Saturday, 16 August 2014

Season preview: do we always need ‘one or two signings’?

The theme for many season previews this week has been how Arsenal need to strengthen in one or two areas to seriously challenge for the title.

Even Arsene wheeled the line out in his press conference yesterday as he has done, fittingly, once or twice before. Actually, no, make that thrice.

He’s not alone. Every manager seems to think they need a couple more players to complete their squad and it’s become a bit of a cliché.

So is it true of Arsenal at least?

Well, I’m far more upbeat on the cusp of this season compared to the last one and we definitely have a stronger squad after the summer’s transfer activity. This wasn’t a case of us doing business early, more of us just doing business at all.

Alexis Sanchez is obviously the standout new boy. Being far from an expert on La Liga, I had a gander at youtube to see some of his best bits and had to reload some of the clips because I thought they were playing back at x1.5 speed. No, he’s just that fast.

It was striking last weekend how much quicker and sharper we looked on the breakaway with Sanchez on the pitch. Quick and successful counter attacks became less of a feature of our game as Wenger adapted our style in the second half of his reign to fit different personnel. But it would be a real positive if we can recreate some of the threat which the Invincibles always possessed and that may be Sanchez’s biggest contribution.

I would expect him to become our lead front man in place of Giroud by the end of the season. It seems logical to me to have your best players in central positions and he will have far more influence as a number 9 than trying to cut in from either flank. He might lack a bit of height but he seems like a tough nut and should be able to handle the likes of Shawcross. I’m keeping my fingers crossed for a Thierry Henry-like conversion over the first half of the season as he adapts to the joys of English football.

Our other signings have been replacements rather than additions, but they still feel like they have put us in a better position. We’ve not seen Ospina in Arsenal colours yet but he impressed at the World Cup and should put more pressure on Szczesny than Flapianski. Debuchy may not be much younger than Sagna but he has stepped in to his shoes admirably for the French national team and there should be no reason he won’t do the same for us.

Calum Chambers appears to have replaced Vermaelen as a third choice centre back, though his versatility will be greater. Chambers has shown real poise in his first friendly appearances and looks a very exciting prospect, certainly a better bet than someone like Chris Smalling who we have always been linked with.

And lest we forget that also since the first morning of last season we bought a certain Mesut Özil. The guy is world class and even if he never appeared to devastate teams single-handedly last season, his influence was still impressive. I still think much of the improvement in Aaron Ramsey last year can be put down to having someone of Özil’s quality to train and play alongside. The arrival of Sanchez should inspire Özil to greater heights. Without wanting to denigrate Giroud, subconsciously Özil will have known Giroud would either not be on his wavelength or he wouldn’t convert the opportunities he created anyway. The same can’t be said of Sanchez and the could create some combination.

So are we really one or two players short? I would still put Chelsea and Manchester City’s squad as the stronger overall. Injuries have taken their toll on us in the past few seasons and even though the arrival of the fabled Shad Forsythe should ease that problem, it is inevitable we will need to draft in reserves.

This is where I hope the ruthlessness Wenger has shown so far this summer, demonstrated in securing his targets without dithering over prices and shipping out the likes of Jenkinson rather than letting him improve on his watch, can continue. Instead of worrying about potentially ‘killing’ a couple of his existing players by bringing in more competition, it would be nice to over-stock. We’ve reached that position in attacking midfielders and if we keep Joel Campbell and Podolski we’ve probably got their up front. At the back, though, we still feel vulnerable to the loss of a first-choice defender.

So maybe like all good clichés, there is a ring of truth to the idea of being ‘one or two’ away from a complete squad. Just like needing to take things one game at a time, perhaps we need to see how the rest of the transfer window pans out before truly believing the title can be ours.

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Arsenal’s actual average attendance last season was 53,788

It has long been a bug bear of mine that Arsenal announces official attendances which so often are clearly not accurate. The scores of empty seats at many home matches are clear proof that things are not what they seem.

It's become a bit of a running joke among supporters and everyone seems to have accepted it. But I've got so annoyed with the ‘tickets sold = attendance’ policy that I decided to try and do something about it.

So, armed with a trusty sword of truth and shield of justice, I did what every great conspiracy theorist-in-the-making does and fired off a freedom of information request.

It went to the Met Police, that bastion of fair play and trustworthiness, who eventually delivered what I asked for: the actual attendance figures supplied to them by the Club for every home game last season.

