Arsenal’s young team needed it. Football tends to wreak havoc with emotions and after the pain of having the front four run out of steam, a flurry of goals in the Emirates sun was something of a balm.
It was important to leave for the summer with some optimism intact. It was important for Arsenal to recognize that this season – for its best and its worst – has generally put the club in a happier place than it was at this time last year. Even though some goals remain unmet – and no one is arguing they couldn’t have flown a little higher – some key goals have been ticked off.
First, go back to Europe. Fact. Second, continue to reshape the team with a focus on a tight group of young talent with a positive, collective attitude. It is in progress, but other measures have been taken (and will be this summer). Thirdly, and this is the one Mikel Arteta has been passionate about all season, developing the bond between the club and the crowd. It was a tangible improvement.
Although everyone inside the Emirates knows full well that this was not the place to be on the last weekend of the season, and that they would have welcomed the kind of neurotic stress that comes with with fate more obviously in play, the atmosphere was relentlessly supportive. There was barely a whiff of displeasure that Arsenal recently had the top four in their hands and dropped it.
Is it an acceptance of mediocrity? The forgiveness of shortcomings? Not necessarily. It was more of an acknowledgment that on planet Arsenal they are all in the same boat. Most of those inside the Emirates can see the upgrades in front of them and are on board. “We tried to squeeze the lemon,” Arteta said. “Every drop.”
Midway through the second half of a game that had no deep meaning in terms of the outcome, a young group of fans known as the “Ashburton Army” in the Clock End took matters into their own hands. For about half an hour, they sang their version of Go, Go, Go nonstop, shirtless, twirling their tops and losing their voices for all they were worth. “We won it at Old Trafford…we won it at the Lane…Stamford Bridge, Old Trafford…nobody can say that…”
Worshiping the past isn’t always easy when the present has imperfections. But up and down the club, supporters have noticed a change in mood this season. Even Josh Kroenke hailed him in his interview on the matchday programme. “Looks like there is a group of young and fiercely loyal fans, alongside those who have been with us for many seasons,” he wrote. “We’re a club that has an incredible history and you can hang your hat on it and also we can build our club on that, but some of your young supporters weren’t there during the incredible glory years, that’s what we are running today.
“We need to honor past successes, respect achievements, remember the great players, coaches and decision-makers who put the club in a position to succeed, but also carve out a place for themselves. You are all going to help us do just that.
Not so long ago, Arsenal felt like a fractured club. The culture war that erupted over Arsene Wenger’s position created deep divisions and, from time to time, the team was a target as well. Five years ago, away supporters revolted during a match against Crystal Palace, chanting that Hector Bellerin was “not fit to wear the jersey”. It wasn’t until November 2019 that Granit Xhaka and the home fans had a dramatic clash in a 2-2 draw against the same opponent. Just over a year ago, fans took to the streets to protest Kroenke’s ownership and the possibility of a European Super League.
This season has therefore been a breath of fresh air. Even in difficult circumstances, this support has endured. When Arsenal were trailing 3-0 in the North London derby recently, there were no obvious signs of dissent from the other side. Instead, as the match drew to a close, they could be heard defiantly chanting, “We’ve got the great Mik Arteta; he knows exactly what we need. Throughout the season, Arteta made repeated calls for ‘unity’ – he got it.
Part of that can be attributed to the fact that this is the first season with full stadiums since the pandemic. There has been a thirst for live sport and a greater appreciation for this community experience.
But there is more than that: in the stands and on the pitch, Arsenal seem to be getting younger.
Although many fans rushed back to stadiums as soon as it was allowed, some did not – and many believe the atmosphere at Emirates Stadium benefited.
“After the pandemic, the club offered season ticket holders the option of taking a ‘season ticket vacation’ for a year,” says Raymond Herlihy, founding member of supporters’ group REDaction and current chairman. “It opened up more subscription opportunities for others, and the game-by-game viewership also has a younger demographic – I’m a big proponent of a lower average age leading to a better atmosphere. For many years, Arsenal had the highest average age of season ticket holders.
It’s been a similar situation among traveling fans. “The long-standing ‘outdoor subscription’ system has been abolished,” says Herlihy. “While the regular crowd can still get away tickets through their credit history, this has opened up away ticket options to a whole new section of fans, who were previously unable to create credits at all. . The atmosphere suggests a big change in away faces with every game.
Atmosphere is a clear goal for Arteta. Like his Liverpool counterpart Jurgen Klopp, he is a firm believer in the synergy between team and crowd. Arteta has shown the club pictures and videos of fan displays in Spain and is urging the club to help create a similar culture in north London.
“The club have been superb since we started the group and have sincerely believed in the idea,” says Jack, co-manager of Ashburton Army. “Over the years they have always wanted to work there and now we have a growing group. There’s clearly still work to be done on things like ticket prices and cryptocurrency offerings, but it all takes time.
Arsenal were able to enjoy their season farewell. It might be a longer goodbye for some – Alexandre Lacazette has replaced Eddie Nketiah and, with both coming to the end of their contracts, they might not return for next season. Arteta plans to talk to them in the next few days.
Nketiah was one of the few players, including the effervescent Gabriel Martinelli, Gabriel, Martin Odegaard and even Cedric, who was able to take full advantage of Everton’s vague interpretation of the defence.
The Premier League’s youngest side signed with conviction, and Arteta, Edu and the club’s bosses set off to plot the next step in building a squad that is essential for further improvement.
“Thank you for the love” was the message plastered on a club flag to its fanbase as players, their children and families returned to the pitch for a lap of appreciation.
There were Thomas Partey, Takehiro Tomiyasu and the others whose absences have been so keenly felt in recent weeks. Backups never quite delivered enough substance in the end. Staffing gaps are well known.
Despite all the positives from this campaign, Arsenal know what they need to do to be even happier and cement even stronger bonds next time around.
(Top photo: David Price/Arsenal FC via Getty Images)