Arsenal have played two matches this season on our home pitch and we’ve lost one and drawn one. Going back further, to last season, we’ve only won once in our last six matches at the Emirates while losing twice and drawing three times. What’s up with that!?! Is there a mental block? Is it a tactical issue? What is going on here?
Stepping back from the myopia so typical of the Arsenal experience, we might take comfort in the fact that we are not alone. Check out these amazing stats: of the 40 matches played thus far this season in the English Premier League only on nine occasions has the home team triumphed. There have been 13 draws, but that means the remaining 18 matches have seen full points taken by the away team. In other words, thus far this season, you are twice as likely to win if you are the visitors.
Home Teams: 40 played, 9 Wins, 13 Draws, 18 Losses. This is madness; madness, I say. What is going on here?
In my opinion, it IS a statistical aberration and one which will normalize as the season wears on. Still, I believe it does tell a story.
My theory is that it is due to a combination of factors which add up to a change in culture, notably, that there is a stronger-than-ever disconnect between home supporters and the teams they support. Fans are coming to stadiums–not just the Emirates, but those all over England (and Europe)–with a different set of expectations and demands, making it tougher than ever on their teams.
First off, players are better paid than ever, with fans often feeling as if they are footing the bill. That, of course, would be in the form of ticket prices which seem to rise year upon year, often independent of success on the pitch or finishing position in the table. Add in the transfer windows and the media hype surrounding them and, instead of a community (with little in the way of other entertainment options) supporting their own, players are now seen as aloof and foreign, as well as interchangeable. All are overpaid, so perform they must. Otherwise, it’s onto the slagheap and replaced by a bench sitter, or, even better, a new player brought in from elsewhere. It’s a simple equation: If you’re already here (and playing) you’re subject to scrutiny and blame; if you’re elsewhere, you might be–nay, you ARE–the answer…
The 2nd factor is television, which has changed the game in massive ways.
Again, it starts with money and the incredible, 5.14 billion pound television contract recently negotiated. In England, unlike in other leagues, that contract is shared between all 20 premier league teams which helps level the playing field, making the individual matches all the more unpredictable. This factor, however, is rarely invoked in the media, especially when compared to the elements of division which are. Player salaries are still quoted in pounds per week (so that working people can note their annual salaries in comparison) and ticket price rises are a strong secondary narrative to transfer spending (or lack thereof) between seasons. Supporter devotion (often compared to an addiction) is a tough habit to kick and fans find a way to scrape together the extra money for another go-round. If not, there are waiting lists of people happy to dispose of their excess income and take your place.
While television gives access and expands the global audience, it also changes what happens in the stadium.
Football is a low scoring game and one in which the (single) referee has limited (and very blunt) tools at his disposal. Outcomes are heavily influenced by the man with the whistle and that man is only human. Traditionally this meant that he was extremely subject to the views from the terraces and the invective thrown his way if he saw things differently. Television has changed all that.
First off, with instant goal line technology, one subjective element is gone. Second, for all other calls, the technology–even if not used to correct the immediate incident–outs the truth and referees are held accountable. Pundits and fans and, ultimately, the referees association, will put refs feet to the fire if too many calls are blundered. In fact, the biggest thing a ref can do to enhance his reputation is to stand up to hostile crowds and make correct calls against home teams.
Finally, in a more subtle way, fans are now watching–and dissecting in excruciating detail or with heavy hand and broad strokes–matches from the video record so players have nowhere to hide. To be sure, positive elements–goals and great moves–are celebrated and compiled into eye-candy. Make a mistake, however–even away from the home ground–and it does not go unnoticed. Play that mistake over and over and over on a pundit’s diagrammatic big screen (or on the youtube or in a gif) and it becomes a scar for a player to carry for a lifetime.
For the record, this is in no way original thinking on my part, here’s a fine article about the trend for those wanting numbers better than just those first four weeks of league matches. http://fivethirtyeight.com/features/home-field-advantage-english-premier-league/
So, it’s a trend. So, we’re not alone. So what? Why hasn’t it happened up on the blue side of Manchester? What can we do about it? Do we need an(other) Elvis song to make the Emirates a fortress? Maybe so, and this one would be my choice (pardon the ads)… Note the opening lyric: “Wise men say, Only fools rush in…” 😀
If an Elvis song isn’t the answer, then what is?
Awareness, perhaps, could be a first step…
My thought is that paying fans CAN make a difference. Instead of being on the lookout for every mistake, why not laud the moments you like? Instead of seeing every choice of the manager as an arrow for your quiver (of arguments) if the result goes awry, why not celebrate the ones (perhaps most) that seem about as you would choose? In the greater Goonersphere, that world of video evidence and commentary, why not lean towards appreciation and affection rather than finger pointing and hate? It’s just a thought, of course, and not to everybody’s taste. Still, maybe the Elvis song we should be singing is one of support. 😀
Unfortunately, these sorts of mass behavioral changes are unlikely to happen and I wouldn’t want to believe too highly in my potential to influence matters. I will try to do my part, but I’m only a single voice. What say you, fine fellow (but frequently fickle…) Gooners? Can we help our team with our voices (and our keyboard fingers), or are we just shouting (or pissing) into the breeze?
Maybe there are other factors at play. Are there players and tactics we could use in our home stadium which would help us against the teams set out to stop us? (Are some players or combinations or formations better against the tactics we typically experience at the Emirates?) Are some players better on the home pitch simply because they have endeared themselves to the home crowd and can feed off that energy? Have some allowed a loss of (collective) confidence to affect their play?
I don’t know the answer, but, for the moment at least, I’m not overly concerned–and again, I’d look elsewhere to realize it’s not just happening in our stadium. Our team has learned to perform in hostile environments. Already we’ve won at Crystal Palace and Newcastle this season and we had some great wins in both halves of Manchester last spring. Matches played in Monaco and Munich have netted 2-nil victories in recent CL campaigns, even if they weren’t quite enough to get us through (due to miserable showings in first legs on our home pitch).
Sometimes, I think, our boys might hope for an easy ride on the home pitch. After the season opener vs West Ham United, I think, that notion has been laid to rest. For better or worse, there are no easy matches and no easy venues. Moreover, the comforts of home might be an antiquated notion. Perhaps we need to turn down the heat in the luxurious dressing room at the Emirates.
At the very least, maybe those cushy red pads need to be gone. Perhaps a splinter or two in the backside will remind the players of other, less literal things, supporters might want to shove up their rears.
I believe supporters can do more and that getting behind the team is better than the team always feeling they are under massive pressure and thus playing to avoid errors or negative outcomes. On the other hand, perhaps it forces our players into a “siege mentality” and helps bring out their best. Maybe knowing that they must earn the love of the fans forces players to focus on their own game and the challenge of the opponent at hand and keeps them aware that no match is a gimme.
What do you think? Where do you come down on this issue?