Rob Holding says Arsenal must make use of next season’s lighter schedule to focus on securing a return to the Champions League.
After last season’s eighth-placed finish, the Gunners head into the 2021/22 campaign without European football for the first time in more than 25 years.
While it’s a novelty the club doesn’t want to get used to, the situation will mean more time on the training ground, less time travelling abroad and a chance to rest up between matches; all ingredients that should support the squad on the domestic front.
“We’ve got to be aiming to get back in the Champions League,” Holding told the Guardian ahead of Sunday’s pre-season friendly with Chelsea.
“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.”
While the Gunners finished last season relatively strongly – only Manchester United and Manchester City accumulated more points between December and May – we paid the price for an abject opening four months where goals were hard to come by.
Reflecting on the situation, Holding said: “We really struggled. 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.”
Playing in front of empty terraces due to Covid-19 didn’t help. Thankfully, it’s looking like stadia will return to full capacity when things kick off in August.
“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,” said Holding.
“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’.”