Arsenal - summary of the 1997/98 season
After spending his first season at Arsenal consolidating, and by and large making do with the squad he inherited, Arsene Wenger now appears intent on building a team of his own. To the distress of many Gooners, Paul Merson was sold to Middlesborough, but only after Wenger had made seven signings over the summer, six of them from abroad, four of them under 23. Players of the quality of Marc Overmars and the former Monaco duo, Petit and Grimandi, have raised expectations for the new season to a level unprecedented in recent years, though there is also an obvious sub-text to Wenger's transfer policy, in his desire to build for Arsenal's long term future.
Most Arsenal fans will nevertheless be expecting success in tangible form at the end of the season, preferably in the shape of the League title. Realistically however, given the number of new players in the team and the likely absence of stalwarts such as Adams, Keown, Dixon and Vieira through injury or suspension for some of the early games, it could take some time before the new team begins to gel and play well collectively. Pre-season games have suggested that Wenger's new Arsenal may well turn the traditional image on it's head - an exciting and entertaining attack, but a defence (decimated for the first few games at least) which is not so secure.
A more pragmatic view might thus suggest that it is likely to be later in the season before the team really start to click, which would point to the UEFA or FA cups as likelier routes to success.
Unknown Player to Watch for
With the number of foreign signings made over the summer, it could be argued that half of Arsenal's team is likely to be unknown to the general British footballing public. For instance Emmanuel Petit looks set to become a dominant force in Arsenal's midfield but can't really be described as unknown to the wider football world. Wenger has also concentrated on bringing down the average age of the squad so there are several young prospects who are likely to make an impact. One of them, 18 year old Mathew Upson is even English and has impressed in pre-season games. The 19 year old winger/striker from Lisbon, Luis Boa Morte also looks an exciting player (as well as being a dead ringer for Ian Wright), but forced to choose one name, I am nominating:
This 18 year old French striker eventually joined Arsenal at the tail end of last season, following a protracted legal wrangle between the Gunners and his former club Paris St Germain. He came with a reputation as one of the hottest prospects in French football, and in a handful of substitute appearances for Arsenal last season showed glimpses of the pace and skill which earned him such a reputation. If Ian Wright continues to fall foul of the football authorities he could get his chance to stake a claim for a permanent place in the team, particularly towards the end of the season.
Close Season Transfer Activity
In: Marc Overmars (midfield) from Ajax (HOL) (5.0 million) Emmanuel Petit (defence) from Monaco (FRA) (3.5 million) Luis Boa Morte (midfield) from Sp Lisbon (POR) (1.75 million) Gilles Grimandi (defence) from Monaco (FRA) (1.5 million) Matthew Upson (defence) from Luton Town (1.2 million) Alex Manninger (goalkeeper) from Casino Graz (AUT) (0.5 million) Alberto Mendez-Rodriguez (mid) from Feucht (GER) (0.2 million) Out: Paul Merson (midfield/attack) to Middlesborough (5.0 million) Matthew Rose (defence) to QPR (0.5 million) Lee Harper (goalkeeper) to QPR (0.25 million) Adrian Clarke (midfield) to Southend (free)
Squad for 1997-1998 Season
1. David Seaman (England international goalkeeper) 2. Lee Dixon (England int right back) 3. Nigel Winterburn (England int left back) 4. Patrick Vieira (French international midfielder) 5. Steve Bould (England int central defender) 6. Tony Adams (England captain, centre half, club captain) 7. David Platt (England international midfielder) 8. Ian Wright (England int forward, last term's top scorer) 9. Nicholas Anelka (French youth international forward) 10. Dennis Bergkamp (Dutch international forward) 11. Marc Overmars (Dutch international winger) 12. Christopher Wreh (Liberian international striker) 13. Alex Manninger (Austrian U21 international goalkeeper) 14. Martin Keown (England int central defender) 15. Ray Parlour (Eng U21 int midfielder with silly haircut) 16. 17. Emmanuel Petit (French international midfield/defender) 18. Gilles Grimandi (French international midfield/defender) 19. Remi Garde (French former international midfielder) 20. Mathew Upson (England U20 international central defender) 21. Luis Boat Morte (Portugese U21 interational left winger/striker) 22. Ian Selley (Eng U21 international midfield) 23. Alberto Mendez (German midfielder) 24. John Lukic (reserve goalkeeper, 2nd stint at Highbury) 25. Scott Marshall (reserve centre half) 26. Vince Bartram (reserve goalkeeper) 27. Paul Shaw (reserve striker) 28. Stephen Hughes (reserve midfielder) 29. Glenn Helder (Dutch international left winger) 30. Gavin McGowan (reserve fullback) 31. Chris Kiwomya (striker, cover for Wright) 32. Isaiah Rankin (reserve striker) 33. Michael Black (reserve midfielder/right winger, Eng U15 int) 34. Jason Crowe (reserve left back, Eng U15, U18, U20 int)
Mid-season Transfer Activity
Out: Ian Selley (midfield) to Fulham (0.5 million) Paul Shaw (midfield/attack) to Peterborough (0.3 million) Glenn Helder (midfield) to NAC Breda (HOL) (undisclosed)
Complete appearance and goal statistics for the season
Retrospective review of the season
1997/98 was a season Arsenal fans will never forget, and one which few would have dared dream about, particularly during the dark months of November and December when a midseason slump led to rumours of dressing room disharmony and a seemingly unbridgeable gap to league leaders Manchester United.
