By Les Crang
The photographs from a summer’s day at Highbury, with Wenger in his beige suit flanked by Emmanuel Petit and Marc Overmars, mark the moment Wenger finalised the jigsaw for his first title-winning team in England. Petit came from Monaco and would be transformed from a left-back into a powerful midfield partner for Vieira. Together they formed an imposing combination, able to both protect the defence and be an inventive springboard for the attack. As for Overmars, in came a flying winger whose directness and pace made him a brilliant creator and finisher. Amy Lawrence, The Guardian
Marc Overmars? What a player. Sometimes overlooked while players such as Dennis Bergkamp, Nicolas Anelka and Emmanuel Petit seem more remembered in the 1997-98 team. Ironically, the first Dutch player Arsene Wenger signed in June 1997 (Graham buying our first Dutch player in Glenn Helder and Bruce Rioch in Dennis Bergkamp). Overmars though is regarded as 12th in the list of the Arsenal greatest players. Unfortunately for Overmars, he is often overshadowed by his replacement, Robert Pires
My first memory of Marc Overmars was when Holland came to play England in a World Cup qualifier in in April 1993.
After taking a 2-0 lead England were undone by a one touch volley by Dennis Bergkamp. Then came the substitution that changed the game. David Lacey reported in The Guardian:-
The more crucial change, however, followed the substitution of Gullit, who stalked off to the dressing room in the 69th minute, leaving Keown with no one to mark.
This not only brought on Van Vossen, Holland’s eventual saviour, but enabled Overmars to switch to the right wing, where his acceleration led to the penalty. Holland’s reshuffle made them more of a threat. In the 85th minute, Winter’s sharp nod forward caught Keown out of position and Overmars outpaced Walker [a player who created a song after the 1990 world cup as ‘you’ll never beat des walker’] as the pair raced towards the penalty area. Walker pulled the Ajax winger back by his shirt, Overmars went down and Van Vossen sent Woods the wrong way with his penalty.
That pace to just turn and run at pace with players either having to take him down let him go was something we’d see in the future, but at the time Overmars was playing Ajax. A team that in 1995 would win the European cup, in which Louis Van Gaal was in charge of a team that included young players like Patrick Kluivert, Edgar Davids and Clarence Seedorf as well as the experience of Frank Rijkaard. Ajax won 1-0.
Seven months later in December 1995 Overmars sustained a cruciate ligament injury that kept him out for 8 months. This would be good news for Arsenal in 18 months time.
Although Wenger had joined us in in 1996 and had got a very good first year out of Paul Merson, Wenger saw Arsenal needed more players to improve their third place finish from the previous season. First though, Arsene had to sell and Merse was sold to Middlesbrough for £5,000,000. I remember the disappointment of losing Merse, he was a real ‘character’ in the team and a box of tricks. But I was pretty pleased when we signed Overmars for a mere £7,000,000 due to his cruciate ligament. I was stunned at how cheap we had got him. But that’s Wenger for you back then.
Its not just that Overmars was a good player he was also a good team player
Overmars first season at Arsenal was pretty much one to remember, in which Wenger could play his favoured 4-4-2 rather than United’s 4-2-3-1. Jonathan Wilson excellent book Inverting The Pyramid: The History Of Football Tactics has said even this could fluctuate saying:-
Arsenal did similarly in Arsene Wenger’s first full season in England, with Emmanuel Petit and Patrick Vieira deep, Marc Overmars and Ray Parlour wide and Dennis Bergkamp behind Nicolas Anelka, although Parlour and Overmars push on to produce something more akin to an old style 4-3-3.
Kevin Whitcher said of Overmars signing:-
With his negligible defensive contribution, he would have been unsuited to the 3–5–2 of the previous campaign and was purchased in the full knowledge that such a line-up was now obsolete.
This ability to have a fluid formation seemed the pinnacle of a great team. We had four strikers of different ability in Dennis Bergkamp (precision, accuracy and off the ball movement), Ian Wright (aggression, fox in the box and a burst of speed), Nicolas Anelka (youth, fast acceleration, good shot) and Ian Wreh (ability to nick important goals). Compare that to Olivier Giroud, Yaya Sanogo and Nicklas Bendtner and you can see why the present team seem to be over reaching. Out wide you would have Ray Parlour and Overmars. What surplatives could you give him that have not been said before on him?
