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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 5 March 2021

Arsenal exposed to rising hostility as fans return to stadium during poor run of form

As 2,000 supporters return to the Emirates Stadium, the Gunners need to be braced for some live criticism given the team's ongoing struggles

Last Saturday morning, it felt like the days when a long away trip would be the highlight of a weekend. Thousands of Arsenal supporters rose early, felt the adrenalin, but this being England under strict lockdown, rushed only as far as their laptops or smartphones.

They were chasing tickets, special ones. Arsenal’s will be the first Premier League stadium since March to host supporters in a competitive game on Thursday night, and though it may only be a Europa League match against Rapid Vienna in a group Arsenal have already qualified from, it is a breakthrough moment. Hence the rush to be first in the queue when the club website opened the race for the limited seats allowed at 9am last Saturday.

Because government easing of a ban on spectators was announced only late the previous week, there was no time for Arsenal to design a more sophisticated allocation system for the 2,000 paid seats allowed than first come, first served.

Even to get that many makes Arsenal luckier than some; London is deemed less at risk than many parts in England, so fans can attend matches in small numbers there but cannot in many parts of the north and midlands.

Players have almost universally welcomed an end to matches played out only to the sound of teammates, coaches, opponents and sometimes self-conscious radio commentators, but it may feel a little startling to them to suddenly hear passionate loyalists and critics again.

Two thousand people in a stadium with a capacity and acoustics for 60,000 - as Arsenal’s stadium has - will not vibrate to a constant thrum. But if the performance irritates, there will be enough groans in unison to be heard. And those lucky enough to have tickets will find it still quiet enough to hear the specific instructions coming from the technical areas.

Mikel Arteta, the Arsenal manager, says he likes the idea of that close communion. “I want them [the fans] to see really closely what the team is trying to do,” says Arteta, who is in the curious position of having spent two thirds of his career so far as a senior head coach operating in emptied arenas.

He was only appointed late last December, and when he became one of the first high-profile figures in the sport to test positive for coronavirus, it signalled to the wider game that there would be no prospect of carrying on as normal.

After the long lockdown, behind-closed-doors football resumed for Premier League clubs in July. About Arteta, the novice manager, much would be learned thanks to the silence of the stadiums. Because there was no crowd noise, reporters, staff and TV viewers gained a sharper sense of how vocal, and clear, he is on the touchline.

And, indeed, how multilingual. For an Arsenal team made up, typically, of more footballers whose native language is French or Spanish than English, they have an ideal boss. Arteta, a Spaniard who grew up in the Basque Country and Catalonia and once a midfielder with Paris Saint-Germain, is fluent in many tongues.

He often selects the most appropriate one depending which player he is talking to. Eavesdroppers learnt during the summer resumption of football, when ‘cooling breaks’ were timetabled into matches, that Arteta speaks with clarity and purpose to his players, whatever the language.

His predecessors would be forgiven for thinking that a run of 30 matches without crowds present, the run Arteta is coming out of, might be a beneficial initiation for an Arsenal manager. A culture of hostility took hold at the handsome Emirates stadium during the later years of Arsene Wenger’s long reign, and it was shrill. Unai Emery, who succeeded Wenger and lasted a season and a half, heard the same tone.

So did Granit Xhaka when he was wearing the captain’s armband. All big clubs have indignant, noisy fans, but Arsenal are the only club, in the last 14 months of Premier League football, whose skipper relinquished the armband because he swore at supporters who had been jeering him.

Xhaka has captained Arsenal again, since then, under Arteta, in the Europa League, behind-closed-doors. He redeemed his reputation to a degree, influential in a post-shutdown run that delivered an FA Cup triumph under the new manager. But the same frustrations that stirred the chants of ‘Wenger Out’ and chased Emery a year ago have not disappeared. Arteta’s team have lost more than they have won in the league so far in 2020-21.

They are 14th in the table, and their bad luck is that, on the first Premier League weekend with fans back, they must go to the home of the leaders.

Tottenham Hotspur are allowed 2,000 fans on Sunday, and they will certainly make themselves heard - because it’s Arsenal and it has been a while since the gap between the two rivals was quite so wide.

Published: December 3, 2020 07:55 AM

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