The Gunners- From men to boys and men again
My love affair with Arsenal Football Club started after The Invincibles era. Back then I wasn’t a huge football fan and the sight of 22 players running around the field for 90minutes to put the ball into the back of a net was a sight of huge boredom for me. My only experiences of watching a football game back then were the 1998 and 2002 World Cup Final with my dad. I still remember staying up late to watch a certain Zinedine Zidane scoring a brace to stun Brazil in 1998 and then a “phenomenon” named Ronaldo doing the same in the 2002 final against Germany.
In my transition from a cricket-lover to an avid football fan, my friends played a huge and a significant role in that. Back then Manchester United was the talk of the town and almost every second person was a Red Devil. But I wasn’t the one who just blindly follows a trend. I began watching football and observed each team carefully until a team in Red and White with skillful and intelligent players like Dennis Bergkamp, Thierry Henry and Robert Pires caught my eye. Their crisp passing, intelligent movements, lovely ball-control combined with the pace of Freddie Ljungberg and the hard tackling game of Patrick Vieira along with the solid defensive game of Sol Campbell and Lauren oozed class and was more than enough for any non-footballing guy to fall in love with the beautiful game. I don’t have any memory of the 2003-04 season when the Arsenal went a whole season unbeaten to earn the “Invincibles” tag but what I do remember is the animosity between Gunners captain Patrick Vieira and Manchester United captain Roy Keane.
On the field Keane maintained a healthy rivalry with the Arsenal captain. The most notable incident between the two took place at Highbury in 2005 at the height of an extreme period of bad blood between United and Arsenal. Vieira was seen confronting United defender Gary Neville in the tunnel before the game over his fouling of Jose Antonio Reyes in the previous encounter between the two sides prompting Keane to verbally confront the Arsenal captain. The incident was broadcast live on Sky Sports, with Keane clearly heard telling match referee to “Tell him [Vieira] to shut his fucking mouth!” My first joy (which turned out to be the only) of watching The Arsenal win a trophy was the FA Cup in 2005 against none other than their bitter-rivals Manchester United. Arsenal were definitely not the dominant team on that day but somehow scraped through 90mins of normal time plus a more 30mins of extra time to win the game in penalties. Patrick Vieira scored the last and the winning penalty for the Gunners which eventually proved to be his last kick of his Arsenal career. Dennis Bergkamp, one of the classiest and stylish player ever to play in the Premier League also announced his retirement.
It was a sad end to a glorious career spanning nine years which included 3 Premier League titles and 4 FA Cups. Life after Patrick Vieira started in not so pretty fashion for Arsenal as they crushed to defeat at the hands of Chelsea in the traditional season opener, The FA Community Shield. The Premier League season also didn’t turn out to be as planned as they narrowly finished 4th and that too on the last day as Tottenham lost their last game and Arsenal won it. But it was a completely different story on the European front as Arsenal were in devastating form and cruised into the finals of the Champions League after convincingly knocking out the likes of Real Madrid, Juventus and debutants Villareal before losing narrowly to Barcelona 2-1. En route to the final Arsenal had managed 10 consecutive clean sheets which till date is a Champions League Record. Also, with a 1-0 win over Real Madrid at Santiago Bernabeu in the Round of 16, Arsenal became the first English club to beat the Madrid giants in their own backyard. In the seasons to follow, they also became the first English team to inflict a defeat to AC Milan at the San Siro after goals from Cesc Fabregas and Emmanuel Adebayor secured the Gunners passage to the next round. Next season Arsenal went onto lose another final, courtesy The Carling Cup. Arsene Wenger started the Carling Cup campaign with a team full of youngsters. The Young Guns didn’t disappoint him either as they reached the final but eventually lost out to a full-strength Chelsea team. Slowly the Invincibles team started to fall apart. Thierry Henry, Fredrik Ljungberg and Gilberto Silva seeked new pastures and were sold to Barcelona, West Ham and Panathanaikos respectively. Sol Campbell suffered some kind of mental trauma and left Arsenal on mutual consent and joined Portsmouth. Thierry Henry’s move to Barcelona brought an end to the glorious career of one of the best forwards of the game and also of the best player to ever grace English football. He scored a record 226 goals for Arsenal and has achieved a legendary status at the club.
