They are all good players, but we had no leaders. At times, we were very naive and gave too much freedom to United. No one communicated. The first and second goals were jokes, like watching a youth team. Arsene Wenger after the 6-1 defeat to Manchester United
How relevant is the above statement after our recent draw with Anderlecht, defeat to Swansea, and loss to United, thirteen years on? It seems Arsenal fans seem to think heavy defeats are a new thing, but even two and half years before the 6-1 defeat at Old Trafford in 2001, we had lost 5-0 in the League Cup, at home to Chelsea.
Many had said that it was a weak team, but check below:-
Arsenal: Manninger; Grondin, Vivas, Grimandi, Upson; Garde, Hughes,
Ljungberg, Boa Morte; Bergkamp, Wreh
Subs: Mendez (Garde h-t), Caballero (Bergkamp 60),
Cole, Vernazza, Lukic
That is eight internationals or future internationals. Hardly a weak team.
After winning the double in 1997-8, Arsenal had seen Manchester United win the league the following two season (it would be three by season 2000-1). In 1998-9, Arsenal were on the verge of an unprecedented back to back double, narrowly losing by 1 point to Manchester United after losing to Leeds United in the penultimate game of the season.
We also lost the semi-final to Manchester United at Villa Park:-
Obviously, United went on to win the treble that season. It was said (but I can’t remember by whom) that Arsenal had the best team but United the best squad). To me, this is something that has rarely changed 15 years on except perhaps between 2002-5 period. But more of that later.
Unfortunately, by season 1999-2000 Arsenal again came second to Manchester United. This time by 18 points. The season of 2000-1 saw us lose Marc Overmars and Emmanuel Petit to Barcelona for £30,000.000 combined fee, plus Davor Suker and Nigel Winterburn to West Ham on free transfers. We had replaced Overmars with Robert Pires whilst Edu and Grimandi were seen as adequate replacements for the departing Emmanuel Petit. Again, a repeated feature of Arsene Wengers tenure is he is too slow replace areas everyone else seems to see, like a defensive midfielder.
Also, Arsenal had been suffering at the back as usual. Wenger had been fortunate to inherit the famous back four. By 2001, Winterburn and Steve Bould had left, with Lee Dixon regularly on the bench as Silvinho and then Ashley Cole took his place. In central defence, Tony Adams from 1999-2002, out of a possible 114 games played 57 (exactly half). The fulcrum at centre of the defence was Martin Keown, who was already in his mid 30’s. Here again is the problem. Wenger spending money on defenders. The defenders he had bought up to Old Trafford in 2001? Nelson Vivas? An Argentine full-back remembered for losing us the title at Leeds in 1999, when he lost Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink at the back post:-
Centre of defence? Oleg Luzhny was bought from Dynamo Kiev and known as ‘the horse’. A trier, but more a Boxer from Animal Farm rather than a Red Rum. Our other centre half was Igor Stepanovs, a £1,300,000 signing from Latvia. Tall and gangly, my first game I saw of Arsenal was his debut against Ipswich Town (which I only just realised was a couple days after Geordie Armstrong passed away at London Colney). On his debut in the League Cup match against Ipswich in November 2000, Stepanov scored with a thumping header. We still lost 2-1 and you could see he was not fast of feet or mind. But with Keown and Adams, when would we ever need these two in the defence? All too soon, unfortunately.
As ever, since Arsenal had last won the League in 1998, Wenger seems to like spending his money on on attacking players most of all. Although we had lost Nicolas Anelka, Davor Suker and Marc Overmars. But look who he had signed? Fredrik Ljungberg, Robert Pires, Thierry Henry, Nwankwo Kanu, Sylvain Wiltord and a young Jermaine Pennant. We had also retained the services of Dennis Bergkamp. A superb attacking outfit.
It almost felt that Wenger just wanted to sign attacking players. Well. Nothing unusual there then.
The season had some real highlights, no more so than Thierry Henry’s most famous goal which came in our 1-0 win over United at Highbury:-
Layth Yousif said of the game:-
The North Londoners owed their triumph to the traditionally labelled virtues of snatching a goal against the run of play and defending stoutly for the remainder of the game. It was the ethos that brought silverware under George Graham, yet 1-0 to Arsenal seems like a galaxy away when contrasted with the sublime football they invariably play under their French alchemist Wenger.
There was also the 5-0 win over Newcastle that season, in which Ray Parlour scored a hat trick:-
Unfortunately, by the time we played Manchester United, Arsenal were 13 points behind them. The team had also suffered a major defeat at Anfield prior to Christmas. We did not look good.
