Emirates Stadium

I Was There: A London derby on the bands of the Thames, Fulham vs. Arsenal (Video)

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Last weekI Was There had you in and around Anfield, experiencing the opening day atmosphere with Reds supporters as Liverpool got their season to a winning start. This week’s version comes in two installments, with this one (above) putting you on the banks of the Thames as Fulham hosted London rivals Arsenal on Saturday at Craven Cottage.

Opened in 1896 and seating just under 26,000, Craven Cottage stands in stark contract to Arsenal’s home, the 60,000-seat Emirates Stadium that opened just seven years ago. Fulham fans, however, have come to consider the Cottage’s cozy confines as endemic to the club, its retention a point of concern when the team was sold this summer.

On Saturday, Fulham’s home debut turned out to be a poor one, with Arsenal taking three points out of the Cottage. As you’ll see in the video, above, not everybody in attendance was unhappy with the result.

Big time soccer involves big time prices

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There was a lot of talk on social media this morning about this weekend’s English Premier League match between Arsenal and Manchester City. While the pure talent the two sides will bring to the Emirates make the meeting compelling, the issue at hand had nothing to do with the particulars of the matchup. Instead, the point was one-third of Manchester City’s away allocation being returned to Arsenal unused. Many Citizens supporters who would normally make the trip to London elected not to fork over the £62 (just under $100) price.

High ticket prices at Arsenal aren’t news. Seats at the Emirates are notoriously pricey and a constant source of fan frustration. An index created by The Guardian earlier this year showed Arsenal’s season passes to be the most expensive in the Premier League, with Tottenham’s entry-level package (the second-most expensive in the league) over $400 cheaper than Arsenal’s lowest offering ($1,581).

Of course, the reason Arsenal can charge those rates is because people are willing to pay. Through nine home games this league season, Arsenal is averaging 60,094 attendees per match. Their stadium’s capacity is 60,361. If prices are prohibitive, they’re still not high enough to make an impact at the turnstile.

That’s why it makes it difficult to take Arsenal to task for their pricing. You may feel their prices are excessive and I may feel their prices are excessive, but if they’re able to consistently play before near-sellout crowds, we seem to be wrong. The club has tickets to sell. They sell. And that’s the point.

Not that such policies do Arsenal any favors with their fan base. With each price hike, a few more Gooners are pushed away from their team, financially unable to attend games (note: season ticket prices did not go up at the Emirates this season). While in the United States we’ve come to begrudgingly accept franchises as businesses, in England the most-diehard of fans still consider the club as an extension of the community. That may be a bit too naive for modern times, but it’s a view that resonates through clubs’ core support. It is — in terms of community relations — a fact, not a misconception. Arsenal should not only recognize this but also recognize it’s rarely good business to alienate your more ardent supporters.

That Arsenal is in focus on this issue also underscores the concerns fans have with the club’s spending policies. Though Arsenal is one of the biggest clubs in the world, their record transfer fee of £15 million (matched this summer in purchasing Santi Cazorla) is relatively low by elite team standards. The club’s also seen the likes of Robin van Persie, Alex Song, Cesc Fabregas, and Samir Nasri leave over the last two years. Other talents like Gael Clichy and Emmanuel Adebayor left before. If the fans’ money isn’t going to buying or retaining players, then where’s it going?

These are all symptoms of England coming to terms with the Premier League’s unbridled capitalism, symptoms we have come to live with in the States. We’re used to our sports leagues not only raising prices but seeking more exorbitant sponsorships and kickbacks from governments. We don’t like it, we complain about it on Twitter and Facebook, but we aren’t surprised when ticket prices also go up despite most North American sports leagues capping spending on player wages.

Could we have the same discussions that are taking place in England? Yes, but to what end? This is the gambit we’ve bought into, literally. Unless you stop buying tickets, you’re contributing to the problem (to the extent you see it as a problem at all).

It’s easy for me to say these things because my job provides me access to Major League Soccer games (though my game day experience is much different from yours). Still, I can’t remember the last time I went to a professional sports event where I paid the full ticket price. I just don’t think it’s worth it. The last time I paid for a sports ticket was to a Portland Rain WPSL game in late summer (I believe it cost me $5 to see both the Rain and the Timbers’ U-23 team).

Of course, I’m not really a fan, either. I don’t have favorite teams. Even when I paid that $5 price this summer, I was there to work, not cheer. I don’t know what it’s like to feel an attachment to a club that’s so deep I’m compelled to buy season tickets, even if that means taking out a credit card just to do so. I’m not speaking from a point of empathy.