Then started the New Era for Arsenal FC. William Gallas, who was brought in from Chelsea, with ‘C’ashley Cole moving in the other direction was given the Captain’s armband. Young players like Theo Walcott, Abou Diaby, Gael Clichy, Cesc Fabregas, Emmanuel Adebayor and Mathieu Flamini stepped up the ladder along with the experienced Kolo Toure. With the shrewd signings of Alexander Hleb and Eduardo da Silva, Arsenal launched a serious trophy assault. With all the football pundits tipping Arsenal to finish outside the Champions League places, they started the season on a high and were ruthless too. They quickly raced to the top of the Premier League and were sitting comfortably with a five point lead after the Christmas period. They definitely exceeded everyone’s expectations but soon their title charge came to a halt. It was at St. Andrew’s against Birmingham. A rash challenge by Martin Taylor ended Eduardo’s night and season. It was a very nasty challenge that led to the striker breaking his tibia and fibula and also breaking Arsenal’s momentum and concentration. The sight of Eduardo lying with a broken leg in front of them mentally disturbed the Gunners and they eventually lost focus and finished the season 3rd behind eventual champions Manchester United and runners-up Chelsea.
Arsenal lost Mathieu Flamini to AC Milan and then Alex Hleb to Barcelona in successive seasons. Samir Nasri was added to the ranks, a player who was then compared to the legendary Frenchman Zinedine Zidane. He settled easily into the Gunners system and till date is the best and the most influential performer after Captain Cesc Fabregas. Andrei Arshavin, the star at the Euro 2008 joined Arsenal in January and also became an Arsenal hero after scoring four times at Anfield. Till date, Arsenal haven’t won any trophies since moving to their new plush 60,000 seater Emirates Stadium but has come close a number of times. Barcelona denied them their first Champions League trophy in 2006. Chelsea fought back from a goal down to deny the Gunners a Carling Cup trophy in 2007. Eduardo’s injury ravaged their 2008-09 Premier League campaign and most recently Aaron Ramsey’s horrendous injury and their inability to see off Manchester United and Chelsea at home saw the Gunners slip off the table once again in 2009-10. But with the likes of the creative Cesc Fabregas, the young and energetic Jack Wilshere, the skillful Samir Nasri, the diminutive Russian Andrei Arshavin, the fast Theo Walcott, injury-plagued but influential Robin van Persie, the inconsistent but extremely confident Nicklas Bendtner, the born-again Johan Djourou, the ever-dependable Bacary Sagna, the error-prone Gael Clichy and new signings Marouane Chamakh and Laurent Koscielny, Arsenal have again launched a title assault and challenged the likes of Manchester United, Chelsea and the filthy rich Manchester City. They currently sit three points behind leaders Manchester United, who are looking for the record 19th league title with a game in hand. Despite the heartbreak against Birmingham City in the Carling Cup finals a week back, Wenger’s team have not lost the mental strength and desire to win a trophy. They are still in the hunt for three trophies which is the Champions League, the FA Cup and the Premier League. This season looks bright as they are perfectly placed in all those competitions and look set to end their six year trophy drought.
Till date Arsenal hold many a records namely:
Longest unbeaten sequence in top flight: 49
Most consecutive clean sheets in the Champions League: 10
Longest time without conceding in Champ League by a keeper:
853mins (Jens Lehmann)
And the list goes on and on and on………
From world-beaters (read: The Invincibles) to a laughing stock, Arsenal have seen it all but still remain strong and confident under Arsene Wenger. Apart from being stable financially, unlike the other top clubs, they have also managed to finish in the top four even when the odds were against them. Arsene Wenger has done exceedingly well with limited budgets and also by not letting the club go into debt. You can definitely sense, that the wait for a trophy is near and time is also not far off when Arsenal start to dominate England and Europe (if they manage to keep their players together though, and that is the big IF).