Footballers are never slow to grab at excuses and so it was inevitable that after Arsenal started the season with draws at the Emirates Stadium against Aston Villa and Middlesbrough, out came the old saw about it being difficult to adapt to life at a new home. “All the teams that have moved stadiums have struggled in the first year, but I hope we will not struggle that much,” said their captain Thierry Henry. “It is weird for everybody.”
Well, perhaps. What actually makes a team play better at home is impossible to determine, but it is a fair assumption that familiarity with surroundings is one of the three main factors, along with the support of a partisan crowd and the deleterious effect on the away team of having to travel. In the first two or three games that familiarity will not be there, and so home advantage is likely to be less significant – although that does not alter the fact that if Arsenal want to challenge for the Premiership, they can’t afford to drop too many points at home against sides who are likely to finish the season no higher than upper midtable.
The problem is that, when you start with a clean slate, trends are magnified, and that can become a mental issue – certainly if Arsenal don’t beat Sheffield United, significantly the worst side in the Premiership so far this season, on Saturday doubts will set in.
It was to challenge that danger, rather than through any belief in druidic mysticism, that Southampton, having failed to win any of their opening five games at St Mary’s when they moved there from the Dell in 2002, brought in a purple-robed pagan priestess, Cerridwen ‘Dragonoak’ Connelly, to lift a curse supposedly placed on the club for building their new stadium on an ancient Saxon burial ground.
Yet the statistics show that teams have nothing to fear from a move. In fact, of the eight clubs who have moved to a new ground in the past decade – and stayed in the same division – five have seen their home form improve the following season. In their final season in their old ground, those eight teams collected 62 per cent of their points at home; in their first season at their new grounds, that percentage rose to 65.23.
It should be pointed out as well, that those statistics are significantly skewed by Stoke City, who in 1996-97, their final season at the Victoria Ground, claimed an astonishing 75 per cent of the points they won at home. Although that fell to 63.04 per cent the following season, that still hardly represents a home hoodoo. Contrary to Henry’s claim that all teams struggle with a move, a switch actually turns out to be good for you.
Logically, anyway, Arsenal should prosper at the Emirates. No side in the Premiership is so reliant for success on passing and movement, on the creation of space, and there is, quite simply, more space at the new ground than there was at Highbury. The pitch there was notoriously small, measuring just 101m by 67m – Wenger once even used the lack of space to explain why his sides picked up so many bookings. At the new ground the pitch measures 113m by 76m: there are an additional 1821 square metres for Henry, Alexander Hleb and Tomas Rosicky to make their darts into.
The truth is, anyway, that the draws in those opening two games at the Emirates don’t tell the full story; Arsenal have had much the better of both and have been denied only by their age-old weakness of failing to kill off teams they are dominating. History suggests that will click sometimes soon, new stadium or no. Sheffield United are unlikely to find the new surroundings provide much comfort.