Arsenal have science on their side when it comes to exuberant celebrations

Mikel Arteta and Arsenal set-piece coach Nicolas Jover celebrate against Liverpool

During Pep Guardiola’s first season as Barcelona manager, at a time when he was still trying to establish himself as a coach, he always kept a close eye on his substitutes. Standing on the touchline, he would watch the action on the pitch while also remaining aware of how those behind him, the players sitting on the bench, were acting.

The story goes that, in a crucial match during that campaign, Barcelona missed a huge chance to score. As revealed in ‘Another Way of Winning’, a biography of the Manchester City manager, Guardiola spun on his heels to see how his substitutes had reacted.

Some of them, he saw, had jumped to their feet in expectation of a goal. They were ready to celebrate. A few others, though, had not moved or reacted at all. Guardiola took a mental note and, the next summer, he made a decisive move. Barcelona sold all of those players who had stayed still in their seats.

That might sound a little extreme, but the message is clear: in the mind of coaches such as Guardiola, you cannot put a price on togetherness, unity and emotional investment. You are either all-in, or you get out. There can be no in-between.

Only Guardiola and Mikel Arteta can say whether they discussed this particular episode during their three years together at City, although it would be safe to assume they did. Arteta is obsessive about these ideas of chemistry and togetherness. So much so, he has had the word “unity” emblazoned on a banner which is often taken to Arsenal’s away games and fixed to the walls of the dressing room.

All of this matters because of the ongoing debate around celebrations, and Arsenal’s celebrations in particular. Not for the first time in recent seasons, Arteta and his players were accused of over-celebrating after their victory over Liverpool on Sunday. Telegraph Sport columnist Jamie Carragher said on Sky Sports that Arteta’s players should “just get down the tunnel”. Gary Neville said there was “immaturity” on show.

Gabriel, Jorginho and Bukayo Saka celebrate Arsenal's win over Liverpool in the dressing room

But the point here is not what the outside world thinks of Arsenal’s celebrations. It is what those celebrations do to the players, the coaches and the fans associated with the club. It is about the message they send and the impact they have, both on the team’s performance and on the atmospheric power of the Emirates Stadium.

In short, celebrations matter — and we can be almost certain that Arteta knows it. The Arsenal manager is an avid reader, often studying sport and psychology, and it would come as a major surprise if he was not aware of the increasingly compelling evidence that shows the significant performance benefits of hearty celebrations.

Guardiola was simply following his instincts when he examined his substitutes all those years ago, but in this case those instincts were supported by science. In 2008, the year Guardiola took over at Barcelona, a study (by Bornstein and Goldschmidt) showed that teams who celebrated their goals collectively, with “team-oriented” celebrations, finished higher in league tables than those who did not.

Similarly, in penalty shootouts, research shows that celebrating a goal enthusiastically — such as by extending both arms, expanding the chest and clenching the fists – has a positive effect on your team-mates and makes your side more likely to win. The study (by Moll, Jordet and Pepping) also showed that these celebrations had a negative effect on opponents.

Recent events in the Premier League would suggest that, equally, the wrong sort of celebration can backfire. If celebrations are becoming the Premier League’s latest battleground, then Brentford’s Neal Maupay made a significant tactical misstep last month. His darts celebration, mocking James Maddison, only served to fire up Tottenham.

Brentford's Neal Maupay celebrates scoring their first goal in the 3-2 defeat at Tottenham last month
James Maddison had the last laugh after Brentford striker Neal Maupay copied his celebration - Reuters/Isabel Infantes

Perhaps something similar happened between Manchester United and West Ham this weekend: when Alejandro Garnacho scored United’s second goal in Sunday’s win, he sat on the advertising boards in imitation of the celebration that Mohammed Kudus produced in the reverse fixture earlier this season.

The impact of celebrations comes down to “emotional contagion” — the transference of emotions from individuals onto team-mates, opponents and seemingly, in the example of Arsenal on Sunday, the crowd.

Uninvested observers may not have appreciated the sight of Arteta’s players frolicking on the Emirates pitch, but the home fans evidently did. Long after the final whistle, the Arsenal supporters were still dancing in the stands to ABBA’s ‘Voulez-Vous’, which has been repackaged as a song for Bukayo Saka. It was a party to which everyone in red was invited.

Arteta knows that the emotions of the players on the pitch filter into the stands, and that the feeling in the stands filters back onto the pitch. It flows both ways, and Arteta seeks to weaponise it. Before the meeting with Liverpool, the Arsenal manager played an integral role in the production of a stirring pre-match video that was shared on the club’s social media accounts, and on his own social media page.

In the days leading up to the match, Arsenal had trained at the Emirates. It was during that session that many of the clips for the video were filmed, including close-ups of Arteta’s face. It was all deliberate, and it all had a purpose: to hype up the crowd, to build that connection and togetherness. If Arsenal were to score, or even go close to scoring, Arteta — like Guardiola all those years ago — wanted everyone on their feet.

The Arsenal manager is far from alone in thinking along these lines. Just look at Jurgen Klopp’s famous fist-pumps to the Kop after meaningful victories. What is that celebration if not an attempt to strengthen connections and build unity? Emotion, the science shows, is contagious.

Touching each other helps, too. A 2010 study of the NBA showed that teams with players who touched each other more frequently during matches (high-fives, fist bumps, head slaps etc) enjoyed significantly superior team performance compared to teams with players who were less touchy. The more hugs, the more pats on the back, the better. The closer they all are, the better they all play.

Football is a tactical and physical game. It is also an emotional one. If celebrating like Arsenal did on Sunday can make even a small difference — and the science suggests it can — then Arteta, and any other football manager, will consider it worth doing. Whether the outside world likes it or not.