The Gunners kicked off the season in encouraging fashion with a 12 match unbeaten run in the league, and the only early downpoint was disappointing first round exit in the UEFA cup to the Greek team PAOK Thessaloniki. Dennis Bergkamp was in peerless form scoring stunning goals on demand, and Ian Wright was also popping them in, becoming Arsenal's all time leading scorer in the process. After a 5-0 thrashing of Barnsley at the beginning of October, Arsenal were sitting proudly atop the Premiership and it seemed for a while that the dream of another league title might yet become reality.
However, the more pessimistic still harboured reservations. Games at Leicester and Everton, and at home to 10 man Tottenham were drawn when they should have been won, and there was a feeling that Arsenal were over-reliant at that stage on Bergkamp's irresistible form. And so it seemed to prove. The penultimate game of the unbeaten start to the league season was a goalless draw at Crystal Palace during which a frustrated and tetchy Bergkamp received his 5th booking of the season and thus incurred a 3 match suspension.
The first game the Dutch master missed was at Derby, and he watched as Wright missed a 1st half penalty and Arsenal collapsed in the 2nd half to a 3-0 defeat. The Gunners did bounce back crucially to beat Manchester United 3-2 at Highbury in their next match, but their 3rd Bergkampless game was another supine defeat, 2-0 at Sheffield Wednesday. Though Bergkamp returned for the next game he seemed to have lost his magical touch, and the 1-0 home defeat to Liverpool was the 3rd in 4 games. There were hopes of a turnaround in the next game at Newcastle as Bergkamp laid on the only goal of the game for Wright to end his own personal 8 match barren run, but a week later these seemed dashed as Blackburn came to Highbury and went away with a 3-1 win.
It was the nadir of the season and a match in which the careers of two Arsenal legends had appeared to reach crisis point. Still plagued by chronic injury problems, Tony Adams played what he would admit was one of the worst games of his career, and soon afterwards on Wenger's advice went to a fitness expert in France in a last ditch attempt to heal his injuries. Ian Wright, still struggling to regain form, was abused by a few so-called fans and engaged some of them in a "lively debate" from the dressing room window after the game, and then a couple of weeks later suffered the first of a series of injuries which was to end any further significant involvement in Arsenal's season.
Legend has it however, that this was also the turning point of the season, though Ian Ridley (of the Independent on Sunday and the ghostwriter of Adams' autobiography so one assumes he has inside knowledge) says it was in fact after the previous home game against Liverpool that the team and Wenger had a "thrash it out" meeting during which Adams demanded that the defence receive more protection from the midfield. The response from the central midfield pairing of Vieira and Petit was magnificent, and aided by better on and off field communication due to the Frenchmen's improving English, Arsenal embarked on an unbeaten run which would eventually carry them all the way to the league title.
Arsenal's next match was perhaps fortuitously abandoned as the tenants forgot to feed the meter at Selhurst Park and the floodlights failed, but the gap to the league leaders stretched to 13 points. The next few results tended to be pragmatically ground out, as the run started with a rather lucky home win against Leicester and a typically hard fought draw at local rivals Spurs. However, another of the season's markers was the 2-1 home win over Leeds, secured by two superb goals from Marc Overmars as the Dutch winger at last started to win over the doubters, and gradually the team's confidence returned as victories started to roll as if off a production line.
