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Found 2 results

  1. George Graham showed the way in 1991 It couldn't be done 2003 - 2004 Was Arsene Wenger a fool of a manager, in 2002-2003 when he unwisely said we could go the whole season unbeaten? The media loved it, taking every opportunity to laugh at him. We lost 6 times in the league and came second. Only in the early days of the league was it possible when Preston won in the first ever league campaign unbeaten in 1888-89. However, it was a much smaller league with only 22 matches and they had, a bit controversially, brought down a load of Scottish players to boost their team. None of the great teams after that could do it, Ourselves in the 1930’s, Huddersfield earlier, Wolves, Manchester United, Liverpool and many other great teams tried, but it never happened. The league had expanded to 42 matches although the Premier League knocked that down to 38, and the difficulties of travelling long distances, playing on cold, wet, muddy pitches, injuries, loss of form, bad luck, bad refs, sendings off, and a myriad of factors contributed to it taking mythical status. Few teams had even got close, with 5/6 losses quite normal for champions. George Graham did show the way though in 1991 with only one defeat. But Wenger said it could Wenger argued that he sent out his teams to win every match, and, as they were pretty much better than the rest, it should be possible. Manchester United never really came close, 3 defeats in 2000 being their best under Ferguson. Particularly as in parts of the 90’s, they were clearly better than the rest, but, of course, you have to play your close rivals twice and cope with trying to motivate players once the season is won, which it often was with matches left to play. Jens Lehmann: A good buy Lots of defeats But Wenger had said it. And didn’t even win the league let alone go undefeated. Manchester United had come back at him again so now could he take down old red nose again? Honestly, the transfer activity didn’t inspire much belief. Players were brought in who would turn out to be very significant, Van Persie, Fabregas, Clichy, Senderos and Djourou would all go on to claim first team spots but not this season. Only Jens Lehmann, and to a much lesser extent, Jose Antonio Reyes, would get much of a chance this time. Lehmann, taking over from David Seaman, was an ever present, but as Seaman was top class, it was hard to make a case that the team had improved much. Kolo Toure, though, emerged as Sol Campbell’s partner and they just worked so nicely together. It was a partnership that performed really well, Campbell dealing with his defensive duties superbly but Toure reminded me of Bobby Moore as to how he would win the ball and distribute it very well. He was mobile, flexible and a good ball player. In fairness to Wenger, we had top players, all, with the exception of Bergkamp (who anyway was rested), still with plenty of miles left on the clock, and he was never one to buy for the sake of it. The quality of our players was not a barrier to going undefeated as we had shown we could beat Man Utd home and away and they were the best of the rest. We really only worried about Manchester United Chelsea had been moving steadily upwards and this season Roman Abramovich had taken over, promising a Blue revolution with an unlimited war-chest to spend, but surely that was unlikely to happen straightaway? Liverpool, Newcastle and Blackburn were also close but for a few seasons now, it had been Arsenal and Man Utd as the biggest rivals. We did expect to come at least second. Around this period, under Wenger, we would play close to 60 matches a season, and if you were to win all your matches, it would be closer to 70. I am going to say that winning all matches is never going to happen, the different demands of the various trophies mitigate against that. So could we really go undefeated in the League, which I feel is what Wenger was talking about? Was comical Wenger right? I feel that he, having said it, felt it as a pressure that started to build the longer the run went on. Ray Parlour, in his autobiography, said that the players didn’t really feel pressure about this for a long time. They didn’t really feel it was possible and they had other trophies to worry about. Could we win all trophies? So how did we do in the other trophies? The Charity Shield and Manchester United gave us our first defeat although it was only after penalties. In the league cup we came close although we struggled against Rotherham in our first round scraping through 9-8 on penalties after extra time. Then much easier against Wolves in the next 5-1. Then 2-0 against West Brom before the 2 legged semi-final against Middlesbrough. We were beaten home and away despite playing quite well for an aggregate 3-1. 3 defeats. We were taught a lesson at Highbury against Inter The Champions League was a bit of a disaster. We were beaten first time out against Inter 3-0 at Highbury, then a draw against Lokomotiv Moscow in Moscow before another defeat against Dynamo Kiev away 2-1. Our poor European form was a true puzzle to me, it never made any sense. Wenger was from continental Europe, he had an encyclopaedic knowledge of the teams, he had players that most teams craved but somehow couldn’t put them away. But maybe he was stung by these defeats as we won our next 3 to top the group including destroying Inter in Milan, 5-1, and, a match I was at, Dynamo Kiev at home where Ashley Cole got a late goal to give us a chance as that was the first game of the second half of the group. Ashley Cole gave us hope against Dynamo Kiev Then Celta Vigo 5-2 over the 2 legs of the first knockout round. Then Chelsea, doing really well under Roman Abramovich, beat us in the quarter finals with 1-1 at Stamford Bridge and 2-1 at Highbury with Wayne Bridge scoring very late to send us crying back to North London. 3 defeats in total in the Champions League. No, we couldn't And the FA Cup? Our trophy? Leeds first and dispatched 4-1. Then Middlesbrough 4-1. Then Chelsea 2-1 and Portsmouth 5-1 to leave us Man Utd in the semi’s. But they beat us 1-0 thanks to a Paul Scholes goal. 1 defeat. Scholes scores for our old enemy Which left us with 3 defeats in the first half of the season and 4 in the second. It only left us the league to be undefeated. Could we do it there and prove that Arsene Wenger was not stand-up comedian material but instead soberly looking at his team and saying “We can do it”? Some good results in those other trophies aside, there weren’t a huge amount of reasons to have that idea. I don’t remember having much belief myself. In October, I was in a pub in Dublin watching Arsenal draw with Charlton 1-1 and was talking to a random stranger who opined that Arsenal are not so good this year, too many draws. It was hard to argue. Next week I will take a look at what happened in the league in what was maybe our most momentous season.
