Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Reflections on 20 years …

For those of us looking for even more narrative about this season, above and beyond the title scrap we face against Man City and Liverpool, there’s the fact that this year is the 20th anniversary of the Invincibles.

2004 is the last time Arsenal won the Premier League, and if you’d said that to somebody back then, they’d probably have looked at you funny. Roman Abramovich had arrived at Chelsea the summer before, and immediately made his intentions clear by trying to sign Thierry Henry and Patrick Vieira.

David Dein’s famous quote at the time: “Roman Abramovich has parked his Russian tank in our front garden and is firing £50 notes at us.”

But the idea that an Arsenal side that had won the league without losing a single game, with two doubles in recent seasons, would go two decades without another title would have felt fanciful. It’s not that I think anyone would have expected us to dominate, because with Chelsea’s arrival thanks to Abramovich’s dirty money, and the continued presence of Alex Ferguson at Man Utd after he’d rowed back on his retirement plans, there was always going to be plenty of competition.

Obviously the team underwent significant changes, linked to the move from Highbury to the Emirates, and the way we went about things financially. Some great players came to the end of their time with us. Vieira was sold to Juventus, Thierry went to Barcelona, Robert Pires to Villarreal, and Arsene Wenger tried to build a team around Cesc Fabregas but – in my opinion anyway – never quite committed to that the way he should have done.

It’s all water under the bridge now, of course, but would Arsenal have been a different team if he’d really gone the distance with the Xabi Alonso deal that time? I suspect so. Instead, Fabregas had to carry other midfielders who weren’t really close to the level we needed.

Still, there were opportunities in that time. Football is full of sliding doors moments, and if it’s 20 years since the title, it’s 20 years since the most gut-punching defeat of my modern Arsenal experience. The Wayne Bridge goal in the Champions League denied that team the trophy that season. I firmly believe that, and I wonder what it would have done had we succeeded in that competition. I don’t think it would have broken up as quickly.

Similarly 2006, the final – what impact would that have made to the project as we moved to the new stadium with that kind of status? Not to mention the financial boost we’d have enjoyed too. I think Arsenal should have won the league in 2008, another sliding doors moment, where things fell apart after the horror of Eduardo’s injury at Birmingham, and the both the result and manner of it that day. But lost in the visceral trauma of that incident, and the way it reverberated, was the mundane reality that injuries to key players like Mathieu Flamini and Bacary Sagna had a big impact in the final part of the season.

2016 was a bit different, in that I think it would only have ever been beautiful a way to cap Arsene’s time at the club. As all the other main rivals fell away, we should have taken advantage but a long-standing fragility at the heart of the club meant we couldn’t, and an extraordinary run of form from Leicester saw them crowned Champions.

I have no doubt this current Arsenal side is laser-focused on becoming champions, but if Mikel Arteta is looking for things which could motivate his players even a tiny percentage more, the 20 year thing is one of them. To do it on the anniversary of the greatest achievement in Premier League history would make these players legends in their own right. There are also players in this current squad with the potential to stand shoulder to shoulder with some of our best ever, but that can only happen if they win things.

The latest missive on the official site, as they chart the progress of the Invincibles season, focuses on the 1-1 draw with Man Utd on March 28th 2004. Henry scored an incredible goal, United equalised late on, and there was a big scrap afterwards too. Not between Arsenal and Utd, even at the height of that most intense rivalry, but two of our own players. From Arseblog on March 29th 2004:

The big story this morning comes from The Mirror who are reporting that Lauren and Thierry Henry had a punch-up in the tunnel after the game. As they were leaving the pitch you could see Lauren talking to Thierry, who was obviously pissed off that Lauren hadn’t passed the ball to him for an easy tap-in late on. As they got to the tunnel Henry allegedly went mad and the pair started throwing punches at each and had to be separated by other Arsenal players. According to an eye-witness “Henry was like a wild man. He was going crazy and the two of them were really going for each other.”

Lauren, what a man. Scrapping with our star striker. He also took on Patrick Vieira on the team bus one time, and who knows what else hasn’t come out?! It’s interesting to consider that kind of combative dressing room and environment, and compare it to today’s. As much as the game has changed technically and tactically from back then, I wonder if it’s a bit different in that way too.

Footballers will always clash and argue, maybe clubs are just better at keeping it under wraps these days, and Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal is one where access to any kind of information is as guarded as possible in the modern era. The closest we’ve got recently is Ben White having a go at Oleksandr Zinchenko after the away game at Forest, but afterwards Mikel Arteta said he loves that stuff and the players were fine with each other. Which is what you would expect him to say publicly, but as the pressure gauge rises during this run in – with Premier and Champions League to contend with – dealing with that in the right way could be the difference between three points and one (or none), and then 20 years could become 21.

I don’t even know where I’m really going with this blog today. Only to remind myself that it’s very hard to win the league, small things can be the difference between success and ‘failure’, and I think that’s even more true in the current era. There’s no real room for error when you’re up against football’s most expensively assembled winning machine.

When I think about what lies ahead, I’m equal parts excited and terrified. It’s exhilarating and daunting. It’s where I’ve wanted us to be for so long, but now that we’re here I just want to go close my eyes and for someone to tap me on the shoulder and say ‘We’ve done it’. If that makes sense.

However, there’s no other way but to live it. Just like we did back then.

Ok, let’s leave it there. We are recording an Arsecast Extra for you this morning, so keep an eye out for the call for questions on Twitter @gunnerblog and @arseblog on Twitter with the hashtag #arsecastextra – or if you’re an Arseblog Member on Patreon, leave your question in the #arsecast-extra-questions channel on our Discord server.

Podcast should be out around noon. Until then.

Related articles

Share article

Featured on NewsNow

Support Arseblog

Latest posts

Latest Arsecast