Indeed, Arsenal's surge in February was interrupted only by defeat to Chelsea in the semi-final of the Coca-Cola Cup. Wenger had persisted with a policy of resting his senior players in earlier rounds of the competition, and a virtually reserve side had seen off Birmingham and Coventry, both after extra time games at Highbury. For the quarter final at West Ham in January he restored a close to full strength team and a 2-1 win saw them through to the semi-finals. Arsenal totally dominated the first leg at Highbury, but a lack of finishing and a slack moment in defence meant they only had a 2-1 lead to take to Stamford Bridge for the return. An early goal for Chelsea levelled the scores on aggregate, but the turning point of the match came early in the 2nd half when Vieira was sent off after a 2nd yellow card. His importance to the team was demonstrated as Chelsea took advantage of the resultant gaps in Arsenal's midfield to score twice more and sweep into the final despite Bergkamp pulling back a late goal via a penalty.
Back in the league, between the two legs of the CCC semi-final, Chelsea had been beaten for the 3rd time in the season in another important game in the championship charge. Arsenal's chances in the league had long since been written off by the pundits, and those views seemed justified as a series of injuries and suspensions to key players threatened the team's improvement in the new year. Adams' rehabilitation kept him out for most of December and January, a hand injury ruled Seaman out for almost all of February and March, Wright had been missing since late December, and Bergkamp too missed several games through injury and another suspension.
The injury crisis reached such a point that for the home game against Crystal Palace in February only 2 of Wenger's first choice XI were available. As ever though, Arsenal were at their best with their backs to the wall. Palace were beaten 1-0, Manninger carried on to keep 6 successive clean sheets in the league, and Wreh & Anelka came good when Arsenal needed them most, both scoring vital goals.
Wreh scored the winner in the 1-0 win at Wimbledon in mid March, Arsenal's 8th successive London derby, and the game which started the run of victories which took Arsenal all the way to the title. It was in March that a Manchester bookie started prematurely paying out on bets on United for the title, but after Arsenal's next match he was starting to sweat. In the game which ultimately decided the championship, Arsenal went to Old Trafford and outplayed United for 90 minutes. 10 minutes from time an Anelka flick-on laid released Overmars for the goal which silenced the "Theatre of Dreams" and gave the Arsenal faithful real hope. The gap was still 6 points but Arsenal had 3 games in hand and for the first time the destiny of the league was in their own hands. "We'll see how they stand up to pressure now" said Ferguson. And see he did.
After two more edgily gained 1-0 wins, Arsenal cut loose and Newcastle, Blackburn and Wimbledon were blown away by some scintillating football which saw the Gunners scoring 12 times in 3 games. Two more wins - 2-0 at Barnsley and a hard fought 1-0 revenge over Derby during which Bergkamp limped off with the hamstring strain which kept him out of the rest of the season - took Arsenal to the brink of the title. One more victory would be their 10th consecutive win in the league and mean that the title would be won with two games to spare.
Everton, battling against relegation, were expected to put up stiff resistance, and without the inspirational Bergkamp and with two tough away games to follow, the Gunners might have been forgiven for faltering at the final hurdle. Any such worries seemed laughable though as Overmars scored twice and, with Arsenal leading 3-0, much of the second half was one long gleeful celebration which was climaxed by a stunning goal in the final minute. Manufactured in the most unlikely manner by the Arsenal old guard, scored by Adams and made by Bould, it was the perfect end to a perfect day. The North Bank literally shook as the Premiership trophy was presented to the champions in front an ecstatic Highbury.
The second half of the double began in unpromising fashion in January as Arsenal struggled unconvincingly to beat 1st division Port Vale on penalties after a replay in the 3rd round of the FA Cup. Middlesborough were eased aside 2-1 at the Riverside in the next round, but the Gunners again made hard work of disposing of Crystal Palace in the 5th round, a 1-1 home draw being followed by a 2-1 win at Selhurst Park.
The 6th round was another struggle, a 1-1 home draw being followed by a tough replay at West Ham which looked even harder when Bergkamp was sent off for elbowing Lomas in the 1st half. Once again Arsenal dug deep, Anelka popped up with a brilliant goal and despite conceding a late equaliser to former Gunner Hartson, Arsenal won a nailbiting penalty shootout to reach the semi-finals.
With Bergkamp suspended for the game at Villa Park against Wolves it was Wreh's turn to shoulder the goalscoring duties, and his early strike was enough to send Arsenal to Wembley. There they met Newcastle United, and though Bergkamp failed to recover from injury and Wright was deemed not fit enough to start, Arsenal coasted to a 2-0 win. Another Overmars goal put Arsenal in front, and though Newcastle briefly rallied early in the 2nd half when they twice hit the woodwork, they were killed off by Anelka's goal 20 minutes from time. The red and white hoardes at one end of the stadium celebrated with delirious delight as Adams lifted the cup to confirm Arsenal's 2nd league and FA Cup double.
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