“For me, it’s now or never,” explained Thierry Henry at the press conference which confirmed his departure to Barcelona in the 2007 close season. “And unfortunately it has to be now.” At first glance, the Frenchman’s departure to Spain appeared to be a massive blow, but within a few weeks Thierry himself claimed: “The team looks better without me there!”
Arsenal made a flying start to the 2007/08 campaign, remained unbeaten until early December and held top spot for the best part of four months. With a midfield of Cesc Fabregas, Mathieu Flamini, Abou Diaby and Alex Hleb providing a mixture of guile and muscle, Arsenal completed the league double over Spurs before Christmas, and William Gallas, who left Chelsea in controversial circumstances a year before, scored a dramatic winner against his former club at the Emirates to leave the Gunners in a strong position at the top of the league.
In the early part of the season, Emmanuel Adebayor and Robin van Persie combined well up front, but with the Dutchman’s injury sustained in late October, Adebayor was paired with both Nicklas Bendtner and Croatia striker Eduardo on a regular basis. Eduardo found his shooting boots in the Carling Cup before hitting form at Christmas time with a cheeky double against Everton, and an excellent scissor-kick against West Ham on New Year's Day.
After Philippe Senderos and Adebayor scored to give the team a 2-0 win against Blackburn on February 11, 2008, the Gunners were four points clear at the top - but the league challenge was about to hit the skids.
The away match at Birmingham City was arguably the season’s turning point. Eduardo’s horrendous leg break visibly shook the players early in the game, and despite leading 2-1 courtesy of Theo Walcott’s brace, Arsenal conceded a last minute equaliser after Gael Clichy’s defensive error. Gallas’ “sit in” encapsulated the team’s frustration, and that of the fans, but it also suggested that the team had an element of self doubt running through them.
Sadly, that proved to be the case, and after a series of draws, Arsène Wenger’s men went down valiantly at Chelsea and Manchester United despite leading in both games. They finished third in the league and went down 5-3 on aggregate to Liverpool in the Champions League quarter-finals, despite only being seven minutes away from the semis after Walcott’s excellent run at Anfield set up Adebayor for what seemed the crucial goal.
Wenger remained confident that his young charges would come good over the next few years, but the chances of that took a knock when Hleb and Flamini opted to depart in the summer of 2008.
Arsenal were inconsistent prior to Christmas 2008. Van Persie returned from long-term injury, but league performances ranged from the impressive (new signing Samir Nasri netted twice against Manchester United in a 2-1 home win) to the chastening (3-0 away against nouveau-riche Manchester City).
Arsenal rallied in the New Year, thanks in no small part to mercurial new signing Andrey Arshavin, whose ability to launch cracking shots from any range was never better demonstrated than in his new team’s 4-4 draw at Anfield, with the Russian netting four times. Arsenal finished fourth in the league, but reached the Champions League semi-finals.
Having steered a course past Roma in the last 16, the Gunners came face to face with former star Robert Pires as they faced Spanish outfit Villarreal in the quarter-finals, eventually easing to a 4-1 aggregate win. The team hit a brick wall in the semi-final, losing 1-0 at Old Trafford and then being tortured by Cristiano Ronaldo’s wing wizardry at the Emirates as Manchester United ran out 3-1 winners on the night.
Manchester City signed Adebayor and Kolo Toure in the close season. Wenger admitted that he’d rather have kept Adebayor, but at least the signing of Thomas Vermaelen was one of real quality. The Belgian international began the season in fine style, netting on his debut at Everton, with Arsenal running out 6-1 winners.
Successive defeats at the Manchester clubs acted as a reality check but the season was a see-saw experience, with Cesc Fabregas’s excellent form seeing him lead from the front and improve his goal haul. Again, the Gunners suffered after Van Persie’s injury for Holland, which saw him miss five months.
The team embarked on a six-match winning streak in March which saw them hit top spot on March 20, but successive defeats against Tottenham and Wigan away from home scuppered their chances of winning silverware. In the previous season, Arsenal came up against the brick wall of Manchester United in the Champions League, and in 2009/10, Barcelona and Lionel Messi proved too hot to handle for the Gunners, winning 4-1 in the Nou Camp - although at least Arsenal pegged them back at home after trailing by two goals.
The 2010/11 campaign followed a very similar path to that of the previous one. Arsenal were only once outside the top four until the very end of the season, enjoyed two memorable nights at the Emirates as they destroyed Chelsea 3-1 in the league, and then came back to win 2-1 at home to Barcelona before going down 3-1 in the Camp Nou after Van Persie was controversially red carded.
Arsenal appeared destined to end their six-year wait for silverware and were red hot favourites to defeat Birmingham City in the League Cup final, but Alex McLeish’s men won 2-1 courtesy of Obafemi Martins’ late strike. It proved to be a crushing blow, and despite pushing Manchester United hard in the league, Wenger’s men tailed off in fourth position after an end of season loss of form.
In the close season, Samir Nasri and Cesc Fabregas were sold to Manchester City and Barcelona respectively, but transfer deadline day saw a glut of new signings, including Everton midfielder Mikel Arteta.
The current campaign has been a rollercoaster ride; one of the most remarkably varied in Arsenal’s history. There have been crushing blows, such as the 8-2 hammering at Old Trafford and the 4-0 tonking in Milan, and stunning wins against old foes, including the 5-3 win at Stamford Bridge and the 5-2 home win against Tottenham. Fans have enjoyed the goal exploits of Van Persie, and the return on loan of Thierry Henry. With the emergence of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, and new signing of Lukas Podolski, it is clear that although Arsenal may not have buying power of Chelsea and Manchester City, the Club’s future at their state of the art ground remains an exciting one.
- On Saturday December 22, 2007, substitute Nicklas Bendtner scored the winner against Tottenham with his first touch of the ball
- According to two separate sound measurements, the noise generated by the Emirates crowd when Arshavin scored the winner against Barcelona last season was the loudest celebration by any English crowd in 2011
- Thierry Henry claimed that his goal against Leeds in the FA Cup in January was the first goal he ever celebrated “like an Arsenal fan and not a player”