Nicolas Anelka’s £23.3 million departure to Real Madrid in the 1999 close season enabled Arsène Wenger to reshuffle his attacking line-up. In came Davor Suker from Real Madrid, and he was joined by Juventus’s unsettled French winger Thierry Henry. A winger who had already won the World Cup with France in 1998, an incredulous Henry was informed by Wenger that he wouldd convert him into a striker. It took time for Henry to find his feet (he didn’t score until the eighth game of the league season against Southampton) but by Christmas, he was starting to demonstrate the swagger and the style which would elevate him to iconic status at Highbury over the next seven years.
Combined with the attacking flair of Dennis Bergkamp and Kanu, who had joined the Gunners in January 1999, Arsenal fans were treated to some unforgettable football. Most noteworthy that season was an astounding comeback against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. Two down deep into the second half, an inspired Kanu hat-trick saw Arsenal run out 3-2 winners.
But ultimately, Arsenal simply weren’t consistent enough and were powerless to stop Manchester United coasting to the league title, the Gunners finishing a massive 18 points behind the champions.
Wenger’s men did reach the final of the UEFA Cup to face Galatasaray, however. Played in Copenhagen, scene of the Gunners’ memorable Cup Winners’ Cup triumph six years earlier, Arsenal dominated proceedings and the clearest cut chance fell to Martin Keown, who blasted over from close range. But it wasn’t to be as ex-Spurs man Gica Popescu netted the decisive spot-kick in the shoot-out to take the cup to Turkey.
A second trophyless campaign, but Wenger’s transfer dealings brought in three more key components to the squad. Robert Pires (£6 million from Marseille) was a replacement for the outbound Marc Overmars who joined Barcelona along with Emmanuel Petit. Lauren joined the Club from Real Mallorca, initially as a midfielder. The press suggested that Anelka’s departure the previous summer, coupled with Overmars and Petit heading to Catalonia, proved that Arsenal had become a selling club, and were unlikely to be able to compete with Manchester United in the long term, although the addition of Sylvain Wiltord for £13m appeared to suggest that they were willing to spend big when necessary.
Arsenal had already announced plans to move away from Highbury and had taken the step of playing Champions League matches at Wembley. The fact they were able to fill a ground with a far larger capacity than Highbury proved that if Arsenal wanted to compete with Manchester United on an even financial footing, the move was entirely viable, and necessary. On the pitch, United wrapped up the 2000/2001 title by Easter weekend (despite Henry’s astounding dipping volley past ‘keeper Fabien Bathez, which gave the Gunners a home win against United in the late summer), and the Gunners once more had to settle for a runners-up spot.
Wenger’s men reached the first of the Millennium Stadium FA Cup finals and ran the show against Liverpool until the final 10 minutes. Only profligate finishing and bad luck prevented Arsenal from adding to Freddie Ljungberg’s opener, but in the final minutes, two opportunistic Michael Owen strikes gave Gerard Houllier’s men a 2-1 victory.
“When will Arsenal win a trophy again Patrick?” ITV commentator Jim Rosenthal asked Arsenal’s disconsolate midfielder after the final. Tabloid talk linked Vieira with a move to Real Madrid, and Pires (who began to display his best form at season’s end) with a transfer to Juventus, but this time, there were no big-name departures. Arsenal's main summer signing made plenty of headlines, as Tottenham captain Sol Campbell crossed the north London divide to sign for the Gunners on a free transfer. In the long term, it was obvious that Campbell was destined to replace Tony Adams at the heart of Arsenal’s defence, but for a few months at least, Adams was able to show Campbell the ropes in his (occasionally) tricky first few Gunners’ matches.
The 2001/2002 campaign was one of those sensational Arsenal campaigns which will burn long in every Arsenal fan’s memory. The key attacking players’ form reached a perfect pitch by March, and Ljungberg burst to prominence during the title run in with a string of late, crucial goals, against Spurs, West Ham and Bolton. Pivotal to the campaign was the league double over Manchester United. The Gunners found themselves seven points behind United in November, but fought back to win 3-1, with Henry’s brace coming after two Barthez howlers. Pires (he and fellow Frenchmen Henry and Vieira were nicknamed “The Three Musketeers”), now fully attuned to the pace of the Premier League, ripped teams apart at will and his stunning lob over Villa stopper Peter Schmeichel was one of the goals of the season.
Arsenal surged past United, embarking on a superb winning run after February, and Ljungberg came to the fore; his decisive goal at Highbury against Spurs gave Arsenal a 2-1 victory. The Gunners travelled to Old Trafford knowing that a draw would be enough to land them the title, but they went for victory and got it when Wiltord slid home after Barthez parried Ljungberg’s shot.
The Gunners completed the ‘Double’ a few days later when they beat Chelsea 2-0 in the FA Cup final. Two superb strikes from Ljungberg and Ray Parlour were sufficient to see off the Blues and secure the Gunners their second ‘Double’ under Wenger. In a sense it was the end of an era, as Lee Dixon and Tony Adams, stalwarts of a legendary defence and with a combined 1,000-plus Gunners matches between them, retired.
Yet the 2002/03 season proved that even without these two experienced professionals in the squad, the hunger to land more silverware remained undiminished. Having been top of the table until March, Arsenal were eventually overhauled by a rampant Manchester United. On the face of it, the Gunners’ 2-2 draw with Bolton was crucial, with Sam Allardyce’s men subjecting the team to a physical going over and snatching two late goals to deny Arsenal a win. On balance though, Arsenal only took a point off United over two games, and a 3-2 home defeat to Leeds handed the title back to Ferguson’s men.
Arsène Wenger and his side did get their hands on silverware by winning the FA Cup, thanks to a Robert Pires strike, despite the absence of the injured Vieira and Campbell, and Wenger predicted a title challenge in 2003/04. The season would be beyond fans’ wildest dreams, but a major threat to Arsenal’s London dominance hove into view at Stamford Bridge...
- Arsène Wenger, with his side top of the league unbeaten in October 2002, suggested it might be possible for a team to go through a league season unbeaten. His claim was greeted with howls of derision
- Though it may seem hard to imagine now, Thierry Henry admits that his shooting skills in his opening months at Highbury “left quite a lot to be desired.”
- “I looked at the two teams that night (May 2002 at Old Trafford),” explained former Man United skipper Roy Keane, “and I have to admit that it was a case of men against boys.”