Arsenal: the neutral’s team of choice

Why is it that whenever I ask people for the first time which Premier League team they support, I keep hearing the same response?

I am not asking this question in Newcastle pubs or in the Manchester City club shop; this is a question I have posed to various people in Scotland, and – during my recent travels in South-East Asia and Australasia – travellers from all over the world.

The Gunners attract fans from all over the world

Most of the time, the answer I get goes something like this: “I don’t actually support anyone in the Premier League… but I really like Arsenal.”

I fail to understand why so many people who don’t actively support any club in England’s top flight feel drawn to this one particular team. Perhaps there is a mysterious charismatic charm to the London club that none of the other 19 teams in the Premier League possess. If there is, I’ve yet to fall under its spell. Of course, people can support whichever team they choose. I am just curious as to why it seems that Arsenal is, more often than not, the default pick of the neutral.

Based on personal experience, I feel like I am well qualified to discuss this issue.

From a fairly young age, as an Aberdeen fan, I was acutely aware of the gulf in quality between Scottish and English football, and craved a team to support when glued to Match of the Day. As a result, I was constantly switching my allegiance between a team whose manager I liked (Coventry, because of Gordon Strachan), a team with a cool shirt (Tottenham in 2002/2003) or the team of a player I admired (Aston Villa, because of George Boateng – don’t ask). I also found myself branded a glory-hunter for jumping on the Manchester United bandwagon after I followed their Champions League progress devoutly when they lifted the trophy in 1998/1999.

George Boateng: what a player!

In response to hearing that a person “quite likes” Arsenal, I immediately ask them the obvious follow-up question: Why?

Invariably, I hear something like: “I just quite like the way they play.”

It is common knowledge that the suitably named Arsenal manager, Arsene Wenger, likes his team to play short, quick passes, with the onus on attack rather than defend. Yes, it can be visually pleasing to watch an interchange of neat passes, as well as the occasional piece of outstanding skill, but is this really the major draw for the neutral? I suppose it is hard to rouse passion for a team you have no obvious affinity for, so controlled, tidy play is as good a reason as any to ‘support’ a club. (It certainly makes more sense than my girlfriend’s policy of siding with a team based on the attractiveness of its players.)

Arsene Wenger: Arsenal's longest serving manager

Many neutrals claim that Arsenal’s style of football is the best in the Premier League. However, West Bromwich Albion adopt a similar ‘keep the ball on the ground’ style to Arsenal; why is it that this Premier League underdog is never given a mention when it comes to teams whose style of play they ‘quite like’?

In saying Arsenal’s style in the best in the country, the styles of Manchester United, Chelsea, Manchester City, Liverpool and Tottenham (to name the other top-6 teams of the Premier League) are, by default, considered worse. In spite of this, come the end of this season, Arsenal will have gone six years without winning a trophy (barring a freak series of results in the last few matches of the Premier League season). If their style is thought of as the best, the evidence clearly indicates that it is not the most effective.

Fever Pitch

At the moment, I am reading Arsenal fan Nick Hornby’s excellent ‘Fever Pitch’. In the book, Hornby says that for him “consumption [of football] is all; the quality of the product immaterial.” For many others, though, it now seems as though the quality of the product is the very basis for their support.

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19 Responses to Arsenal: the neutral’s team of choice

  1. bops says:

    So you mean to say that you should support only a team that wins trophies ?

    • James says:

      Absolutely not. I support Aberdeen!

      I’m simply stating that if Arsenal’s style of play is, as many observers see it, the best, why do they not win more trophies when other teams have ‘worse’ playing styles? I’m not denying that it’s very attractive and easy to watch neat passes in midfield, but is it the most effective approach for scoring goals, winning matches and lifting trophies?

  2. james says:

    “This football is not effective” ? take a look a Barcelona and tell them that attractive attacking play is not effective, and how do you feel this morning after arsenal gave Man UTD a lesson on how things should be done the only thing we have lacked against Man UTD is the finish ( The First goal) otherwise in every match arsenal have been the better team.

