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 sidelines, he watched the action on the field while also remaining aware of how the players behind him, the players sitting on the bench, were behaving.
The story goes that Barcelona missed a huge chance to score in a crucial match during that campaign. As revealed in ‘Another Way of Winning’, a biography of the Manchester City manager, Guardiola turned to see how his substitutes had reacted.
Some of them, he saw, had jumped to their feet in anticipation of a goal. They were ready to celebrate. A few others, however, had not moved or reacted at all. Guardiola took a mental note and the following summer he made a decisive move. Barcelona sold all those players who remained in place.
That may sound a bit extreme, but the message is clear: in the spirit of coaches like Guardiola, you can’t put a price on solidarity, unity and emotional investment. You go all in, or you get out. There can be no middle ground.
Only Guardiola and Mikel Arteta can say whether they discussed this particular episode during their three years together at City, although it is safe to assume they did. Arteta is obsessed with these ideas of chemistry and togetherness. So much so that he has had the word ‘unity’ embellished on a banner that is often taken to Arsenal’s away games and hung on the walls of the dressing room.
All of this is important because of the ongoing debate about celebrations, and Arsenal’s celebrations in particular. Not for the first time in recent seasons, Arteta and his players were accused of celebrating too much after their win over Liverpool on Sunday. Telegraph Sport columnist Jamie Carragher said on Sky Sports that Arteta’s players should “just go into the tunnel”. Gary Neville said there was ‘immaturity’.
But the point here is not what the outside world thinks of Arsenal’s celebrations. It’s what these celebrations do to the players, the coaches and the fans involved in the club. It’s about the message they convey and the impact they have, both on the team’s performance and on the atmospheric power of the Emirates Stadium.
In short, parties matter – and we can be pretty sure Arteta knows that. The Arsenal manager is an avid reader and often studies sport and psychology, and it would be a great surprise if he were unaware of the increasingly compelling evidence showing the significant performance benefits of hearty celebrations.
Guardiola simply followed his instincts when examining his replacements years ago, but in this case those instincts were backed by science. In 2008, the year Guardiola took charge at Barcelona, a study (by Bornstein and Goldschmidt) showed that teams who celebrated their goals together, with ‘team-oriented’ celebrations, finished higher in the rankings than those who did not .
Similarly, in penalty kicks, research shows that enthusiastically celebrating a goal – for example by extending both arms, puffing out the chest and clenching the fists – has a positive effect on your teammates and makes your team more likely to wins. The research (by Moll, Jordet and Pepping) also showed that these celebrations had a negative effect on opponents.
Recent events in the Premier League suggest that the wrong kind of celebration can also backfire. If celebrations are becoming the Premier League’s latest battleground, Brentford’s Neal Maupay made a major tactical misstep last month. His darts celebration, in which he mocked James Maddison, only served to set Tottenham on fire.
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 was on the billboards echoing the celebration caused by Mohammed Kudus in the reverse fixture earlier this season .
The impact of celebrations comes down to ’emotional contagion’ – the transfer of emotions from individuals to teammates, opponents and apparently, in Arsenal’s example on Sunday, the crowd.
Disinterested observers may not have appreciated the sight of Arteta’s players on the Emirates pitch, but the home fans apparently did. Long after the final whistle, 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 trickle down to the stands, and that the feeling in the stands trickles back to the pitch. It flows both ways, and Arteta tries to weaponize it. Before the clash with Liverpool, the Arsenal manager played an integral role in producing a gripping pre-match video that was shared across the club’s social media accounts and on his own social media page.
In the days leading up to the match, Arsenal had trained in the Emirates. During that session, many of the clips for the video were filmed, including close-ups of Arteta’s face. It was all intentional and it all had a purpose: to excite the audience, to build that connection and solidarity. If Arsenal were to score, or even come close to scoring, Arteta – like Guardiola all those years ago – wanted everyone on their feet.
The Arsenal manager is far from the only one thinking along these lines. Just look at Jurgen Klopp’s famous fist pumps to the Kop after meaningful victories. What is this celebration if not an attempt to strengthen connections and build unity? Emotion, science shows, is contagious.
Touching each other also helps. A 2010 NBA study found that teams with players who touched each other more frequently during games (high-fives, fist bumps, head slaps, etc.) had significantly better team performance than teams with players who were less sensitive. 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 issue. If celebrating like Arsenal did on Sunday can make even a small difference – and the science suggests it does – then Arteta, and every other football manager, will find it worth doing. Whether the outside world likes it or not.