Are Arsenal fans creating a toxic atmosphere at the Emirates?
Arsenal legend Thierry Henry said last week that the fans seemed angrier than ever, and while Arsene Wenger has played down his comments, the Frenchman had earlier made a public plea to supporters at Emirates Stadium to get behind the team.
The issue came to fore again after the 2-2 draw against Tottenham when Wenger said: "I prefer that the fans are happy but I'm more worried that it can get to the players' confidence level."
ESPN FC's Arsenal bloggers James McNicholas, Tom Adams and Andrew Mangan give us the lowdown on the current mood at the club.
What's the atmosphere at the Emirates like?
James McNicholas: Visiting fans are quick to mock the hush that can sometimes envelop the Emirates, and it's true that it's hardly a cauldron of noise. However, the sheer number of fans in attendance can see it rocking from time to time -- see the reaction to Danny Welbeck's late winner against Leicester by way of example. The main thing I'd say about the atmosphere is that it's one fraught with tension. Arsenal fans harbour some long-held frustrations with their team, and it doesn't take long for that anger to surface.
Tom Adams: The atmosphere is generally pretty poor -- although that's hardly a problem which uniquely affects Arsenal. The really good matches stand out -- the start of the Champions League semifinal, second leg against Manchester United in 2009 in particular -- but it's generally quiet and, certain sections aside, it's uncommon to hear very much chanting. It can also turn toxic quickly. Seeing abuse hurled at Arsene Wenger from men standing not 10 metres away from him is not unheard of.
How does it compare to Highbury?
James McNicholas: As beautiful as the new stadium is, it's nowhere near as evocative as Highbury. That's largely due to the fact that the old ground was steeped in history, and there simply haven't yet been as many great occasions at the Emirates. What's more, many groups of fans were separated when the club switched grounds and the atmosphere subsequently suffered.
Tom Adams: There's an element of looking at this through rose-tinted glasses. Highbury was famously nicknamed "The Library" by opposition supporters, and a trip to one of London's more expensive enclaves wasn't exactly like visiting Galatasaray. That said, James is right: the atmosphere did suffer with the move to Emirates Stadium and it probably hasn't returned to Highbury levels. But then Highbury was a much more intimate stadium, designed less with corporate visitors in mind. Higher ticket prices also attract a different, and older, kind of fan.
What do you make of Wenger's comments?
Andrew Mangan: To me he wasn't trying to blame fans, because he must understand the pressure comes from the results his team have suffered. I think he's concerned that confidence is so brittle right now that anything that might damage it further isn't welcome. The answer, however, is for his team to play better, and he could have made that more clear.
James McNicholas: I thought they were strange -- especially coming after an away game. Even if things can be fractious at the Emirates, the away fans are almost universally supportive.
Tom Adams: I thought his comments were fairly innocuous and accurate, to an extent. There is an issue with how quickly some supporters get on the players' backs, groaning when Aaron Ramsey misplaces a pass, for instance, or booing when Olivier Giroud misses chance after chance against Monaco. But this isn't a problem without a cause. If Arsenal perform to a higher standard, the standard they are capable of, then Wenger won't have an issue.
Do Arsenal fans get value for money?
James McNicholas: I wouldn't say so. Arsenal fans pay the highest prices in Europe. For that kind of money, they should be watching a team with realistic aspirations of winning the Champions League. Unfortunately, the level of investment in the playing staff does not tally with the huge revenue generated by the ground.
Tom Adams: No. There's a deeper debate around whether any Premier League supporters get value for money, but Arsenal fans get the rawest deal of all. They pay the highest ticket prices going while the club hoard that money in their massive cash reserves and didn't even sign an outfield player in the summer transfer window, and now their title challenge is collapsing again. Being a supporter isn't only a financial transaction, but if you look at it purely in those terms then you have to conclude that Arsenal fans are being ripped off.
How big a part can the fans play in a team's fortunes?
Andrew Mangan: In an ideal world all teams would receive undying, unwavering support from their fans at all time, but that dismisses human nature. Ultimately it's what happens on the pitch that dictates the atmosphere at a game. If things are going well, fans will be happy. If not, the converse is true. Yes, a crowd can, at times, help rouse a team, but if they can't score a goal or defend properly, it's on the team to produce.
James McNicholas: Plenty of teams in the Premier League have thrived on an electric atmosphere at their home ground. Would Portsmouth have been a force in the top flight for so long without the extraordinary backing of their fans? Leicester's continued title charge, for example, is in part propelled by their delirious and vociferous support. However, it's principally the responsibility of the players to get the crowd off their feet. Ultimately, they're the ones being paid to be there.
Tom Adams: Home advantage is obviously a well-established fact in sport and there is a symbiotic relationship between players and supporters; they undoubtedly feed off each other. This can be a positive or negative force but it is certainly a factor. However, supporters can't turn average players into world-class players.
Should Wenger remain as manager for next season?
Andrew Mangan: If Arsenal fail to win this Premier League, considering the position they were in, and the teams they're competing with, you really have to say it's a failure and a change of manager should be the consequence. It's not so simple at Arsenal though -- what should happen and what will happen are two very different things. There's very little chance of any change being made, regardless of how the rest of the season pans out.
James McNicholas: There's real concern that if Wenger can't win the league this year, he never will. Naturally that means his position ought to be considered. However, many of the best candidates to replace him -- the likes of Pep Guardiola, Jurgen Klopp and Carlo Ancelotti -- have already been signed up by other clubs. The likelihood is that he'll be allowed to see out his contract until 2017 no matter what happens between now and May.
Tom Adams: There's a pretty convincing argument that Wenger should leave, whether they win the title or not. This has been the most open season of all and yet Arsenal are eight points off Leicester, their endemic and unaddressed weaknesses on display again for all to see. Wenger and the club are so entirely intertwined that it's impossible to see them ever changing while they remain together. A fresh approach is needed, as the Premier League will only get harder and harder to win after this season.