I stayed away from the Emirates for five years – this is the Arsenal I found on my return

Granit Xhaka of Arsenal celebrates scoring the team's fourth goal during the Premier League match between Arsenal FC and Leeds United - Getty Images/Julian Finney
Granit Xhaka of Arsenal celebrates scoring the team's fourth goal during the Premier League match between Arsenal FC and Leeds United - Getty Images/Julian Finney

Ninety minutes until kick-off on matchday at Arsenal, and the Holloway Road has barely changed over the past five years. A few more boarded up premises certainly, but an eclectic mix of pubs, cafes, takeaways and shops still combine to produce a familiar pre-match hum.

After a decade covering Arsenal for Telegraph Sport, on Saturday I made my first visit to the Emirates Stadium since 2018  –Arsene Wenger’s final year as manager – but it was not long before any wider whiff of stagnancy disappeared.

An Arsenal club motto is ‘forward’ and, with drums booming out from the direction of the Eaglet Pub, the stench and sight of red flares lingering under the Hornsey Road bridge and the joyous sound of ‘We are top of the league’ and ‘Super Mik Arteta’ booming out, it was instantly evident that no club has experienced quite such transformation.

Memories of some Arsenal fans furiously marching in protest about their greatest manager, boos that might sound in outrage over even a goalless first-half and an often suffocating air of on-field tension were among the unfortunate hallmarks of Wenger’s final years.

It became a vicious and partially self-fulfilling cycle which played no small part in his ultimate departure.

In a competitive landscape against more clubs with superior resource, it had also become increasingly hard to see any route out for Arsenal and an entire stadium experience that felt destined to be compared unfavourably to Highbury.

Results and finishing positions, after all, were actually worse in the four seasons that immediately followed Wenger than the supposedly disastrous final four years of his reign.

Arsenal Manager Arsene Wenger - Getty Images/Shaun Brooks
Arsenal Manager Arsene Wenger - Getty Images/Shaun Brooks

How joyous, then, to experience the Emirates again on Saturday.

A still spaceship-like stadium that somehow found a landing spot within the crammed postcode of Highbury, and which so evidently now feels like home. And how wonderful to see such pride, passion and patience for a fearless young team that now stands within sight of one of the greatest achievements in Premier League history.

“Just enjoy the moment – we have oxygen to grab,” said a smiling Mikel Artea following Saturday’s 4-1 win over Leeds United. And could Arsenal’s 41-year-old boss – still in his first management job – find room to share that enjoyment?

“More now than before,” he said. And, from watching the team emerge before kick-off to an uplifting rendition of ‘North London Forever’ to then depart two hours later following prolonged post-match celebrations with their own fans, you absolutely believed him.

So what changed? The obvious is of course having a talented and resilient group of players who are supremely well coached. The fans’ mood will ultimately always be led by results but it is not an entirely one-way equation. Players also feed off their surroundings, and the supporter relationship is subtly tested in hundreds of mini-moments throughout any season. Take the 53rd minute of Arsenal’s first home game back in August when William Saliba headed the ball into his own net and looked down at the ground in seeming hope that it might just swallow him up. What followed? A huge cheer the next time he touched the ball.

Take even Saturday. Arsenal actually struggled for 34 minutes and had goalkeeper Aaron Ramsdale largely to thank for not falling behind. There has been very audible fan dissent for less at the Emirates previously. But how did the supporters respond against Leeds? Just as they did when Arsenal fell behind at certain critical moments of the season – against West Ham in December and Bournemouth last month – with the never ending beat of the Ashburton Army’s Clock End drum and guttural roars of encouragement whenever the ball went dead. No one can precisely measure the impact of such reactions but you do not need a whole lot of emotional intelligence to suspect that it is potentially huge.

No player embodies the transformation like Granit Xhaka. He famously left the pitch cupping his ears and throwing his shirt on the ground following the jeers that greeted his substitution from a game in 2019. “Pure hate – I was done with Arsenal,” he said. On Saturday, Xhaka celebrated his headed goal with a heart sign to the fans and was then among the last to leave the pitch following a prolonged mutual love-in.

The wider club also deserves plenty of credit. Arsenal have always prided themselves on behaving with a certain internal class and the very best thing for me about Saturday was seeing so many of the same staff again. At a time when Jose Mourinho and Chelsea so changed the goalposts, the club had sometimes almost felt too nice in the early Emirates years. But they had also always tried to remain true to certain values and there have always been plenty of good people consistently doing the right thing.

The Arsenal player huddle before the Premier League match between Arsenal FC and Leeds United at Emirates Stadium - Getty Images/Stuart MacFarlane
The Arsenal player huddle before the Premier League match between Arsenal FC and Leeds United at Emirates Stadium - Getty Images/Stuart MacFarlane

And so Arsenal have been speaking to fans about the atmosphere and been open to change. The option of a ‘holiday’ for existing season ticket holders following the Covid pandemic meant an influx of new fans. More tickets are being sold to younger supporters at a lower price and an overdue ‘use it or lose it’ rule means that affluent season ticket holders can no longer buy up a seat and then leave it empty for numerous games.

This was just a fairly routine Saturday home fixture but I can only ever remember seeing the Emirates look so full on two previous occasions – the start of their Champions League semi-final second leg against Manchester United in 2009 and for Wenger’s own personal send-off in May 2018.

The change is of course embodied in the manager, who was inevitably humanised by the decision to let in the cameras for the ‘All or Nothing’ Netflix documentary. A much underestimated player, Arteta was easily also the best captain of Wenger’s later years and a combination of his frenetic touchline persona and active encouragement for innovations like the ‘North London Forever’ anthem has been critical. “When we are singing the song all together, [I feel] goosebumps,” he said on Saturday. “Football is about passion and what we can transmit. The crowd transmits energy, belief, love to the players and unconditional support. That’s very rare to see in any stadium.” And his message for the remaining eight games? “Stay with us, we are so excited, we want to go for it, we are going to put everything into it.”

The emotive power of this manager-player-fan unity feels especially timely when swathes of sport is now measured with such mathematical precision. The progress of clubs like Brighton and Brentford embody the data revolution but Arsenal in 2022-23 also remind us that rather more intangible and timeless ingredients – belief, momentum, synergy and positivity – can ultimately matter most.

Indeed, as Wenger himself told a friend earlier this season after his one and only return to the Emirates since 2018: “I liked what I saw…and I liked what I felt.”