The team for the Manchester United game for Arsenal was :-
Arsenal: Seaman, Luzhny, Cole, Grimandi, Stepanovs, Pires, Vieira, Parlour, Silvinho, Wiltord, Henry. Subs: Ljungberg, Bergkamp, Manninger, Vivas, Kanu.
Therefore, the team back four was lacking Tony Adams, Martin Keown and Lee Dixon. Ashley Cole and Oleg Luzhny played full-back, with Gilles Grimandi and Igor Stepanovs in the middle of the defence. Therefore, Arsenal were playing an international defender out of position. Bit like Nacho Monreal then?
As for the midfield? Well, Patrick Vieira and Ray Parlour played in the middle with Silvinho (a full-back) on the wing. It was a team that had never played together. Edu had problems with his passport and was unavailable to play. It was a team that looked ready for a thrashing. If you have defenders in the wrong position, either centre halves as full-backs and fullbacks as wingers you are looking for trouble.
I watched the first half of the game, I couldn’t watch the second half. In the first two minutes Arsenal were one down and Stepanovs didn’t follow or watch his man, with Dwight Yorke ghosting in at the back post.
Henry quickly equalised but by 17 minutes Yorke has run on to a thirty yard ball. He was played onside by a slow Grimandi. On the 26 minute a long 40 yard ball was picked up by Yorke, as Stepanovs gazed upwards as the ball sailed over her head. Yorke had a hat-trick in 24 minutes. Then Arsenal went on the attack, it was broken down outside the box, A break to the wing and Yorke goes up the wing. Roy Keane bursts in the middle between Luzhny and Grimandi and rammed the ball in. 4-1. Just before half time Giggs down the wing, with an ever ineffectual Grimandi falling over Giggs feet. Giggs pulls it back for Ole Gunnar Solskjær to make it 5-1.
In the second half Arsenal kept it down to one. With a long ball again over the top, again. The man on the end of the ball was Teddy Sheringham, who turned Grimandi inside out. 6-1. It just had to be Teddy.
Of the display, what can be said? Well, only Ashley Cole was any good there. The other three were too slow and never worked as a unit. At least 3 of the goals were balls pinged over the top, to take advantage of Stepanovs and Luzhny’s slowness. Totally basic errors that Sir Alex Ferguson used to his advantage.
Also, the cover from the midfield was poor. Vieira, without Petit, was ineffectual. In the double season of 1997, after a 3-1 home defeat to Blackburn, the back four had said they needed more cover from Vieira and Petit. After this, both played more defensive (especially Petit) and went on a 12 match unbeaten run. This was certainly lacking in this game. Vieira is too often called a defensive midfielder and regarded as the pinnacle of it. To me that is untrue. Petit was the the defensive midfielder (of which I have never seen bettered at Arsenal). His loss in 2000 was perhaps one of the worst players we would lose to a competitor.
Arsenal gave up the ghost on the league by February (better than November then?). So what did Wenger do after the game? He redoubled his efforts to win the F.A Cup and looked to the next season to sort out his problems. Arsenal made it to the final against Liverpool, where after leading the game Michael Owen scored two late goals. Defeated again. But Arsenal were also robbed early on, when Thierry Henry goal bound effort was stopped by Stephane Henchoz hand on the line. Red card and penalty. But the referee missed it.
Martin Keown said of the game afterwards:-
I remember standing on that pitch in 2001 and saying this ain’t gonna happen again, because Ltiverpool were so lucky that day.
Wenger, after such a heavy defeat, losing the title by 10 points and F.A Cup Final did what he should have done previously. He spent in the areas he needed cover. He famously bought in Sol Campbell from Spurs for an aging Tony Adams (who would play a mere 10 league games in 2001-2 season). He bought in a defensive midfielder in Gio Van Bronckhorst from Rangers, as well as utilising the often under rated Edu. He also brought in cover for an aging David Seaman in goal, by signing Richard Wright from Ipswich Town. Wenger had gone out and bought in areas we needed improving and not on the cheap.
So, to me, my point is that often Wenger is a reactive manager, rather than a pro-active manager. At present he has bought players that can attack but not a defensive midfielder or centre half. Just like in season 2000-1. Could he change? Well, he did in the pre season of 2001-2 by signing big. He could do it in January or the close season by signing Mats Hummel and/or William Carvalho. But, as ever with Wenger, it seems a season too late. Also, who is to guarantee he will even go for these players?