they won the league in Antonio Conte’s first year. So it can be a blessing in disguise in some aspects. We’ve just got to think of it that way and hit the ground running.”
Holding thinks a more conventional buildup than the rapid turnaround between the last two pandemic-addled seasons will help Arsenal and Arteta, who has made no secret of his frustration that he has effectively had to work on the hoof for long periods since his appointment, to develop the identity and consistency they have lacked. They will contest the season’s curtain-raiser at Brentford on 13 August and, after all the turbulence, perhaps they will benefit from a pause for breath and something of a fresh start.
“I think that comes with the six-week break we had,” he says. “Rather than rolling 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 for setting your tempo and Brentford away on a Friday, at their new stadium, will be a great occasion.”
The recipe for a successful campaign, when he offers it, sounds beguilingly simple: “If we can find the goals and keep the defensive record, we should be in with a shout.” Scanning the England squad list may become a particularly pleasant pastime if those ends can be met.