    The reason people choose to favour our club we watching football is not only the football we play but the aura and example we set. Arsenal has ‘respect’ for all, refs teams and players you dont see our players surrounding and goading the ref when we dont have somthing go our way unlike our friends at Chelsea and Man utd for example just one example of many

    One thing when you choose a club you stay with that club not because of a player, manager or nice kit and even worse glory hunting i support Arsenal and always will no matter how many years

    • James says:

      Respect is definitely not something Arsenal are immediately associated with. Attractive play, yes. Respect, no. I guess you don’t remember this incident:

      How about the 20-man brawl at the Emirates against Hull in 2009? Or Gallas’s disrespectful sit-in protest on the halfway line in 2008? Even Wenger has got in on the act earlier this year:

      I think you are missing the point of the article. I am not denying that Arsenal are a technically gifted, quick-passing team. Clearly, they are one of the best teams in the country. However, I am simply questioning the fact that it seems trendy or socially acceptable for a neutral to say they support the Gunners based entirely on their style of play. What is different about West Brom’s style of play? Why is Arsenal’s style better than, say, Tottenham’s or Manchester United’s?

      You misquoted me about Arsenal’s style of play and effectiveness, so let me clear that up.

      If someone says Arsenal’s style of play is the best in England, or Europe, or wherever, that means their style of play is viewed as superior to any other team’s. My point is that, given their lack of silverware over the last few years, the way Arsenal play football may not be the most effective. It has been said before that Arsenal try to pass the ball into the net, when they could be slightly more direct and attempt a few more long shots.

      Finally, your example of yesterday’s match between Arsenal and Manchester United is hardly fair, given that Manchester United are under pressure as they are competing for a trophy, while Arsenal are under much less, because – once again – they are not.

  3. KeithSiah says:

    Come on over to Malaysia. We are just buzzing with Man Utd fans!!!

  4. Kate says:

    I have to say while I was in Malawi it was all Chelsea and Man Utd fans. A lot of them hadn’t even heard of Arsenal – probably due to their lack of trophies.

    James (above) as a Man Utd fan I hardly feel like you taught us a lesson yesterday. Yes you were the better side and deserved to win but taught a lesson i am less convinced. It was 1-0 and Arsenal although better did not play us under the table.

    In terms of your “respect for all” argument I find this an extraordinary claim and wonder on what basis you have made it?

    I have to say that up until recent months I have massively enjoyed watching Arsenal and think that when they play well it is beautiful. However Barcelona seem to have found a balance between the beautiful game and an effective game. Something Arsenal are still lacking.

    It seems to be that Arsenal fans in recent times are constantly trying to argue and explain why they are so much better than Man Utd and Chelsea. It seems however that Man Utd and Chelsea prefer to do their talking on the football pitch. This as a Man Utd fan pleases me.

    • James says:

      Maybe the Malawians only support teams who win trophies? 😉

      I agree with you that Barcelona’s style of play is both beautiful (like Arsenal’s) and effective (unlike Arsenal’s).

      And yes, I find the ‘respect for all’ claim extraordinary. It’s not like Arsenal are renowned for their fair play of kind treatment of referees!

    • Omglol says:

      Why are we better ?
      Arsenal have team in development +stadium to pay yet they are aways on top 4 in EPL. Saying arsenal is not effective is bias. 2006 we were in final of CL, 2007/2008 we lost the title in direct duel with MU. 2009/2010 and 2010/2011 we faced Barcelona in CL. this year we in close run for title.
      Arsenal play fantastic foodball but as any club we have problems and need time to solve and fill the gaps. Its realy important how you get the trophy not just to get it.

      “kate says:
      Furthermore i think it could easily be argued that in recent times Arsenal have been playing less and less of the beautiful game? While they are still passing the ball round and enjoying a large amount of possession they have had fewer and fewer shots on target as when they get down to the box they pass the ball around an unnecessary amount and finish with a weak shot on goal. That cannot be argued as being the best football as the objective of an individual game is to win.”

      Thats all wrong, Arsenal played fantastic over the first 25-30 games this year so donno where you drain your conclusion, and then we went down with injures, more from bad luck(CC and etc) and bad form. You can expect if 2-3 main players and moral is down your style will be less effective vs bunker defence. Everyteam go down sometimes in season but everyone find easy to bias over Arsenal.

