Mikel Arteta hailed the “special” return of 2,000 Arsenal fans for their Europa League win against Rapid Vienna, adding that the players felt a huge difference.
It has been nine months since fans have graced the stands of the Emirates, but after a recent lifting of England’s second national lockdown and return to Tier 2 restrictions in London, a small number of fans were allowed back into the stadium.
Despite a recent run of poor form, especially in the Premier League, the Arsenal fans were treated to a superb performance by their team, beating Rapid Vienna 4-1 and seeing the return of long-term injury absentees Pablo Mari and Calum Chambers.
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Arteta said: “It was very special and [I’m] delighted to have them [the fans] back. I think they made a huge contribution.
“We had 2,000 but it looked like many more. They were really supportive with the team, they were very encouraging to the team and the lads were saying here it makes a huge difference to feel that encouragement and support from them.
“Thank you so much to them for coming and supporting the team.
“This sport without fans is completely different. The players lose a bit of purpose and emotion. We are here to entertain and make the fans enjoy. When they are able to transmit that it gets directly to the players.”
At one point, the fans asked for an Arteta wave, but the manager explained: “I was so focused on the game I didn’t hear what they were saying. I really appreciate that. It made a huge difference honestly.”
Arsenal maintained their 100 per cent record in the Europa League group stages with victory on Thursday, and Arteta was pleased with the response after losing to Wolves on Sunday.
He told Arsenal.com: “It was a great reaction from the boys and right from the kick-off we were active and really aggressive, without and with the ball.
“We were creative, we had a lot of movements, we had purpose, we attacked the opponent’s box and we created many chances to score four goals. We probably could have score more as well.
“It’s great news [to see Pablo and Calum back] because those boys have been working really hard with the medical department. They put in a lot of hours to give themselves the chance to play and perform the way they did today. We have another two really good characters back with us and it’s really good news.”
Analysis: A much-needed step in the right direction
Sky Sports journalist Oliver Yew at the Emirates:
“That matchday feeling is a special one for all football fans and one we’ve missed since stadiums were closed due in March to the coronavirus pandemic.
“But for 2,000 lucky Arsenal fans on Thursday night, it was back.
“On the drive to the ground you could spot the famous red and white shirt in the restaurants and bars along Holloway Road. They were obviously not at full capacity but the sight of returning matchday fans is welcome boost for the businesses of the local area.
“The streets around the ground, normally a hive of activity on matchday, were still relatively quiet. The roads moved freely and there appeared to be more people on their commutes home than were heading to the stadium.
“The concourse outside Arsenal’s Armoury shop, which also houses the box office, was quiet, while the large concourse inside the stadium, just outside the press area, was empty but for a few stewards.
“An hour before kick-off the teams were read out and there was barely a whimper from the 50 or so people already inside the ground. There wasn’t even a cheer for the returning Gunnersaurus, following his brief hiatus in the summer.
“It wasn’t until The Arsenal were introduced for their warm-up that the first real ovation of the night was heard. More and more fans had begun taking the available seats in the two open areas of the stadium, and they welcomed the players like they’d never been away.
“When the teams were then read out again, each name was greeted with applause and cheers before the action finally got underway. The crowd let out another roar, which felt like a huge sense of relief for everyone inside the stadium.
“Early in the game, the fans went through the whole repertoire. Song after song was belted out.
“And then came the moment that showed us exactly why we’d missed the fans so much. Alexandre Lacazette thumped the ball home from 30 yards and the Emirates Stadium erupted. There was meaning in Lacazette’s celebration as he slid on his knees in front of the Arsenal fans. They reciprocated that feeling in a moment full of passion – a moment that had been missed in football stadium up and down the country.
“The party atmosphere continued as Pablo Mari and Eddie Nketiah extended Arsenal’s advantage, but there was a quieter moment just after the break when Rapid Vienna hit back through Kohya Kitagawa. Only an Arsenal defeat was going to dampen the mood here but the sudden pause was a reminder of the disappointment that comes with the joys of football.
“For a moment, the Emirates was hushed and the fear of what could come next was in the air. It was, though, a feeling which didn’t last long – substitute Emile Smith-Rowe sent the Arsenal fans, who stayed all the way to the final whistle, happy by adding the Gunners’ fourth goal.
“To a man, the Arsenal players went to the two sides of the ground where the supporters were sat and applauded. It was a job well done on the pitch and off it.
“It may not be the matchday as we know and love it, but it’s a much-needed step in the right direction.”
Analysis: A good, but strange, experience
Sky Sports News reporter Chris Reidy at the Emirates:
“Getting the bus to the Emirates, I hardly saw any Arsenal fans, you wouldn’t even know it was a matchday. There were similar scenes at the stadium – it was pretty much empty, there were more media outside because of the spectacle of the first game since lockdown!
“Firstly, we had a normal check to get in, then a temperature check and an ID check. We were then asked to sanitise our hands before going in. All in all, it’s a very different way of going to the football, a whole new experience basically and you can see why they’ve done it so small first, to make sure it’s simplified and done correctly.
“The entrance was quite streamlined. You can see there are more stewards than on a normal matchday, they all come directly to one place so they can guide you exactly where you need to go. Entry wasn’t staggered, they just encouraged social distancing and because it was such a small crowd, you never felt like there were too many people or you were close to anyone.
“Just before kick-off, we had quite an emotional moment as the Arsenal squad came and did a lap of honour to say welcome back and thank you for sticking with us during lockdown. It was a really nice moment, they spent a bit longer than they usually would with the crowd. It felt like a welcome back – you could see what it meant to them because they came over as a team, so it was really nice.
“Inside the ground there was plenty of signage. The North Bank and East Stand lower tiers were the only areas opened to the public. There were spare rows employed to make sure everybody was sitting apart from each other by at least two or three seats. All the seats you couldn’t use had a sign on them, and generally speaking it was all quite clear about where you needed to go and what you can and cannot do.
“We had to wear a face mask at all times. I can’t hide the fact it was very strange, it was another one of the weird quirks in this football experience. Singing and cheering when having a mask on definitely still feels a bit odd, but the people around me didn’t mind.
“Straight from the off, it felt like a reserve team or a pre-season game, or a friendly. You can see why the players find it such a drastic change of scenery – going back to when there were 60,000 fans to today, the atmosphere is really eerie and different. Even though we got some really obvious moments of silence, people were still happy to be there and sang constantly throughout, but it’s always going to be quite echoey and weird in a 60,000-seat stadium.
“Arsenal were attacking towards the fans in the second half, and that’s when everyone got more excited. I don’t think anyone was tempted to flout the rules, everyone behaved themselves, a lot of effort was made to ensure nobody messed up.
“I think it was a success in terms of social distancing and was well-managed overall. It was a very different experience, in a stadium that big you could potentially see there is space for more but I know that Arsenal will always want to have more fans in such a big stadium and hopefully that will happen sooner rather than later.”
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