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I still feel selling Petit and Overmars was a mistake 2000-2001 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. Wenger's spies had given us Pires and Wiltord and we were hoping 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. Nearly men? 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
We could win things with these two 1997/98 again We weren't all that happy Last week, I explored the changes Arsene Wenger had made or he was putting in place. But what actually happened on the pitch? Honestly, most of the season we weren’t very happy. Yes, we had a nice spell from game 8 to game 12 when we were top, including a 4-0 thrashing of West Ham and a 5-0 of Barnsley, but after that we were back to the old Arsenal and down the table to 5th. We didn’t look like winning anything nor qualifying for Champions League. So it was same old same old. His £2M salary looked bad value in many ways. Lots of players playing meant some of our old favourites like Ian Wright weren’t playing every week. We were in the UEFA Cup and were dumped out in our first round in September by PAOK Salonika despite playing the top squad, only without Bergkamp in the away match because he wouldn’t fly. That didn’t help Wenger’s cause. Beaten by Pensioners in the League Cup We did better in the League Cup, beating Birmingham and their neighbours Coventry in our first two rounds, although we made hard work of it as we had to go to extra time in both matches. Here Wenger did play many squad members but he got away with it. Then we played some Pensioners in the semi’s. That wasn’t so good. We were beaten 4-3 over 2 legs. Chelsea were turning into a top team and had lots of fancy foreigners such as Ruud Gullit and Dan Petrescu, plus De Matteo, Vialli and Zola from Italy. Wenger played a strong team for both matches only giving starts to a small number of squad players. He kept saying his priority was the league but we weren’t lighting any fires in that. It was frustrating for fans not to see our absolute top team playing in a semi against our true biggest London rivals at the time. In fairness, Vieira got sent off on 48 and on 51 and 53, Chelsea made it 3-0 and the tie looked over after we won 2-1 in the first. Ill discipline was costing us again and Vieira was making it a habit. Wonderful player but loved red and yellow. Bergkamp scored a late consolation penalty but we were out. The FA Cup? Our trophy? We had Port Vale to start and bizarrely, Wenger put out a strong team only to draw 0-0 and go to a replay where he once again put out a strong team and they took us to penalties after 1-1 after extra time, both of which were scored in extra time. Pretty much our top team couldn’t score in 2 matches in normal time against Port Vale? I hope you are getting the idea that Wenger wasn’t really feeling the love from the fans. Next time against Middlesbrough we scored 3 goals, Overmars and Parlour put us 2-0 after 19 minutes and Merson got another on 62 to make it 3-0. Just joking, he had been sold to them by Wenger so I am sure he was delighted to show he wasn’t finished. It ended 2-1. Paul Merson happy to prove Wenger wrong Then Palace in the next and a scattering of second choice players gave us no goals and a replay which, again a bit understrength, we won 2-1. Considering Palace finished last that year, it wasn’t good. The glory days of George Graham looked to be far back in the distance. We couldn't really understand Wenger's logic with Alex Manninger West Ham up next with a young Rio Ferdinand and Frank Lampard in their line-up. Except for Manninger in goal, a strong line-up. But we couldn’t understand Wenger’s logic of resting a goalkeeper. They rarely have physically demanding matches, particularly with our defence, and we felt that he was messing up the understanding by playing him in cup matches. And we struggled again but came through after a replay with a restored David Seaman. We were making it hard Championship Wolves in the semi, and again a bit of a struggle to win. An understrength side got an early goal via a squad player. Christopher Wreh, after 12 minutes and that was enough. Now I am going to switch to the league. We were frustrated, Arsenal were playing attacking, fast football, scoring lots of goals but also many poor displays. Suddenly, though, on March 11 we beat Wimbledon 1-0 to the Arsenal and couldn’t stop winning, Wenger must have put premium petrol in our tank because we won 10 in a row culminating in sending Everton back home to Scouseland crying after we lashed 4 goals against them. We were back, we were Arsenal and we had won the league with 2 games to go. We were the best, Wenger was the best and the players were glorious. We weren't scared of Shearer On to Newcastle in the final. We had done the double over them in the league and duly won 2-0 from Overmars and Anelka. But it went wrong for Wright. He didn’t play, Christopher Wreh being preferred. No sub for him either. He was to be shipped out to West Ham in the summer and a bit of a sad end to a legend. I guess records like that are only going to be broken at the end of your career anyway. Anelka was seen as increasingly first choice, and raw or no, he looked explosive and set to be a world great. Wright was top class but not a world great. But he did get a league title and another FA cup medal courtesy of Arsene Wenger. Surely he would turn out to be an Arsenal great? But we, now, were surely world greats? Who was better than Bergkamp, Overmars, Petit, Vieira and Anelka? Our defence was still super and we had 5 one nils to the Arsenal in the league, Wenger’s nod to George Graham. And his nod to Bertie Mee with a magical double. Enchantment was performed before our very eyes by a wizard Frenchman. The Brightest star in the sky I can’t really convey the emotion we had. A season that had stuttered and spluttered like a firework gone out, unexpectedly exploded into a lightshow unlike any we had ever seen. We were Arsenal, we were fast, bright and shone throughout the sky. And hey, Mr Ferguson, that is us, the Arsenal, that you can see as a new star in the sky.