      • James says:

        Thank you for your comment, though I take several issues with it.

        The first of these is that you have misquoted me. At no point did I state that Arsenal play ineffective football. What I did say is that it has not been as effective in recent seasons as, say, Manchester United, who have won a higher percentage of games and much more silverware.

        Secondly, I don’t understand what your link to statistics showing Arsenal’s head-to-head record against the ‘big four’ this season is supposed to prove. Surely the most crucial statistic in the Premier League is the final league table (which Arsenal don’t look like topping, again)?

        Thirdly, you say Arsenal were ‘unlucky’ to lose to Birmingham in the Carling Cup? What reason do you give for this?

        For me, the most interesting issue you raised was: “It’s really important how you get the trophy, not just to get it.” To be perfectly honest, I’m not entirely sure where I stand on it. Is winning ugly better than losing stylishly?

  5. Gavin says:

    James (poster, not writer) Arsenal and Barcelona DO NOT play the same style of football. This is a very common misconception. I can explain if you like, but surely you saw their games earlier this season?

    Arsenal beat Utd NOT because of their ‘slick effective passing’, but because, ironically, Wilshire and Song bossed the midfield completely. They were stronger and faster than Carrick and Anderson.

    Finally, there is absolutely nothing wrong with supporting a team for success or (the rather dated term) glory. It is just as valid as ‘I like they way they play’. The problem people have with ‘glory hunters’ is it implies fickleness and a lack of commitment. What happens when they start losing? Well, what happens when Wenger goes and Arsenal start playing shit football? Will all the ‘purists’ leave?

    James (article writer) I totally agree with article, excellent.

  6. Sean says:

    It is such a funny obsession that football fans have with trophies. I believe it to be yet another failure of society to distinguish between ends and means. Is the focus of the team you support one minute, seeing them lift the trophy? Or is it the 3420 minutes of the season watching them actually play football?
    I’m not saying that this is a reason why everyone should support Arsenal, but the post and comments seem to suggest that the lack of trophies is a reason not to support them, but for me, and as you suggested many others around the world there is more joy in watching arsenal race to a 4-0 lead against Newcastle, continue to attack at 3-1 against Tottenham than watching “proffesional 1-0’s”
    I suggest that these people who don’t watch a lot of football or really support a team, don’t really care who wins the league, the FA cup or the Carling Cup. They will just watch the occasional 90 minutes or a few games a season, and it is there belief that it these games include Arsenal they will be more entertaining.
    This opens further the “why not West Brom or Tottenham?” question. It can only be lack of exposure and perhaps lack of consistency.

  7. Kate says:

    I don’t think it is just about trophies but I also don’t think it can be argued that Arsenal play the best football if they don’t win anything. Unless the objective is not to win which surely even Arsenal fans would concede is not the case?

    Furthermore i think it could easily be argued that in recent times Arsenal have been playing less and less of the beautiful game? While they are still passing the ball round and enjoying a large amount of possession they have had fewer and fewer shots on target as when they get down to the box they pass the ball around an unnecessary amount and finish with a weak shot on goal. That cannot be argued as being the best football as the objective of an individual game is to win.

    I don’t think it is an obsession necessarily with trophies. Although i disagree with you about people wanting trophies being a failure of society – sports is competitive and about winning. When you play games you play to win, everybody does so what is wrong with your aim being to win a trophy surely it is only a result of winning. I am sure that was also Arsenal’s aim and in that sense they have failed. I have no problem with people being Arsenal fans or having less concern over winning trophies (although i think you may be in the minority there) but to claim Arsenal play the best football is an interesting claim and the question that it begs is what is meant by the best football?

