People sometimes ask me how I came to love the Arsenal. The answer is I started watching them….and something spoke to me. I’ve heard someone describe picking a team as akin to a “sorting hat,” a la Hogswarts. The beauty of play was special, and I was fairly quickly sorted. Never to be unsorted.
At the time I last visited the Emirates in Fall of 2019, there was nothing beautiful about the way we were playing. And the fans had been noisily unhappy for a long time. The incident with Granit Xhaka that caused him to lose the captaincy and almost leave the team happened on that trip. Unai Emery was still at the helm, losing his grasp by the minute. The soccer was grim.
As the world changed over the ensuing years, so has the Arsenal changed. Mikel Arteta, one of the heroes of my post, Dogs win, cats eat bad lasagne, part 2, returned as the manager after a stint as an assistant at Manchester City. Most of the players I wasn’t feeling so good about when I wrote in 2019 are gone, or at least far removed from the favored 11. Instead, we have an amazingly youthful team, the youngest starting squad in the Premier League. Several of the players graduated from our youth academy, some were purchased recently.
With that youth has come some inconsistency. There have been moments of abject brilliance and moments of boneheadedness. We’ve toiled in lowly positions on the table and, in 2021, for the first time since I’ve been following the team, finished outside European tournament contention. But 2022 offered some green shoots. We only narrowly missed qualification for the Champions League. And the fans turned a corner with a vengeance. Have never seen my fan compatriots so supportive of the team. It sounds like attending matches at the Emirates is pure joy.
The 2021-22 Arsenal season was covered in the new Prime Video documentary All or Nothing, which was a total romp, although of course I knew the dissatisfying outcome. I had watched the prior year’s All or Nothing that covered Tottenham’s campaign after Mauricio Pochettino left and Jose Mourinho came in. I was nervous that watching would somehow humanize Tottenham as a team. I need not have been concerned. As you know, I am not even remotely capable of feeling conflicted about Mourinho. He was just as you’d expect, and the Tottenham players seemed jaded, boring. Really, only Dele Alli seemed like a human. A “fucking lazy” human, per Jose.
But the Arsenal version….maybe the players are too young to be jaded. They were sweet and funny and looked to be “living the dream.” I loved the segment in which soon-to-be-signed Aaron Ramsdale was at his team physical and had to explain to the team doctor how he broke his arm as a child–riding his skateboard down a slide. Naturally. And the scenes where his parents were so nervous, they could barely bring themselves to watch him tend goal for the first time at the Emirates. Pure Gold.
And this season. This season. Arsenal had a great summer in the transfer market and picked up a few players from Man City who slotted right into the team and looked awesome not only in the pre-season when every man, woman, and child is a World Beater, but into the season as well. Arsenal convinced a young player, William Saliba, who’d been on loan in France for multiple seasons–and liked it that way–that it was time to come to the Emirates for the first time. He popped right into the first 11 for all three matches. He scored an own goal in the first home match and the fans forgave him immediately and loudly. Then again, his overall play had been phenomenal, that moment aside.
This team has offered lovely build up play, fluid movement, speed, trickery, chaos, and the world’s most gorgeous goals. My hope is more than rekindled. It’s in conflagration mode. We sit in first place after 3 matches.
I know: three matches. But still.
Over the weekend I was watching the third match on TV, an away fixture against Bournemouth. The Arsenal fans must have been situated very close to the broadcast microphones because they were chanting loudly all game. About 30 minutes into the first half they broke into a new song in honor of William Saliba, which they never stopped until half time. Clearly a new song because Saliba has only just arrived at Arsenal and, much to my relief, a very simple song that no one in the world would struggle to learn. There is a lot buildup to the climax, but in the end, only one word to learn. It may sound familiar; want to sing along? Saliba rewarded the fans in the second half with a goal that you’d have to see to believe. The Arsenal fans also busted out a song I’ve never heard before in honor of Granit Xhaka. Xhaka’s been with Arsenal for about 6 years and, as far as I know, literally unsung. Even he is earning fan appreciation.
This whole business of the new songs during the Bournemouth match put me in a cold sweat as I realized I might be too rusty to be a truly part of this fan renaissance. I googled like crazy to learn the songs I needed to learn, with very little success.
It will not matter in the end. Off I go to the airport with a packed suitcase, an intern’s spirit, and a ticket that gets me into the Emirates on Saturday.
I maybe can’t learn the new songs any old where, but I can learn them there.