But at some point — if this is a real problem and not just an inconvenience — fans need to bite the bullet and (as they do in Germany and other countries) and stay away.

If Arsenal was only drawing 50,000 per match, their pricing policies would change.

What’s a “proposed industrial action”? Something that can cancel a Premier League game

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There’s going to be a subway worker’s strike in London on Boxing Day (next Wednesday). The whole city’s going to freak out, the cries of millions of stranded tourists, shoppers, and soccer fans ricocheting off the city’s seemingly 10,000-year-old stone buildings. Stock up on the canned goods now.

One thing the city won’t have to worry about, however, is a rush of spectators toward North London’s Emirates Stadium. That’s because Arsenal’s Boxing Day match with West Ham has already been called off in anticipation of the chaos.

From West Ham’s official website:

As a result of Monday’s strike ballot and the proposed industrial action on London Underground on Boxing Day, West Ham United’s Barclays Premier League match against Arsenal at Emirates Stadium, originally planned for Wednesday 26 December, has been postponed.

West Ham United and Arsenal liaised closely with all the relevant agencies, including the Metropolitan Police, Transport for London, London Underground, The Premier League and Islington Council, in order to reach this decision.

The paramount concern was always the duty of care towards supporters of both sides and everyone else who was planning to attend the match on Boxing Day.

On the field, this probably isn’t great news for West Ham. After all, you’d rather play Arsenal sooner than later, these days.

Still, given news of this “tube strike” had been floating for some time, the most interesting part of today’s announcement was the silly Orwellian euphemism used to describe the strike: “proposed industrial action.”

First, Proposed Industrial Action sounds like a Fine Young Cannibals album. Second, it also implies Transformers are involved (though I’m not sure how). But finally, it’s a really sterile and de-humanizing way to describe a bunch of people walking away from a paycheck in a labor dispute.

I’m also left wondering if Proposed Industrial Action will stay up in this year’s Nigerian Premier League, but we can talk about that after Boxing Day.

What we learned about Chelsea, Arsenal from Saturday’s result

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Chelsea stayed on top of the Premier League with their 2-1 win at Arsenal on Saturday, but with the season still in its infancy, the lessons we draw from early-season games may be more informative than the actual results. With that in mind, let’s take inventory of what we learned from the early match at the Emirates:

What we learned about … Chelsea:

1. They’re more than Eden Hazard – Through the first weeks of the season, many were bending over backwards to try and quantify how many goals the 21-year-old Belgian phenom had contributed, leading to a mysterious phase where some outlets were awarding him assists for penalty kicks created. The efforts came from a good place, trying to find some way to describe the huge impact Hazard was having on Chelsea’s results, but today at the Emirates, Hazard was barely noticeable. He had some nice runs with the ball and put in a first half cross that would have blown out both of Arjen Robben’s hamstrings, but none of it had a major impact. Chelsea was able to win a  huge game without a huge day from their best player.

2. It’s never going to be pretty – The pragmatism that drove Chelsea to last year’s Champions League has become endemic to their play. Today they didn’t generate a ton of chances (you could argue they only really created one), but they didn’t need to. For all the money this club’s spent on attackers, their success is predicated on their ability to get ahead and hold on. The approach may not be as dominant as it was during the José Mourinho era, but it may yet prove as effective, even if Roman Abramovich would ideally want something a little more attractive.

3. Chelsea are title contenders – Some will say they’ve been contenders all along, but from a team that finished sixth last season, we needed this result to see Chelsea as more than knockout tournament specialists. Given Arsenal were coming off a well-earned point at Manchester City, today’s was a telling result. Although Chelsea may not be favorites to win the Premier League, but they can’t be far off.

What we learned about … Arsenal:

1. They’re close, just not there yet – It’s hard to be too down on Arsenal given they’re just played two title contenders to a 3-2 aggregate over the last 180 minutes. This team lost last year’s two best players (Robin van Persie, Alex Song). To be at this level so early in the season should be seen as an accomplishment.

2. Dominating the ball is overrated – Their problems in attack are the same as ever. The type of players that make Arsenal so good in the middle third hold them back as they approach goal. While that wasn’t a huge problem on Saturday, having a better penalty area presence certainly would have helped. Continuing to use Gervinho through the middle, it’s unclear Arséne Wenger is willing to do what it takes to fine tune this attack.

3. Set piece defending needs to get better – All three goals allowed over Arsenal’s last two games came off set pieces. Even if that’s an aberration, Wenger has to treat it as a cause for concern. The message to his team needs to emphasize set piece defending is costing Arsenal their place among the league’s best.