They say a man’s home is his castle.
For Arsenal, the Emirates is more than a castle – it is a fortress albeit one with pristine green turf all year round, spacious and padded seats for the fans and increasing levels of decoration extolling the history and values of the club.
While criticisms are, on occasion, levelled at the Arsenal crowd, there are no such insults aimed at the grounds staff.
The quality of the pitch means that every team that arrives at the Emirates can play their brand of football without bias, it means that both teams are playing – literally – on a level playing field. As you would expect, as you would hope for in a league which recently increased TV revenues to an astronomical figure in excess of £5,000,000,000.
Except that’s not exactly always the case.
It’s always better to get your gripes off your chest when you win – for one thing it comes across less bitter and for another it means that you’re more likely to make the point in a detached and unemotional way.
So then, understand the level of irritation I bear towards Saturday’s pitch when I say – it was an absolute disgrace.
It’s not clear to me whether it was a deliberate ploy as is so often employed by clubs about to face teams in the upper echelons of the league, or whether it was just ineptitude on the groundsman’s part, but for the pitch to be cutting up from the first minute to the last is deplorable.
Never mind the ball bobbling, players were slipping left, right and centre – the exact conditions that can lead to some pretty nasty injuries.
Of course for Palace – a team who demonstrated that they were mostly about kicking it long and/or dribbling – bobbling is less of an issue compared to teams with a short passing game and who rely on the correct weighting of a through ball. To a certain extent you could argue that’s what home advantage is about, but equally not at the expense of danger for the players. In addition, that £5,000,000,000 that forms the lifeblood of clubs like Palace is paid for by fans who want to see a decent quality of football.
I should be clear – this issue is not the sole preserve of Crystal Palace – indeed there are clubs significantly higher up the league who don’t turn out pitches of the requisite quality – the Stamford Bridge sandpit is practically world famous, and there was ample evidence of another top half club serving up a substandard pitch this weekend too just up the road from Arsenal.
ARCHITECTS OF YOUR OWN DOWNFALL
Imagine the scene.
You’re playing against Sam Allardyce and his team of genetically-modified giants.
Even without Andy Carroll, their 14 men involved include Sakho, Cole, Downing, Noble, Kouyate, Song, Reid, Tomkins, Collins, Jenkinson and Adrian. Only Valencia, Jarvis and Cresswell are under six foot tall. (For comparison, Arsenal’s average player height is just six foot, and that includes huge weighting from the likes of Mertesacker and Szczesny to counteract Cazorla, Sanchez and Wilshere.)
So would you provide a pitch that is cutting up and bobbling like billy-o?
I mean, I know there’s a perception that people involved with Spurs must be somewhat thick by definition, but that really takes the biscuit. And what about when you’re rushing to take a corner-kick late in the game, desperately in need of goal, but you can’t get the ball to stay still in the corner D? Being forced to take a short corner because you can’t take a step back for a run up? It beggars belief.
No wonder the Hammers fans were singing “It’s so easy, oh so easy, it’s so easy at the Lane.”
HORSES FOR COURSES
Of course the expectations from lower league clubs are that bit lower – the £5,000,000,000 doesn’t tend to filter down all that much after all.
In the FA Cup then, unlike in the Premier League, you start to expect the level of pitch that Palace and Spurs offered up this weekend.
Bradford have received a lot of attention for the quality of their pitch, and it had got to the point where Arsenal fans were openly considering whether it would be better to be drawn against Man Utd or Liverpool than Bradford away, since at least you would have a chance to play at your usual level and in your usual style.
At that level though, it is much more about the money, after all, Bradford rather famously beat Chelsea in West London rather than relying on a low quality playing surface.
ELITE PLAYERS DESERVE ELITE PITCHES
So then to Europe’s premier competition – the Champions League.
With the game against Monaco coming up this week, it’s a good time to remember the shocking AC Milan pitch of 2012. Strips were relaid along the wings of the pitch in the run up to the game, meaning different areas of the playing area were at slightly different levels. Players again were slipping left, right and centre.
Ultimately Vermaelen’s slip cost us the odd goal that we went out on in a year when a terrible Chelsea side won the competition.
While there’s no denying that Milan dealt with the conditions much better than Arsenal (probably because they were used to it) you can’t help but wonder what might have come our way had the pitch been of a level suitable for a game of that profile.
Arsenal welcome Monaco to the Emirates this week, where they will be greeted with a pitch deserving of the profile of the game. The Ligue 1 side are another whose infrastructure has been influenced by Arsene Wenger, although perhaps not to the same degree as at the Arsenal.
The Monagesques replace their summer pitch with a tailored winter version during a short break mid-season, to maintain the immaculate quality they deem appropriate. They’ll see the similarities when they arrive in N5 this week, as they play on a pitch carefully maintained by Paul Ashcroft – a man who is the reigning groundsman of the year.
Ultimately it means this will be a game which is decided then by the quality of the football rather than the gamesmanship (or sheer ineptitude) of the groundsman – an elite pitch for an elite competition.
It’s time for Arsenal to put in a performance to prove they belong in those elites.