For an Arsenal fan, wide players have been often our finest players and often overlooked. For example, in the title winning teams of 1971 and 1989 we had George Armstrong and Brian Marwood respectively (who won 1 cap between them) and who were so important to us winning the league. If you go back to the 1930’s you need only to mention Cliff Bastin as an example of the importance of our wing play. Before Overmars and after Marwood, George Graham had signed wingers. We had the fantastic Anders Limpar who football commentator Martin Tyler said of in 1991 ‘the man they are calling their new match winner’. He also bought a plethora of ‘indifferent’ wingers (Glenn Helder, Jimmy Carter and Eddie McGoldrick). Thankfully, once we saw Overmars, we could see we had a new Limpar.
Overmars got his first goals in a 3-1 win at the dell, in which in the excellent book of the 1997-8 season Gunning for the Double: Story of Arsenal’s 1997-98 Season said of the goal:-
Overmars opened the scoring by cutting in from the left wing, dribbling between two defenders and firing in low to the keeper’s right. It was a quality individual goal.
Overmars didn’t score until we totally destroyed West Ham 4-0 (all first half goals) with Harry Redknapp saying afterwards:-
We’ve played Newcastle, Manchester United and Arsenal in out last 3 games, and if I had to pick a champion this season, I’d go for Arsenal.
Overmars got two goals with everyone praising Dennis Bergkamp to the hilt. I always find it ironic, that I thought Overmars was the best player that season because he didn’t get booked, sent off and suspended as Dennis did.
If Overmars was important in the win over West Ham United on that day, and to the Arsenal going top, I think as an Arsenal fan something just as important was the news coming from Leeds United on the same day: Leeds beat Manchester United and Roy Keane injured himself when he tried to take out Alf-Inge Haland. Manchester United certainly missed their hatchet man that season. Not that anyone really cared at Arsenal.
Although after the 3-1 defeat Arsenal against Blackburn, Arsenal would soon go 11 points behind to leaders Manchester United. Fortunately, Arsenal, Overmars, and Bergkamp hit a vein of form, which would culminate on Saturday 14 March 1998, in a must win game for both sides, with Arsenal 9 points behind but with 3 games in hand. In a fairly even game, the main difference was Overmars. Having twice gone close earlier in the match, with eleven minutes left, Ray Parlour punted a ball forward behind the Manchester United defence. Overmars headed it forward, burst into the box and with his third touch of the ball put it in the back of the net (see below).
The crowd went mental. I mean, lets be honest, what is better that winning at Old Trafford. Oh, Peter Schmeichel going down with a calf strain in the last minute. I remember the feeling of elation after that game. You could feel the title was ours to lose.
Arsenal had the title sewn up by May when they emphatically beat Everton 4-0, with Overmars getting two of the goals, but everyone usually remembering Tony Adams crowning goal at the end.
Next up (after losing to Liverpool and Aston Villa) was the cup final against Newcastle. I’d personally put on a bet of Overmars first scorer 2-0 at 45-1. Crazy odds.
As the game proceeded both my day and Arsenal’s went brilliantly. Overmars obliged me with the goal and a 2-0 win.
After the final, Overmars had said he had appreciated what an FA Cup win meant:
This is all so amazing, especially to win so much in my first year. It’s special to win the FA Cup because it has this tradition as the oldest knockout tournament in the world.
A double in his first season and 16 goals. Although Overmars was there for another 2 seasons he never quite reached the heights of 1998 and in 2000 he and Emmanuel Petit left for Barcelona for a combined fee of £30,000,000. He never quite reached his potential at Barca either and retired four years later with a knee injury.
Overmars as a team player could also divide opinion with his club and international team mate Dennis Bergkamp said of him:-
The little man Overmars was just as bad. People forget what a fearsome player he was. He struck fear into the whole Premiership because when Dennis gave him the ball he was unstoppable. Just so bloody quick. But don’t let him in your room! If you had any chocolate or anything and Overmars has been in the room, wash bag and you’ll have deodorant in your toothbrush or something. It’s a way of handling the pressure. A football club is almost like an extension of school, really. In school you’ve got your pranksters, you’ve got people who want to make a noise.
Others such as Nicolas Anelka said of him in August 1998:-
Anelka labelled his Gunners team-mate Marc Overmars “too selfish”, saying: “I’m not getting enough of the ball. I’m going to see the manager soon because Overmars is too selfish.”
But then, Le Sulk never liked many people did he?
It was disappointing to see him leave. I always loved his turn of the shoulder and running at player and way he’d get between players. Back then Wenger could find a better replacement for a cheaper fee and he certainly did that when signed Robert Pires from Marseille. I always feel Overmars is often overlooked, as Pires was such a favourite, but to me Overmars was like Limpar: enigmatic, lazy, exciting, and frustrating. But, most importantly, Overmars was a player that scored the winner at Old Trafford when we won the league.