    • Sean says:

      I never said Arsenal played “the best football”. I said that neutrals don’t care about who wins trophies, but about watching an entertaining game. And I posited that that is the reason they like Arsenal. The enjoyment for a neutral watching Arsenal comes just as much from their enjoyable fluid and attacking nature as their inability to close out a game and generosity in terms of chances conceded.
      I can guarantee you that Arsenal aimed to win each trophy this year. But I don’t play for Arsenal, I watch them. I don’t get a win bonus, I don’t get a personal sense of achievement from lifting the Premiership, I won’t be remembered as part of a great championship winning team and I will not be judged age 35 by the trophies and awards I have and for those reasons the end goal of my support for Arsenal is not the same as the players.
      I agree that I may be a minority, but I think that is sad, if people cut loose from the infatuation with winning matches and titles and just enjoyed the game it would be a much better atmosphere. When Real Madrid supporters clapped Ronaldinho of the pitch that was a much more pleasurable watch than last weeks debacle when Messi’s amazing talent was overshadowed by Mourinho’s Madrid’s win at all costs mentality.

  8. Football says:

    Football fans all over the world often see football as a means of entertainment and Arsenal is certainly one of the few teams in the world, alongside Barcelona and Porto, for example, to provide football lovers great samples of spectacular and offensive play. Also, people love talented youngsters and The Gunners have always had lots of young and talented players in their squads. Wenger is also one of the best football managers in the world and this could also be a good reason to like Arsenal.

  9. Graham says:

    I think there has to be a distinction between ‘fans’ and neutrals who have Arsenal as their second team. In the second instance it makes sense that they might wach more of teams that play nice football and are involved in game where there are more goals (both for and against) as if you are not actively supporting a team then you will be trying to extract as much enjoyment as you can from the football you watch. Arsenal games give that. See Calums piece ( if you would like an excellent summation of why.

    I think a lot of the people who will say that Arsenal are their second team will have picked it up during the earlier years when Arsene was tranforming the football played in England. That was a time when Henry and Bergkamp were just magical and it became trendy to be an Arsenal fan. A lot of people converted to be closet Arsenal fans during that period and I would imagine the habit has stuck for many people.

  10. mussboot says:

    A tremendous accomplishment is not always the most interesting story–Arsenal execute moves of unmatched virtuosity and then rip your heart out with a spectacular error. If you think the goal of watching a match is entertainment, then Arsenal certainly deliver. If you are more exhilarated by consistency and chest-puffing, then Arsenal may disappoint.

  11. Calum says:

    Maybe I misunderstand, but I think style and effectiveness are completely different things. Occasionally, as with Barcelona and Spain, the two coincide. But there is no contradiction in preferring the style of a team you know to be less effective.

    Isn’t part of the point of the article that there are many different, but equally acceptable, reasons for supporting any team?

    In any case, here’s Johan Cruyff:
    “there is no better medal than being acclaimed for your style”.

    • James says:

      I agree with you to a point about style and effectiveness being totally different things. Surely, though, for a footballing style to considered quite good, it needs to be quite effective. If – to give an extreme example – a team did nothing but pass the ball beautifully in every game they played, but lost every game of the season, could their style be described positively when they are completely ineffective?

      What intrigues me is why exactly Arsenal’s style is so widely revered. Especially after the departures of Henry and Bergkamp, I simply don’t see it as being as majestic as I’ve heard some people claim it to be. However, like I said in the article, I am in no position to judge who someone chooses to support or why; I just find the discussion interesting.

  12. chris kiel says:

    I believe Hornby speaks form the pespective of a died in the wool true fan and club supporter versus a neutral. In the book Soccernomics they provide the arguement that win or loose the basis for a clubs support does not wan or rise a great deal and it is because of the supporter that Hornby represents that this seems to be true.
    I would consider myself a neutral and find myself appreciating Arsenal’s style. It may be this style that lands them on the TV telecasts very often in the US which may be a contributing factor as well. Even in the hometown teams I support in various sports I tend to loose interest if they play at an unattractive pace without excitement even if they are winning. To me sports is entertainment and I want to be entertained when I watch. I am not a big hockey fan but I was glued to my set watching a the final game in a seven game playoff between Vancouver and Chicago even though it was a low low scoring 2 to 1 overtime win by the Cannucks. It was fast, aggressive and had amazing plays on defense, offense and in goal. As such I was certainly entertained and would watch more hockey if that was the product put constantly before me. For me style does matter at least as much as success.
    By the way having Meg and Calum as part of my family may be a contibuting factor to my lean towards Arsenal as well.


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