Last May, I wrote a piece entitled ‘Thank you for the good times (before the good times fly away’). The theme of the article was that, after two seasons of riding the crest of a wave at the Emirates that saw the fans re-engage with the team and the atmosphere improve immeasurably, that sense of euphoria was going to plateau for the coming season.
This is simply because, as anyone who has experienced addictive behaviour will tell you, you don’t ride the high forever. I am neither a religious nor spiritual person but Buddhism talks extensively about impermanence. It describes experience as ‘transient, evanescent, inconstant…all things come into being and then dissolve.’
If you win the lottery that euphoria will sustain you for a long time but it won’t sustain you forever. Eventually that elation plateaus and you are restored to a more intermediate emotional equilibrium and the same is true in reverse, the intensity of grief eventually fades and dissolves into a memory.
That is why I wrote that blog in May at the tail end of last season, because seasons 2021-22 and 2022-23 had seen Arsenal jump from 8th to 5th and then 5th to 2nd with a team of young, likeable players and that translated into a more vibrant atmosphere among Arsenal fans.
But that was never going to last because intensity of emotion never does. I have seen countless newly promoted clubs cycle through a similar phenomenon. Sunderland, Stoke, Portsmouth, Crystal Palace, all hosted electric home atmospheres upon their promotion to the top flight. All of them eventually faded into the comfortable background noise we hear at other top flight grounds.
New toys don’t stay new forever and expectations reset. It was inevitable and foreseeable that the sting would be drawn from the Emirates atmosphere this season (though I still think it is several furlongs ahead of where it was five years ago) because that is just human nature.
I also think we cannot underestimate the post Covid (in a policy sense, at least) factor. When fans returned to stadiums for the 2021-22 season, there was a sense of freshness and relish just at the time when Arsenal began to negotiate an upward trajectory. It was a heady cocktail of circumstances, all of which were obviously temporary.
I have seen supporters point the fingers of blame at lots of cerebral factors for the slight drop in atmosphere this season, such as the decision to ballot tickets for silver members. The truth is that the vast majority of the ground is made up of season ticket holders, one of the reasons the ticketing arrangements for silver members were, rightly or wrongly, altered, is precisely because they make up such a small segment of the crowd (ergo, the club experienced demand issues).
I think it is more likely that having different supporters at each game would improve the atmosphere, since familiarity and regularity are certainly impediments to a vibrant crowd noise. I have also seen the reduction in allocation for the ‘Ashburton Army’ at the front of the Clock End cited as a reason for the drop in atmosphere.
Again, my own view is that as a catalyst for the overall atmosphere in the ground the impact of the AA had begun to fade and became a separate, isolated component of the atmosphere that didn’t really spread around or rally the crowd in the East, West or North Stands any longer.
That is nobody’s fault, it’s just a byproduct of the passage of time. The AA were a shot in the arm for a ground that was mutually ready to kick out the jams again but the shot in the arm always dissolves eventually. Again, it is just human nature and to apportion the blame to other external factors seems wide of the mark to me.
The expectation ahead of this season was for Arsenal to be in the title race. That was not the expectation in the summer of 2022. And expectation is the midwife to anxiety, especially when one of the teams you are competing with has set the bar for winning the title so ludicrously high that every dropped point really is a miniature disaster.
That creates a tension that had begun to manifest itself in the ground at the end of last season and when you are tense, you tend to be quieter and angrier. Again, it is purely human nature and nobody is wrong or bad for succumbing to it. Of course I do think there are other factors that may have led to a slight numbing of the sensation of togetherness this season.
Arsenal enjoyed a hot streak in the transfer market where the significant players they bought were largely successful and well liked by the supporters. The exceptions were generally punts on young players who didn’t really play enough to damage the team or annoy the fans.
Ramsdale, White, Odegaard, Jesus, Tomiyasu, Zinchenko (at least initially) and Rice were all clear upgrades on what preceded them and that imbued them with a sense of popularity. Even high level squad signings like Trossard and Jorginho have largely been met with approval. Everybody could see and understand the vision because it was pretty linear for a while.
That faith has been tested this season with the signings of David Raya and Kai Havertz. Havertz is a player Arsenal fans are familiar with, who played fitfully for a disliked rival and he was replacing one of the great feelgood stories of the last two seasons in Granit Xhaka.
Whatever your opinion on Havertz and his effectiveness, nobody can say his trajectory has been obvious or easy to understand to this point. In Raya, Arteta ruthlessly ousted an incredibly popular player in Aaron Ramsdale. Objectively, I do think Raya has represented a slight upgrade but I won’t pretend that you don’t have to squint to see it.
It takes a little bit of mouse hovering over some FBRef spreadsheets and some rewatches to appreciate (and even the small number of fans inclined to do either of those things would not universally agree with my assessment). For the first time in a few seasons, two of Arsenal’s big ticket summer signings have raised questions.
Again, I don’t want to paint a picture of mutiny or discontent at the Emirates, I think we are a long way from that. I am talking about a slight dilution. I think I experienced a real low point at the Emirates in November 2019, at the ‘stop, stop, it’s already dead!’ Conclusion of the Emery era.
Alex Lacazette scored a last ditch equaliser at home to Southampton after a dire performance and there was barely a flicker of celebration from the crowd (and the large swathes of red seats). We are a long, long way from those dark days. But there has been a drop in the atmosphere this season and that was always going to be the case because you cannot fight the human condition.
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