The Emirates stadium theory of arsenal’s underachievement

I support Arsenal. Although we haven’t won a trophy since a somewhat undeserved FA Cup in 2005, I don’t have a big problem with these trophyless years. We had seven ridiculously good years under Arsene Wenger, so now the bar has been set very high indeed, leading to dissatisfaction that we don’t win the league on a regular basis.

Rather than digress into a post about whether or not we should be annoyed at having no trophies for eight years, I thought I’d suggest a reason why it’s happened that doesn’t seem to get discussed in the media.

Arsenal’s barren patch has coincided precisely with our move to Emirates Stadium. It was a move that had to happen if we were to continue to compete financially (and by extension on footballing terms) with the biggest clubs in Europe, but it has also come at a price as far as the team’s performance is concerned. I believe there are three main reasons for this:

The first is physical: the new stadium separates the fans from the pitch in a way that didn’t happen at Highbury. This means that the effect of the crowd is lessened and the home advantage we used to enjoy has been reduced.

The second is historical: the old stadium had years of familiarity behind it. People stood or sat with people they knew, the players understood how to work one of the smallest grounds in the top tier, and it was ours in a way that Emirates is taking time to match. For the first years of Emirates’ existence we might as well have been playing in an away stadium with greater support.

The last is the most important: the support. Highbury held around 38,000, whereas Emirates holds around 60,000. The new supporters are not going to be the most hardcore fans (they would already have been going to Highbury), so we now have another 15,000 or so (I’m leaving out away fans for simplicity) of the lesser fans. Now, I’m not saying that these are uninterested people, especially as I’m one of them, but there is an obvious and constant dissatisfaction from the spectators whenever anything goes wrong. Is that down to the dilution of the level of fandom or just the fact that the team isn’t playing so well? Within that point is the added corporate and neutral fans: there are now a lot more expensive tickets sloshing around for people who might just want to see an entertaining game of football, but are never going to sing about Arsene Wenger’s magic hat, or even give a chorus of ‘Red Army’.

A friend told me he was once watching a live game that we were winning by some margin at half time, but he was surrounded by a large group of foreign people who didn’t cheer any of the goals and killed the atmosphere dead. During the break he decided to leave and watch the rest of the match in one of the local Arsenal pubs, which he enjoyed much more.

I also imagine that many of those extra fans are people who have watched only since the great years of George Graham and Arsene Wenger, so they won’t have lived through more than the odd season where we weren’t at the very least in the top four. So they expect greatness, but it’s not a God-given right, and intolerance of errors does a great job of bringing the team’s confidence down. Do you want the crowd on your back for misplacing a pass that could have been great, or would you prefer the silence that accompanies a safe tap to a nearby teammate? It won’t make the difference for every decision, but it might just reduce the momentum enough to turn a win into a draw or a draw into a defeat.

I know Highbury wasn’t the loudest stadium on earth (indeed, it was nicknamed The Library), but when I sit watching games, a lone singing voice in my block, I do wonder what effect we’re having on the confidence of a team that drops the ball, sometimes literally, with alarming regularity. Very good new signings arrive and soon begin to display those signs of nervousness. How can two men who have 100 caps each for Germany be so prone to mistakes and lack of drive? Where is the Vermaelen of old? And why has tippy-tappy around the 18-yard line followed by an ineffective cross become the norm?

Sorry if you’re not into football (if that’s the case I’d be surprised that you got this far). If you are I’d love to know what you think, and has anything similarly inadvertent happened to harpoon the confidence of your club?