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.