Arsenal’s young team needed this. Football has a tendency to play havoc with the emotions and after the pain of having the top four thumped out of their gasp, a flurry of goals in the Emirates sunshine was a balm of sorts.
It was important to go off for the summer with some intact optimism. It was important for Arsenal to recognize that this season – for its better and worse moments – has generally put the club in a happier place than it was this time last year. Even if certain goals remain unachieved – and nobody is pretending they could not have flown a little higher – some key objectives have been ticked off.
First, get back into Europe. Done. Second, continue reshaping the squad with a focus on a tight group of youthful talent with a positive and collective attitude. That’s ongoing but more steps have been taken (and will in the summer). Third, and this is one that Mikel Arteta has been keyed up about all season, develop the connection between club and crowd. That has been a tangible improvement.
Although everyone inside the Emirates knew full well it was not the place to be on the final weekend of the season, and they would have welcomed the kind of neurotic stress that comes with destiny being more obviously on the line, the atmosphere was relentlessly supportive. There was barely a whiff of disgruntlement that Arsenal recently had the top four in their hands and dropped it.
Is that an acceptance of mediocrity? Forgiveness of failings? Not necessarily. It was more of an acknowledgment that on planet Arsenal, they are all in it together. Most of those inside the Emirates can see the improvements in front of them and are on board. “We tried to squeeze the lemon,” Arteta said. “Every single drop.”
Midway through the second half of a game that had no profound meaning in terms of the result, a young fan group known as “Ashburton Army” in the Clock End took matters into hand. For roughly half an hour, they sang their version of Allez, Allez, Allez non-stop, bare-chested, twirling their tops and losing their voices for all they were worth. “We’ve won it at Old Trafford… we’ve won it at the Lane… Stamford Bridge, Old Trafford… no one can say the same…”
Worshipping the past is not always easy when the present has imperfections. But from top to bottom of the club, fans have noticed a change in the atmosphere this season. Even Josh Kroenke saluted it in his interview in the match-day program. “It feels like there is a young, fiercely loyal group of fans coming through, alongside those who have been with us for many seasons,” he wrote. “We’re a club that has an amazing history and you can hang your hat on that and also, we can build our club on that, but some of your younger supporters weren’t around for the amazing glory years, which is what we are chasing today.
“We have to honor past successes, respect the achievements, remember great players, coaches and decision-makers who put the club in a position to succeed, but also carve out our own niche. All of you are going to help us do just that. ”
Not too long ago, Arsenal felt like a fractured club. The culture war that erupted over Arsene Wenger’s position created deep-seated divisions, and from time to time, the team would be a target too. Five years ago, the away supporters revolted during a match against Crystal Palace, chanting that Hector Bellerin was “not fit to wear the shirt”. It was only November 2019 when Granit Xhaka and the home fans fell out spectacularly during a 2-2 draw against the same opponent. Just over a year ago, fans poured into the streets to protest against the Kroenke ownership and the possibility of a European Super League.
This season, then, has been a breath of fresh air. Even in trying circumstances, that support has endured. When Arsenal trailed 3-0 in the north London derby recently, there were no obvious signs of dissent from the away end. Instead, as the game came towards a close, they could be heard defiantly chanting: “We’ve got super Mik Arteta; he knows exactly what we need. ” Throughout the season, Arteta has made repeated calls for “unity” – he has got it.
Some of this can be put down to it being the first season with full stadiums since the pandemic. There has been a hunger for live sport, and a greater appreciation of that communal experience.
But there is more to it than that: in the stands as well as on the field, Arsenal appear to be getting younger.
Although many fans hurried to return to stadiums as soon as permitted, some did not – and many believe the Emirates Stadium’s atmosphere has benefited as a consequence.
“After the pandemic, the club offered season ticket holders the opportunity to take a ‘season ticket holiday’ for a year,” explains Raymond Herlihy – a founding member of support group REDaction, and the current chairman. “This opened up more season ticket opportunities for others, and also the match-by-match attendees have a younger demographic – I am a big believer in a lower average age leading to a better atmosphere. For many years, Arsenal have had the highest average age of season ticket holder.
It has been a similar situation among the traveling fans. “The longstanding ‘away season ticket’ scheme has been scrapped,” says Herlihy. “Though the regular crowd can still get away tickets through their credit history, it has opened up away ticket options to a whole new section of fans, who were previously unable to build any credits at all. The atmosphere suggests a big change in the away match faces at every game. ”
The atmosphere is a clear focus for Arteta. Like his Liverpool counterpart Jurgen Klopp, he is a big believer in the synergy between team and crowd. Arteta has shown the club images 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 genuinely believe in the idea,” says Jack, the co-leader of Ashburton Army. “Over the years, they have always wanted to work on it and now we have a serious growing group. There is clearly still work to do on stuff like ticket prices and cryptocurrency deals, but it does all take time. ”
Arsenal were able to enjoy their season farewell. It might be a longer goodbye for some – Alexandre Lacazette replaced Eddie Nketiah and with both coming to the end of their contracts, they may not return for next season. Arteta plans to speak to them in the next few days.
Nketiah was one of the handful of players, including the effervescent Gabriel Martinelli, Gabriel, Martin Odegaard and even Cedric, who were able to take full advantage of Everton’s vague interpretation of defending.
The youngest team in the Premier League signed off with conviction, and Arteta, Edu and the club’s executives went off to plot the next stage of team-building that is essential for more improvement.
“Thanks for the love” was the message plastered across a flag from the club to its fanbase as the players and their kids and families spilt back onto the pitch for a lap of appreciation.
There was Thomas Partey, Takehiro Tomiyasu and the rest whose absences were so keenly felt in recent weeks. The back-ups never quite delivered enough substance in the end. The gaps in the squad are well known.
For all the positives of this campaign, Arsenal know what they need to do to get even happier, and cement even stronger bonds, next time out.
(Top photo: David Price / Arsenal FC via Getty Images)