This story first appeared in the October 2015 edition of the Arsenal Magazine.
After four rounds of the current Premier League season, just 35 per cent of all victories had come in home matches. That’s compared to an overall home win rate throughout the Premier League era of 63 per cent.
Arsenal’s own form at Emirates Stadium had also stuttered lately, yet on the road the Gunners have lost just one of the last 14 matches, a run stretching back to January. In fact, over the last 44 league games, Arsène Wenger’s men have taken exactly the same number of points at home as they have away.
So is this a sign that playing in front of your own fans doesn’t offer as much advantage as it did in the past?
The boss is not convinced. Speaking exclusively to the Arsenal Magazine, the manager said there may be explanations for this trend, but stated that the Emirates faithful have a bigger part to play than ever before when it comes to supporting the team and influencing results.
This season in the Premier League there have been nine home wins, compared to 17 away. Has that surprised you, and what do you think it's down to?
I think it’s hugely surprising – it’s a huge surprise. It’s absolutely against all the rules that exist in the history of the game. But you have to be cautious because it’s only over a short period of time. I don’t believe these numbers will still stand at the end of the Premier League season, so the distance is not big enough yet to come to a definite conclusion.
But, saying that, this could indicate that the transitional side of the game has become more important. The speed of going from defence to offence is higher, and that we have more players in the league now who can absorb the distances we have to cover. There are lots of players who are quick in transition and have the physical qualities to cover 70 yards at a good pace.
When you prepare for a game, how much does the fact it's a home or away fixture affect your preparation?
I would say 90 per cent doesn’t change regardless of whether it’s home or away. I think at the end of the day it’s more down to how quickly we pass the ball, and move that will create the difference on the day.
But you do think we face tight lines at home, especially at the moment. So at home you think you select more players who can play through the lines, players who can be quick on the counter-attack three or four times per half, and choose players who can make runs behind defenders. What’s vital as well is having speed and players who can break on the flanks.
Overall, is there less difference between home games and away games than there used to be?
At the moment, yes there is, but I would also say, when you look at the history of all these games, most are decided by the first goal. A new scientific study within the Champions League last year was that, more than ever, the team who scores first wins.
Why? Because it puts the team in a very strong position to be able to counter attack, and that is the easiest way to attack without opening yourself up. Having said that, I think on a longer distance the current numbers about away games will be reversed.
I recently read a scientific study, which covered all types of sport, and what came out was that home teams are still favourites to win the games, and not because of the motivational factor of the players, but purely because of the support of the crowd.
In all variety of sports, they came to the scientific conclusion that the biggest advantage of the team that plays at home is the support of the crowd. It’s the biggest factor. That’s not my impression, it’s the result of a scientific study.
They eliminated all the other factors that could come in. It was a simple conclusion – it’s the home support that gives the advantage of the team. This home support can also turn against the home team if you don’t start well and if you are 1-0 down, but it also shows that influence is very strong.
Do those findings surprise you? What do you think are the other factor that determine differences between home and away form?
It was a big surprise to me because I would have said the obvious one for me would be the belief of the players is less strong when they play away compared to home matches. The study completely eliminated that though, and I don’t know how their calculations worked, but they came to the scientific conclusion that it’s not the case.
The players have the same desire to win home or away, but the home crowd influences the belief of the players. It certainly influences the decisions of the referees sometimes as well, and it lifts the team when they go through a bad spell, and they don’t pay the consequences as much as an away team does.
Historically do you think factors such as travel, facilities etc would have played more than a part than currently?
Yes, what’s less specific than before is the pitches and the grounds. Some teams had very difficult home grounds to play at – the dressing rooms are not the same, you spent a long time travelling and so on.
That has all changed now, the quality of the pitches is nearly the same everywhere, so you don’t feel as much that the grounds are different.
First of all the sizes of the pitches are the same everywhere, which was never the case before. That has levelled it out as well, so there are a few things that have gone in favour of the away team, which were more supportive of the home team before.
The decisive factor is still the crowd, but you could say that people have understood that for a long time. That’s why supporters travel to games away from home too, to give a chance to their team. That’s pragmatic, but it is real. Also the home support is there and sings, because they have an influence in the game.
Do some players seem to prefer home games, or have better records away? Do you think some players are more suited to playing 'away football'?
You could say it’s linked more to bravery, your character is more tested away from home. At home you feel the players are a bit more protected.
But what I say to my scouts is ‘watch this player for me, but watch him in an away game.’ You want to know how he behaves away from home because usually at home you will be all right. If a scout comes to me and says he has found a good player, I ask where he saw him.
"We have won at Real Madrid, we have won at Bayern, we have won in Milan, that shows we shouldn’t be scared"
If it was at home, I tell them to go and watch them away as well because it’s a better test of their character, their bravery and their desire. Once a player is good away from home, you can say you will consider him.
Is the difference between home and away games more pronounced lower down the football ladder?
Spontaneously I would agree with that, because most of the time in lower leagues the security is not as tight, the crowd are closer to the pitch and can influence the game more.
Also the quality of the pitches is not always the same, so all these kinds of protections we have in the Premier League don’t exist lower down.