  2. 2002-2003 No, they were laughing at you, Arsene The year when we won everything! In the previous year we had won the double. Now we were ready to win all. Champions league, League Cup as well as league and FA cup. And our first trophy was the Charity Shield. By rights we should have played against ourselves as we were the holders of both qualifying trophies but we played Liverpool who were enjoying a resurgence under Gerard Houllier and had finished second the last season. We played super, were all over them but only won 1-0. Gilberto, making his debut, came on as a sub and scored. I always liked Gilberto. He acted as a sort of sweeper midfielder/defender but could play and sometimes score. He gave a stability to the team. This is the famous year that Arsene Wenger said we could go the whole season unbeaten and was laughed at. In fairness, what he also said was that no manager ever sets out to lose, and that for every match he planned for a win. I am sure Alex Ferguson and the rest agreed with that. He rarely, even for the league cup, played a totally raw team, with always some experienced players to back up the youngsters. I would argue that by playing weakened teams, though, he was giving a lie to his argument that he always planned to win. He would often play a weakened team either side of a European match, if they were from low in the table, as well. I do accept his argument, though, that no manager sets out to lose. I cannot imagine a manager saying “Lads, I know it’s only Tottenham but you are going to lose”. But he averaged 30 or more players getting matches in his period and, in all honesty, all of us Gooners knew what he thought of as his top team, (Seaman, Cole, Lauren, Keown, Campbell, Gilberto, Vieira, Pires, Llungberg, Henry, Wiltord, with Bergkamp kept fresh for the important matches) so he had to believe that the fringe players could also get a win for him. He did have a good record against lower teams in cup competitions, in truth. Always nice to beat this team An undefeated season? So could we? Go undefeated for a season? I am not sure any team has ever done it anywhere but maybe a statistician could enlighten me? It is not fully clear, from what Wenger said, if he meant all competitions or just the league but anyway, if we could do it this season, we would finally win the Champions League, the prize I wanted above all else. Anyway, despite a good start to the season, October arrived and we had back to back defeats against Everton and Blackburn to disabuse us of any notions of being undefeated. Also back to back defeats in October in the Champions League against Auxerre and Borussia Dortmund. Strangely enough, all defeats were 2-1. We went out soon after in the League Cup to Sunderland on November 6th in our first round. The joke was on us. Undefeated? Could we even win anything? In my time as an Arsenal fan, we had never retained a title but in fairness, we were doing well to this point. A bad spell always knocked me back and every season we had them. Often October/November was the catalyst for the bad spells. Wet, muddy grounds conspired against our artists. Other teams were catching up but grass technology was expensive as was undersoil heating. Too many defeats left us a bit deflated We were to have 2 more defeats before Christmas against Southampton and Manchester United to leave us chasing retention. In the Champions league we finished top although level with Dortmund. This was an improvement. We at least finished top. But still the calibre of the teams were below us. We couldn’t seem to transfer our league form to Europe and this was borne out in the next round. We were drawn against Valencia, Ajax and Roma, all teams that we should have been better than but we went out in 3rd place, only Roma below us. There was no transfer to Uefa cup at the second stage so we were out of Europe. But we had bounced back in the league and were top all over Christmas and looking like retention would happen, finally. Some nice results on the way, 3-0 Tottenham, 5-2 West Brom, 3-0 Charlton, 4-1 Leeds, and 3-1 Villa and Sunderland. It was a time when we played lovely football, the neutrals came to love us, we scored almost every match, and Henry seemed to only score magic goals. But then the double came back on How did Giggs miss? So we were looking good when the Fa Cup came around. The first 2 were Oxford and non league Farnborough, we despatched them easily enough only to draw the biggie – Manchester United away. I had a strange feeling of confidence going into this match but Ryan Giggs did everything right early on as he skipped through Arsenal, but somehow managed to miss the easiest goal chance he ever had in his life. It sticks in everyone’s head and I am sure he still has nightmares about it. Watch it on Youtube, you will not believe that he missed. But then Edu (yes that Edu) whacked in a free kick, it took a wicked deflection from the Man U wall and left Barthez in goal no chance. Later the same Edu went on a nice run, slipped the ball cleverly to Wiltord and he jinked past the Utd defence to put our second past Barthez. 2-0 to the Arsenal and a sign that we could retain both trophies and leave the Mancs to cry for the rest of the season. Edu could play, you know Chelsea next and 3-1 after a replay. Then Sheffield Utd in the semi’s and 1-0 to the Arsenal. On to Southampton in the final. Robert Pires scored the only goal and again 1-0 to the Arsenal. Always nice to sing that one, particularly when we win the Fa cup and become the only team to retain it in a long time. And our first time for me as a fan for us to retain a trophy. Wenger was breaking all records. One half of a double – is that such a thing? But a stuttering end to the season in the league including 2 defeats to Blackburn Rovers 2-0 and Leeds 3-2 meant Man Utd had made a comeback and finally finished 5 points above us in 1st. We were second again as we had been many times before to them, on 78. We scored 85 goals in the league, easily the most, 10 above Man Utd, and finished well ahead in London. So no undefeated season for us. Not a bad season but not great. My dream of Champions League seemed to be just a dream and I reckon Wenger’s dream of going undefeated was also just a dream, but I was still going into 2003-2004 with a lot of confidence. We had pushed Man Utd hard, been a little better in Europe and had finally retained a trophy. We were Arsenal, c’mon boys, prove it.
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