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1998-99 Champions forever For those of you who are young, I must explain one thing, Manchester United, under Alex Ferguson, were the kings of English football in the 90’s. Year after year they seemed to win the league, and cups and other trophies. But in 1997-98 we were champions and double winners in Arsene Wenger’s first full year and we got to play United in the Charity Shield because they were league runners up. We showed them who are the new kings of England as we thrashed them 3-0, Overmars in the first half and Christopher Wreh and Nicolas Anelka in the second to send them back to Manchester crying all the way. We were ready, we were Arsenal, and this year we could win everything. Maybe we needed to play cricket or rugby to give us a challenge, football was too easy. I don't think so Eh, hello, it wasn’t to be. Although we beat Forest 2-1 in the first match we weren’t very convincing but then we had 4 draws to tumble to ninth. We were flash in the pans, not a new star in the sky and the glory that Wenger seemed to promise us was fading away. Back to the old Arsenal for us. David Platt retired from football never quite becoming an Arsenal hero We hadn’t done much in the transfer market and had got rid of our talisman and record scorer, Ian Wright. David Platt had retired as injuries kept piling up. We brought in Nelson Vivas as cover for the full backs and he was a good player who never quite made it at Arsenal. It was here that Wenger proved he knows, leading to the famous saying all Arsenal fans could recite. He brought in Freddie Llungberg who was to become one of our all time favourites. What could this midfielder do? Everything, score goals, provide assists, link play, dribble, even head the ball. Our sweet Swede - Freddie Llungberg Arsene knows Later he brought in Nwankwo Kanu from Inter who was a superb footballer. His only real problem at Arsenal was that he was similar to Dennis Bergkamp but a fraction less good. One year I was in a pub watching Liverpool vs Arsenal with an Anfield follower David Lynch and Bergkamp went off after tormenting Liverpool and my friend let out a sigh of relief, then groaned as Kanu came on. That’s how good Kanu was. The sublime Nwankwo Kanu But we took a long time to get going in the league and Man Utd had come back at us, they weren’t going to let some fancy Frenchman walk all over them. We were suffering from a winning hangover and not able to get really flying properly. It was a flaw that Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal had, we were never able to retain the league and this season was an early indication of that. However, we did show battling qualities in the second half of the season and we got top on game 34 after going 19 games unbeaten from December. Competition for places I should emphasise that Llungberg and Kanu were bit players that season but I feel they were crucial to the team upping their game, as we now had 2 players who could take the place of even our best players and they had to play better to keep their place. So we had come back at Man U, we had knocked them off their perch and were top. Another season like last which had seemed to fizzle out had re-ignited and we were ready to win again. Except we couldn’t. A 1-0 defeat at Leeds on game 37 handed the initiative to Alex Ferguson and they won by a point. We had 2 tough matches against them in the semi-finals of the FA Cup and maybe that took its toll. The first match ended 0-0 after extra time and the second match 2-1 to United, also after extra time. Oh no, not Manchester United! It was to be Manchester United’s best ever season, they won the league and the FA cup and the big prize Ferguson craved, the Champions League. They famously looked like being beaten in the final against Bayern Munich but 2 goals in injury time got them the win. We were left with just the Charity Shield for our season. The Champions league was disappointing as we went out at the group stages to Dynamo Kyiv and Lens. It wasn’t a difficult group but the first half of the season was poor. We also got hammered 5-0 by Chelsea in the League Cup 4th round. One thing that took me a long time to get used to was Wenger playing understrength teams and us getting hammered because of it. 30 players were used that season, often players I never heard from again. The poor players needed a rest We had 14 goalscorers to emphasise this with Nicolas Anelka showing we didn’t need Ian Wright anymore, we had a new kid who would surely break the mighty Ian’s record, seeing he was so young. He scored 19 in all competitions and Bergkamp 16. Marc Overmars played 49 matches - why didn't he need a rest? The world had changed for me. Big squads with top players like Kanu and Llungberg only subs. The priority only being the big matches and the belief, often misplaced, that the reserves could win matches. I had grown up on 11 players and a sub being enough. Those players could play 3 times a week without complaint, now players were being rested. When I was a kid, we often would go out playing football all day long, every day, but these professionals needed to be rested. I couldn’t understand it and still struggle with the concept even though it has become engrained on the modern sports fans. We were the Arsenal - we could come back But I was an optimist. We had finished the season stronger than Man Utd. There was little to separate us in the FA cup semi-final. We could come back at them with Anelka to improve again and Kanu and Llungberg to show their stuff. We had beaten Spurs at White Hart Lane 3-1 towards the end of the season. We had 11 one-nils to the Arsenal, more than ever before. Next season, I felt, would be good. Little did I know it was to be a defining season where the shift was huge and Arsenal was set to change again. But for the better? We will see.