The real attendance stats
The figures (based on the official stadium capacity of 60,338 stated in the 2013/14 Premier League Handbook and which can be downloaded from the image below) make for stark reading:

* on average the actual attendance was 5,998 lower than that stated by the Club
* on average 6,550 seats were empty per game
* the worst attended match was Fenerbahce at 44,779, which was 15,559 lower than capacity and 11,492 below the official attendance
* the best attended game was Liverpool in the league at 57,341
* the real average attendance was 53,788 compared to 59,786 announced by the Club
* a total of 173,945 seats went unoccupied at home games last season

(For reasons only known to themselves, the Met have not published my request and the data on their website, which they appear to do with most other FOIs. But if anyone doubts their validity, the FOI reference was 2014050000832 and Arsenal have said the numbers are ‘broadly accurate’ which I’m taking to mean ‘accurate’. If you want to download the sheet visit )

Hopefully the chart and numbers speak for themselves but I’ll highlight a couple of points that struck me.

Firstly, it isn’t ‘big games’ that necessarily draw the biggest crowds. The Chelsea (Premier League, not League Cup) and Bayern Munich matches were only the 18th and 19th best attended last season while Southampton, Norwich and Fulham were 5th, 6th and 7th.

Secondly, non-weekend matches are generally more poorly attended: Saturday and Sunday games comprise nine of the top 15 attendances compared to only three of the bottom 14. Does that mean weekday travel could be improved or just that supporters are inevitably going to struggle to get away from work / school / college in time?

Thirdly, television coverage appears to be a non-issue. I can’t see a pattern based on whether matches were screened on terrestrial or digital television but I’m open to any suggestions that I’m missing something.

Why oh why
The numbers trigger two ‘why’ questions: why does Arsenal announce the tickets sold figure as the attendance, and why do up to 6,000 people not turn up to every game?

My working theory going in to this exercise was that the Club uses the ‘tickets sold’ number to overinflate the true demand for tickets, thereby helping to justify charging some of the highest prices in the world. It also encourages season ticket holders to renew and avoid potentially missing out on tickets on a match by match basis because they think demand is *so* high. The counter point to that argument is that matches are selling out so surely demand is there. But when you consider there are approximately 45,000 season ticket holders (leaving about 12,000 tickets for match-by-match purchase if you assume 3,000 away fans), there will be many more people who have paid for a ticket that they want to get rid of than those actively deciding to go to a particular match.

However, having looked at things in more detail, I think the real answer to the first question is that a) it’s probably just easier and quicker to give that than the real attendance and b) it appears to be common practice. I dropped a quick email to a dozen current Premier League sides. Of those that responded, only Spurs said their policy is based on actual attendance. Burnley, QPR and Everton all base it on ticket sales. It was by no means a scientific exercise but it at least shows Arsenal isn’t the only club who practice the policy.

What Arsenal say
At this stage I got in touch with the Club to get their side of the story. They strongly rejected the suggestion that the policy was an attempt to deliberate mislead supporters in connection to ticket prices.

Their statement said: “We are clear in all our communication that the figure we are announcing reflects the number of tickets sold.

“The club are comfortable with using ‘number of tickets sold’ as the measurement for attendances, and believe it is a reliable and relevant one. We have no plans to review this at present.

“It’s worth making the point that the Club work hard to ensure that Emirates Stadium is as full as possible on matchdays, through our Ticket Transfer and Ticket Exchange systems.”

I would dispute the point about them clearly stating that attendances reflect tickets sold. The media are apparently told it explicitly on match day but I don’t see any evidence of it in the programme or Club magazine. It also doesn’t state it on the Club website (though equally it also doesn’t say it is the attendance, it just gives a number which floats around on match reports).

I didn’t ask the Club to explain why they think an average of 6,000 supporters do not turn up having bought a ticket as I think it is an impossible question to answer. The more important point is what they are doing about it and in highlighting the Ticket Transfer and Ticket Exchange schemes the approach they are taking is clear.

What more can be done
The Arsenal Supporters’ Trust asked a series of interesting questions at the last supporters’ forum and the answers also show the Club is looking at improving those systems, with the prospect of a ‘seat utilisation’ scheme in the offing. I would take that to mean incentivising people who do actually turn up or make use of their ticket. That could include rewarding supporters through cup final ticket prioritisation, as Tim Payton, the AST secretary, suggests in this blog. Tim also raises another good way of improving the Ticket Exchange system, by allowing tickets to be bought/sold for less than face value.

There is clearly a problem with the Ticket Exchange system. At the time of writing, there was supposedly half a dozen tickets available through it online for the Crystal Palace game but when you click on them they say they are no longer available. The buying process is extremely user unfriendly and the selling process must be the same – you can guarantee there will be more than half a dozen empty seats on Saturday.

Some other points I would throw in to the debate about getting people to the ground are trying to address the non-weekend travel issues, assuming that is a problem for people as the chart suggests. If the Club successfully pressed the authorities to put on a few more late trains would that be enough to convince people to come to games?

I think the Club could also put more effort into its supporters’ clubs. If the volunteers running them were given more backing, they might attract and keep more members and in turn be able to run more transport to and from games.

