Why are we selling?
Emmanuel Petit and Marc Overmars were two of our very best players and would have been on a lot of fans choices for a world squad. They went to Barcelona for 30m. To say I was shocked was an understatement. Top teams don’t sell their best players, but we did. We got Pires, Wiltord, Edu (yes, him) and Lauren as a direct replacement for Nigel Winterburn (37), who was one of the most stalwart players we ever had. We didn’t get a direct replacement for Petit at all. It was baffling. Vieira was still a bit raw, rash, and could get sent off. But he was on his way to being maybe the best in his position in the world. Could he be next?
All the early promise of Wenger was disappearing in me. I said last time that maybe we had a better squad of players, if you compared them man to man, than Man Utd but they were achieving more. With those two gone, I could not say that anymore. Pires and Wiltord were not well known to me and I was hoping that Wenger’s knowledge of the French scene would come up trumps. But that was what we were back to, hoping that Henry was better than Anelka, and there was little indication of that in his first season. And now this season, we were hoping that these new players could match up to Petit and Overmars. It was all looking bad and disheartening. We were a long way second to Man Utd for 2 seasons in a row and it seemed that Wenger was settling for second best.
I was annoyed
It was annoying as, if our players were better, then we should be in Utd’s position. It seemed that Ferguson’s drive was better than Wenger. I am not sure how many people would have agreed with me that our players were fractionally better at the time but for sure that belief could not hold with Petit and Overmars gone. Arsenal’s, and now Wenger’s dislike of spending money had been the one constant in all the time I had been supporting them.
So how did we get on, on the pitch? We started badly with a 1-0 to Sunderland, Niall Quinn heading in a goal. Then we beat Liverpool 2-0 and Charlton 5-3 before going on an average run. Then things picked up, we beat Man Utd and others to finish October level on points with them. Maybe we could do it this time. Henry was starting to score spectacular goals and there was an excitement in the team.
We always bounced back
But, under Wenger, November always seemed bad and we lost 2 more against Leeds and Everton. It was a real up and down season with big wins and big losses. Man Utd thumped us 6-1 and it was a bit of a pattern under Wenger, we could get destroyed as if we were relegation fodder. The one sure good thing about Wenger was his ability to bounce back from defeat though, and that is a great tribute to his man management skills. Every time we went down he bounced us back up again.
This guy always helped us to bounce back
Beaten 4-0 by Liverpool on 23rd December? Beat Leicester 6-1 26th December. After that 6-1 v Utd? 3-0 win over the Hammers. Beaten 3-0 by Middlesbrough? Next match, 4-1 v Everton. That is in stark contrast to Emery and Arteta where a slump seems to last.
And so we finished second again, 3 seasons in a row. We had seemed to cement our place as second best.
Head to head winners
And the Champions league? We had struggled in this under Wenger but this season saw a turnaround. We topped the first group on head to head with Lazio with 13 points each. Shaktar Donetsk, and Sparta Prague were the other 2. Then on to another group stage with Bayern Munich, Lyon, Spartak Moscow against us. This time we got through on head to head against Lyon in second place after Bayern topped the group.
And so a quarter final against Valencia but they beat us on away goals after 2-1 at Highbury and 1-0 there. Still better than previous years, maybe Wenger was learning how to compete in Europe. He had a fixed belief that players could only play x amounts of matches a season and was always looking to rest players, playing an astounding total of 34 players in all matches. Often once he qualified, he would play reserves and not care about first or second and that often rebounded on him, getting a top team in the knockouts.
Not such glory years
As you can see, Wenger also came under criticism in his top years, which might surprise some of my younger readers, particularly during this period when we weren’t winning trophies. I loved his style of football, his honesty when answering questions, his devotion to his players, not criticizing them in public and not having the spectacular fallouts that Alex Ferguson regularly conjured up. Wenger didn’t really shout at players, preferring for them to figure out where they had gone wrong themselves. He believed very strongly in giving them belief, and maintaining that belief so that even a bad defeat didn’t overly dent their confidence so we bounced back quickly as I have said earlier. All of this made me believe in him and a consistent second place was better than we had got before, even under George Graham. But I never got used to playing a weakened team and often my heart would sink when I saw the lineout.
Irishman Graham Barrett got one game against Ipswich
The were 2 trophies still left for us but Ipswich knocked us out 2-1 in the League cup in our first round despite us dominating the match. We played a total second string despite Ipswich being premier league with Graham Barrett getting a very rare game. He was the son of a friend of mine, Gary Barrett, who was also a professional footballer. We never won the league cup under Wenger and he really just used it to try out players.
And the Fa Cup? Our trophy? We beat Carlisle 1-0 in the 3rd round and then QPR 6-0. Then Chelsea 3-1 and Blackburn 3-0. That set us up for the Spuds in the semis but despite dominating, Gary Doherty scored in the 14th minute and somehow they hung on until finally Vieira and Pires knocked in goals to set up a final vs Liverpool. We dominated again but somehow they won 2-1 with Michael Owen scoring twice, the second nearing the end to escape with a robbery And so, not a bad season, and we came close to bagging a trophy but I kept hoping for more, particularly as Liverpool, Leeds and Chelsea were starting to push us. We needed to be Arsenal, and we needed to kick the Arse off Man Utd, so could next season be the one? I was always hopeful.
Michael Owen broke our hearts