1997-98 But then it all went Wright? The transfer market was crazy, players were flying in from all over. Players who had shown a bit of promise were shipped out and also Paul Merson was sent on to Middlesbrough, seemingly not rated by Wenger. And so we didn’t know who the team were going to be, and also who most of these new players were. A young Matthew Upson was brought in from Luton who never quite made it at Arsenal but went on to have a pretty good career elsewhere. He was the only Brit brought in and he was cover for the fabled back four. Matthew Upson: one Brit and many foreign in Now, Emmanuel Petit and Marc Overmars are well famous. Gilles Grimandi, Christopher Wreh and Luis Boa Morte were good players but turned out to be more squad players than certs. Alex Manninger was signed as cover for David Seaman. Only Alberto Mendez from Germany never really featured much and he moved on with scarcely any games. A scary side Wenger showed early on that he was good in the transfer market. Petit and Overmars soon showed that they were among the best in the Premier League. How about this for a side? Seaman Dixon Adams Keown Winterburn Vieira Petit Parlour Wright Bergkamp Overmars Frighten the life out of you? For sure. But Bould could come in at the back without a hint of weakness. David Platt was an unbelievable midfielder and could come in to change a game. And so could Nicolas Anelka up front who was showing signs of an immense talent. He looked like he would become a world superstar, yes raw and sometimes ungainly, but frighteningly good at times. Give him a chance to develop his game and his nous over the next few seasons and we have got a player. I think most fans agreed with me on this point. Over our next few blogs we will see what happened to him. A Dark December Emmanuel Petit was an immense midfielder and formed a superb partnership with Patrick Vieira. They were big, they were strong but they could play. They were potentially the best midfield pairing in the world except that Vieira was still raw, still struggled with heavy, greasy pitches and this was reflected in our dour November/December were we lost 4 league matches in a row to seemingly drop out of the title race. We were 5th on the 31st January, having occupied a similar position since November. The newcomers, in general, struggled with the weather and the pitches, Overmars, Petit and Anelka also flailing and sliding with abandon. Petit: one of the best Discipline was also a problem with Vieira and Petit picking up 3 red cards and 16 bookings between them, a lot of it due to being unable to play at the intensity and speed they desired and keep their balance. The famous Wenger ill discipline was in full force, and, despite not being a dirty side by any means, managed to clock up unimpressive disciplinary stats. And what about Ian Wright? I posed a question at the start “But then it all went Wright?” because I guess all you Gooners know what happened at the end this season, but for Ian Wright it was a mixed season, never shown better than when he pulled up his jersey against Bolton in September to show that he had broken the Arsenal scoring record. Eh, no, you didn’t, Ian but at least he did later on in the game and he had to pull it up again. Cue much ribbing in the dressing-room and the newspapers. Wright good fun However, he only got 11 goals in all competitions, a bad year for him and only 26 appearances in those, 2 as sub. Anelka had 2 more although 12 were as sub and he got 9 goals. Bergkamp played 40 and scored 22 and this was a new experience for Wright with only half the scores of the top striker. Competition was tough and getting tougher and there were rumours of famous strikers being lined up but that is a story for next week. The Wenger way was the only way Again lots of players got games, a massive 29 and the pattern was truly set, the cups were for the fringe, as were games against weaker sides and there was no ever present. Nigel Winterburn, again got the most with 35 in the league and 48 in total. Ray Parlour was next on 34 and 47, again, as I suggested last week with Winterburn, probably reflecting that Glenn Hoddle wasn’t playing him for England. Overmars, Petitt and Vieira had strong figures too and the latter 2 picked up suspensions so their figures would have been higher. I think we can all agree that playing these two would have been an easy choice for us. But the extraordinary Englishness of the side had been transformed, midfield and attack now reliant on Johnny foreigner, and only the legendary defence was sacrosanct. Wenger had made his mark, and we were hearing that the changes to Englishness were happening everywhere. The fondness for pints was out as it was for fish and chips and Mars bars. In were steamed vegetables and healthy portions. The best of everything Wenger believed in state of the art in every area, from the grass on the pitch, to the medical facilities, the training ground, and diet and focus. The old English ways were gone, despite the fact that they had dominated European football in the 70’s and 80’s. European football had moved on and it was time for English football to do so also. Alex Ferguson at Man Utd had his ear to the ground, he was aware that a new challenger had arrived, with new ways. He would never let his team fall behind for long. London Colney: it wasn't too long before this appeared So how did we get on on the pitch in Arsene Wenger’s first full season? I guess you all know the answer but I will take a look next week at how it went, and were we really happy that season.