Admitting the problem
Whatever you reckon the solution is, the first step is for the Club to acknowledge how serious the problem is in the first place and I think that means abandoning the ‘tickets sold’ policy on official attendance, or at least giving the true attendance as well as tickets sold.

Fundamentally, Arsenal is redefining the word ‘attendance’ and it is misleading. Other clubs do it as well but Arsenal has always claimed to stand for higher values than everyone else and it should do so again here. I hope getting the real attendances into the public raises the profile of the issue and goes some way to convincing the Club they need to rethink the policy. Only then can they talk honestly about how to fill all the empty seats.

PS: On a historical note, the Club also confirmed that the supposed record attendance at the Emirates Stadium (against Man U in 2007) was based on tickets sold. Hope the club historians have their asterisks ready.

Sunday, 25 May 2014

Season review: We've got that winning feeling

How different this season review would have felt had Alex Bruce’s header not been cleared off the line by Kieran Gibbs last week. Had we fallen 3-0 behind at Wembley, and presumably gone on to lose the FA Cup Final, no doubt my assessment would have been a lot less positive.

Such is the fickle nature of football supporters and the fine margins between success and failure. At least after nine years of waiting, we’ve managed to get on the right side of the divide.

Winning some silverware after, in Arsenal world, a pretty long wait surely seals Arsene Wenger’s future as manager for at least a couple of years more. As he had talked about the result against Hull having no bearing on his future on the club, I wonder whether he would have moved into a director role if we had lost.

It is pointless speculating and the main point to focus on is that, in the space of 120 minutes, the current group of players have gone from losers to winners. It should have happened in 2011 with the League Cup and it’s intriguing to think what impact taking that opportunity would have had. The hope should be that the injection of confidence and belief, and removing the pressure of not winning, will turn the side into a genuine title challenger.

Does the FA Cup win mean those who argued Wenger should stay have been proved right and those who wanted him out proved wrong? If only it were so clean cut…

Over the past few years I have increasingly fallen in to the latter camp – though not as vehemently as many fans – for a variety of reasons beyond a lack of silverware; namely the way transfer windows were handled, the unwillingness to consider tactical trickery to overcome stronger (and richer) opponents, rewarding players too early with big contract deals that seemed to stifle their desire rather than encourage it, the failure of new signings to contribute and the unwillingness of the manager to admit his mistakes at the cost of the team (ie retaining Almunia in goal for so, so long).

Even Wenger’s staunchest supporters should not now pretend the kind of questions raised over the past eight seasons have been answered with the FA Cup. Equally, it would have been wrong to judge Wenger on the outcome of one match, albeit an FA Cup Final.

We have improved overall this season and it would have been odd to boot him out now having put up with a lot worse in recent years. The key was achieving that Champions League spot again – had the woeful performance at Everton prompted a real collapse and missing out on fourth then there would have been a stronger justification for changing managers.

But instead we can see this as a season of progress. Even taking the hammerings received at Man City, Liverpool and Chelsea into account, doubts about the resolve of the team and its ability to see out a win appear to have been answered once and for all.

The signing of Özil elevated us to a new level and even if he did not consistently produce performances worthy of his £42m price tag (though I expect him to next season), I don’t think we would have achieved what we have without him. Would Ramsey have raised his game as much without working alongside someone like Özil? Would the rest of the team have felt the Club had any sort of ambition anymore if we hadn’t made such a ‘statement’ signing?

In his heart of hearts, though, Wenger must have known this team was not capable of becoming champions, or more specifically its front line was not up to the job. Giroud – at least in isolation – is not a strong enough striker to win a title with.

On days when things are not clicking, you need to rely on a striker who can conjure up a goal from nowhere. While Giroud can perform other roles pretty adequately, neither he or any other strikers in the squad could deliver that. Ramsey stepped up countless times from midfield but an even stronger cutting edge is needed. Wenger’s pursuit of Suarez last summer is proof he realised it was an area of weakness and it will surely be where he focuses most this close season too.

When I look back at my reviews of the past few seasons there have been far more negatives than positives. Whether it was doubts about the mental or physical fragility of the squad, retaining our best players or being able to secure deals for better players there was plenty to weigh on our minds.

Today it feels like those fundamental problems have been addressed and while some flaws still remain – particularly around the club’s injury record which is receiving increasing scrutiny – the outlook is far more positive.

What we (or maybe it’s just me) need to do is accept and embrace Wenger’s faults as much as his strengths for the remainder of his days leading Arsenal.

His philosophy of football and human nature generally mean he’ll never set a team out to deliberately stifle opponents and grind out a hard-earned point. He’ll never straitjacket his players into performing particular tasks. He’ll trust his players to express themselves and find solutions to problems on the pitch.

Forgiving the errors that approach leads to, and enjoying the benefits it brings, is far easier when you have a trophy in the cabinet to admire.