This has been a season like no other. During what is traditionally the most intense, hectic period of the domestic season, most of the squad has instead had the chance to recharge their batteries ahead of the second part of the exciting campaign.
We had 10 players away at the World Cup in Qatar for most of the past six weeks, but for those who stayed behind – including Rob Holding – the winter has so far consisted of some downtime, followed by warm weather training in the United Arab Emirates.
We caught up with Rob to find out what he’s been up to since our last meaningful action, and ask about his thoughts on part two of the domestic campaign.
How unusual has this mid-season break been for you? Has it been difficult to get used to?
To be honest I think it’s been good. It’s been a good break, a chance to chill out a bit and going to Dubai as well meant we had some warm weather training too, rather than the cold back at home! So it was a good rest and then we were able to work hard and get ready for the restart on Boxing Day. I was able to have a few days off as well, I had five days in Dubai with my dad before he went home. It was really nice – compared to a game every three days that we are used to in December.
How much of a boost did it give everyone, going into the break five points clear at the top?
It’s a reflection of how we have started the season. At the start we didn’t say we want to be five points clear by the World Cup, we just took one game at a time and this is where it has got us so far. We’ve had a roadmap for the first 20 games or so, and we’ve just been ticking them off one by one, not looking too far ahead, and just trying to keep it going. We’re in a good position but we know how big the second part of the season will be.
How energised and motivated are the team going into the second half of the season, knowing we have this lead to defend?
There’s always that motivation. I don’t think we are really looking at where we are in the league too much. We have to carry on focussing on what we’ve done to get us into this position, and keep taking it one game at a time.
It’s been unusual as well to have many of the squad away at the World Cup, were you in touch with many of them during the tournament?
I’m good friends with Ben and kept in touch him regularly and was in touch with Rambo, and others on the group chat. But to be honest, we just let them concentrate on and focus on what they had to do with their countries.
Did you watch much of the tournament? What did you think of it?
I watched a lot of the group stage games when I was back in London. There was football on all day at the beginning so I watched a lot of that. Then when we were in Dubai, a lot of the matches kicked off at 11pm. Due to the heat and the training sessions, I couldn’t stay awake that late for some of the matches! But overall I enjoyed it.
The Dubai training camp was like a mini pre-season for us, how useful was that?
It was needed to recharge the batteries. I think we were tired towards the end of the games leading up to the break, so it has been good to recharge. I think all the teams looked a bit tired, because we all played a lot of games, in Europe too, leading up to it. So this break came at the right time for us and allowed us to build back up to the West Ham game. We’ve worked really hard in recent weeks and are ready to go again.
There were lots of youth players in Dubai, did they integrate well into the group?
Yeah, they got to see how we behave and act away from the pitch, they could ask us questions and learn from the experience. They see what it’s like to live as a professional day-to-day. Especially the younger lads like Myles and Ethan. They were revising for their GCSEs while we were there, we had the academy teacher with us in Dubai, so that the boys could carry on with their lessons every day. It’s been a really good experience for all the young players.
We have been so strong at the Emirates this season. What do you put our home record down to?
There has been a massive connection with the supporters over the past year and a half. The Amazon documentary we did last year helped with that I’m sure. It gave us some good publicity, and there’s a lot of positivity and energy around the place. You can see that in our performances and results, especially at home. I actually only watched the first three episodes of the documentary, when I was at the premiere, but I don’t really like watching myself or hearing myself. I might not be in it that much but I find it really cringe hearing my own voice! But I’ve heard from a few of my mates that it was good, we came across well, and it’s brought people closer to the club and what we are trying to do.
You’ve been at the club a long time now, is this the best atmosphere you’ve known at the Emirates?
When I first joined we had some great moments, big games, late wins or whatever. It’s been wild before. The difference this year is that we are hearing it from the kick-off. We can sense everyone being loud and behind us, so yeah it’s the best I’ve known since I’ve been at Arsenal in terms of that, definitely. Things like the Louis Dunford song before the game definitely help. It’s a good song and it rings around in the stadium really loud and it will get bigger and bigger. The supporters are really doing their bit to boost the atmosphere.
Finally, do you think it will feel a bit like the opening day of the season against West Ham on Monday?
Yeah, I think it will have that same buzz around it. The first game back after the World Cup, for sure, so it’s good that we are at home for that and feel that buzz around the place. It’s down to us to make the most of that.
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