What about at the top level, in the Champions League? Arsenal struggled away from home in Europe in our first few seasons, but have a very good record lately. What has changed there?
Well first of all it was a new competition for us. We were in a position where the players made too much of it. The unknown can create a little bit of fear or apprehension.
Slowly we got rid of that. Since then we have created a positive history. We have won at Real Madrid, we have won at Bayern, we have won in Milan, that shows we shouldn’t be scared.
We have won everywhere in Europe. So let’s just go out now and play our game. It’s a psychological issue, of course, and you can get rid of these issues by creating history and the number of games you play away from home.
You've said the away goals rule in Europe is outdated, why?
Because there is not as much difference between home and away games as there used to be, and the advantage for the away team under this rule is perhaps too big, considering what is at stake. The teams away from home are more protected now, so this advantage is unfair.
The rule was created to encourage teams not to be negative away from home. But as time has gone on, it has had the reverse affect.
It encourages the teams not to be adventurous at home, and to be more adventurous away from home, and you don’t want to punish the home crowds. At the moment you say a 0-0 draw at home in Europe is not a bad result.
Given England's relative size compared to the rest of Europe's major nations, Arsenal don't face many long domestic trips during the season. Thereford does whether Arsenal are playing at home or away not really concern you when you look at the fixtures?
It’s true, you certainly look more at the quality of the opponent than the distances you have to travel. One thing which is remarkable in England, is that no matter where you play, basically you can add five hours to the kick-off time and know you will be back home. That exists nowhere else in Europe among the big leagues.
So you look at whether it’s a derby, because London is a bit special, and then after that at the quality of the team, before the travel.
How does that compare to managing in France, you must have had some long trips as manager of Monaco?
It was terrible because when you played at Nantes for example, first of all the games kicked off at 8.30pm, and we had 1,000km to travel. That’s 600 miles, so you flew back at night and got home at about 4 or 5am. If you play three or four days later, you basically lost the first day.
Arsenal's away form has actually been better than our home form lately, why is that?
I don’t think it’s linked, maybe we have a team that is better suited to playing away from home. But also overall we have still taken more points at home than away, even if recently this has not been the case so much. That will balance itself again.
I believe that teams who come to the Emirates make two banks of four or five, and wait for us to come out, and try to catch us on the counter attack. Most of the time I still feel we will win the game if we pass the ball quickly and play with our usual quality.
How can you explain the fact that a team plays against the same opposition and the same players in two different venues and have two completely different games? Arsenal v Stoke is a good example of this...
Yes, they are completely different games. When you play away, the home team has to play as well. The home crowd won’t accept their team not to play at all. But when we play at the Emirates, the away fans would accept their team just defending and trying to catch us on the break, which they wouldn’t accept at home.
That’s one of the main differences. I also believe you have to find solutions to the problems you face. I take that as an opportunity to find solutions to a problem collectively. That means finding space in behind the defence, between the lines and play quicker football.
Is it essential to have a strong home record in order to win the league? Arsenal had a better away record than home during the 2001/02 title winning season...
That was what made me say my dream was to go through the season without losing a game, because we did it away from home that year. And if you can do it away, you can do it at home too.
I think it’s important to feel ‘OK, we are playing at home so we will win.’ You need to have that comfort. In order to create a positive environment you cannot lose too many games at home, because your crowd is based there, and slowly you would create a negative atmosphere. So it’s very important to win your home games, so that your fans go home happy.
There was virtually no difference in terms of results between our last 200 games at Highbury and the first 200 at Emirates, so what effect does a new stadium have on home form?
The crowd is bigger at the Emirates, but it took us a while to feel comfortable here. As we have spoken about, the biggest factor is whether the crowd is there and supporting the team, more than actually the design of the building and the stands.
How about when Arsenal experimented with playing home Champions League games at Wembley Stadium in the late 1990's? The games were sold out, but Arsenal's form was erractic. Is that when home games don't feel like home games?
Yes, that was a big problem for us. In hindsight it was maybe a mistake to move to Wembley, but we had no real choice as Uefa did not accept us holding the games at Highbury. Looking back today, I say it was a handicap for us.
The players were comfortable at Highbury and the teams that visited us weren’t comfortable. Suddenly it was like we were playing games on a neutral ground, basically.
We might see teams like Chelsea and Tottenham having to play games at a temporary home soon, how difficult will that be for them?
When you move into a new stadium, you have to feel at home. You have to feel that it is the right place for you. That is only created by the history that you build slowly through the games.
I still think it’s a little bit of a disadvantage, even for the fans, they do not feel completely at home, and that can transmit to the players.
When you have been in a bad run of form either at home or away, have you ever tried to chance anything to make home games feel like away matches of vice versa?
Yes sometimes when you want to shock the players you can move away from the routine a little bit, because routines can make players sleepy. Sometimes you have to shock them by doing things differently. But you have to make sure you are not wrong, because if it goes wrong the players will wonder why we didn’t prepare as usual.
It can be an important weapon to prepare the team, but let’s not forget that the basic ingredients that make you win a game is to prepare well and get the right work-rate in on the day of the game, then you earn the right to win. When you earn that right, the supporters will back you, and we know that support is vital.
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