Arsenal’s mostly-brilliant, but ultimately heart-breaking, 2007/08 season is often simplified as an excellent but fragile young team melting down at Birmingham. But there was a lot more to it than that.

With the club’s best-ever player Thierry Henry joining Barcelona in the summer, Arsenal had lost pretty much their all Invincibles – including world-class players in defence, midfield and attack – in the space of three years.

Arsène Wenger named William Gallas as the new captain, which took everyone, including Gilberto Silva, by surprise. The respected Invincible and Brazil captain said, “He didn’t say anything to me and I just found out about it that evening when I saw it on the Arsenal website. I wasn’t upset about not being captain, but I was about the way I learnt about it.” Ignoring the bizarreness of Gilberto browsing arsenal.com, Gallas initially led a young team well but ultimately proved a divisive figure.


Wengerball 2.0

Wenger built a brilliant new team with most players aged 18-24. The departure of Henry, a dominant and demanding figure on the pitch, freed up some of the junior teammates and allowed them to take more responsibility – Alexander Hleb in particular came out of his shell.

They played a sublime new form of Wengerball, featuring technical players, short sharp passing, perpetual motion and constant probing to break teams down. There was less of the power play of Stage One Wenger (1996-2005) – neither of the centre-backs nor any of the regular midfielders were over 6 foot. Emmanuel Adebayor gave them an aerial threat and an out-ball as full-backs Gaël Clichy and Bacary Sagna bombed up and down the flanks.

At the heart of it was the Almost-Iconic Midfield of Cesc Fàbregas, Mathieu Flamini, Tomáš Rosický and Hleb. Fàbregas added goals to his 17 assists in the Premier League. Flamini provided the bite alongside him to be the perfect foil. Hleb was a master of receiving and holding on to the ball in tight spaces, creating space for others and mazy dribbles. Rosicky added thrust and energy. Fàbregas-Rosický-Hleb was a rondo dream team.

In the first two-thirds of the season, Arsenal played the best football of the Stage Two (2005-13) and Stage Three (2013-18) Wenger eras, going a club-record 28 games unbeaten in all competitions. Notably:

  • Early-season late winners including in a pulsating derby at White Hart Lane. Netbusters from Fàbregas and Adebayor gave Arsenal a 3-1 win after Kolo Touré had produced the tackle of the season on Dimitar Berbatov with the goal gaping and Manuel Almunia stranded.

  • An excellent performance at Anfield as Hleb thrived as the attacking midfielder in a 4-5-1 formation only produced a 1-1 draw.

  • After a 2-1 win at Aston Villa, Wenger said, “We played the ball through needles.”

  • Arsenal beat Chelsea – for the first time in 11 games – 1-0 with a Gallas header to reclaim top spot.

  • Nicklas Bendtner’s famous six-second North London Derby winner (after Almunia had saved a Robbie Keane penalty).

  • A Boxing Day goalless draw against Portsmouth was the first time Arsenal failed to score in the league.

  • Everton’s Mikel Arteta swinging an arm at Fàbregas and getting sent off as Arsenal won 4-1.

  • A classy 3-1 win at Man City where Eduardo again showed his finishing prowess and reached 12 goals and nine assists. With Robin van Persie injured early in the season, it was important that the Adebayor-Eduardo partnership thrived.

A strong run of six wins and one draw put Arsenal five points clear with 12 games to play, although these included trips to both title rivals Chelsea and Man Utd.

Birmingham

Lunchtime, Saturday 23 February 2008, the season – and the Stage Two Wenger era – had its defining moment. The game was three minutes old when Birmingham’s Martin Taylor flew studs first into Eduardo’s shin. The Arsenal players were visibly upset and many could not look at their teammate’s broken leg and dislocated ankle. An Arsenal player had yet again suffered a career-threatening injury from a pumped-up inferior player testing the ‘they don’t like it up them’ theory. Mike Dean sent Taylor off, but the traumatised Arsenal players were zombies for the rest of the half and James McFadden opened the scoring from a free-kick.

In the second half, Arsenal turned the game around with Theo Walcott scoring his first Premier League goals after 30 games to make it 2-1. With ten minutes left, Adebayor was through on goal with Bendtner in support. Instead of giving his teammate a tap-in to secure the win, Adebayor shot and Taylor saved. Was this – not the Clichy penalty or famous Gallas meltdown that followed – where Arsenal lost the title?

Four minutes into injury time, Clichy dawdled and made a panicked tackle. Dein pointed to the spot. McFadden buried the penalty to make it 2-2, while a furious Gallas stayed on the halfway line and kicked advertising hoardings. It should not have been a penalty but Clichy – a very good full-back but susceptible to brain fades and moments of ball-watching – gave an opportunity for the player to go down, the crowd to scream and the referee to ‘even it up’ after already sending off a home player. Arsenal were agonisingly close to a comeback win and showing the mental resolve many accused them of lacking.

After the game, Gallas sat alone in the middle of the pitch until Wenger consoled him. According to Lehmann, “In the dressing room, Gallas came to blows with Gilberto, who accused him of seeking attention in a daft manner – the row dragged on for the remainder of the season.”

Birmingham manager Alex McLeish’s defence of his player was predictable and one Arsenal would hear again two years later at Stoke: “Martin is not that type of player.”

Squad Rivalries

  1. Adebayor declining to give Bendtner an open goal may not have been a coincidence. At White Hart Lane in the League Cup semi-final earlier in the season, a running feud ended with Adebayor landing a ‘footballer’s headbutt’ on the Dane, leaving him with a bloody nose. Spurs won 5-1, their first North London derby win in 22 attempts going back to November 1999.

  2. Lehmann, unimpressed at not regaining his place from Almunia when he returned from injury, said, “To be sitting on the bench behind somebody who only started to play when he was 30 is not funny.” The outspoken German added, “I think – and this is aimed at my dear manager – one shouldn’t humiliate players for too long.” Five months later, Almunia responded: “To have someone here who hates me is just amazing. Every morning I wake up, I know it is going to be the same. But I don’t care anymore. I come into training and work with Łukasz Fabiański and Vito Mannone. They are better than him anyway.”

  3. While it was not obvious on the pitch, centre-backs Gallas and Touré also did not communicate. The Ivorian refused to reveal why, saying: “If we start talking about that, then it will be a big story.”

At least the midfield four were good mates. Managing conflict was not Wenger’s strong point and Arsenal had lost the senior players from the George Graham era or the likes of Patrick Vieira to maintain discipline and keep the squad united for the common cause.

What Might Have Been...

Crucially, Birmingham was the first of four consecutive draws against mid- or lower-table opposition that Arsenal expected to beat. Arsenal finished third, four points behind Champions Man Utd. They were unbeaten at home and only lost three games, earning 83 points and scoring 74 goals. Fàbregas was voted PFA Young Player of the Year and he, Sagna, Adebayor and Clichy were named in the PFA Team of the Year. As well as reaching the Champions League quarter-final (helped by a Cesc-inspired 2-0 win against AC Milan in the San Siro), it was a stellar year by almost every club’s (and Arsenal’s current) standards.

However, they won nothing, leaving a host of ‘what-if’ questions. Winning the title with a young, cheaply-put-together team over big-spenders Man Utd and Chelsea would have been an achievement as great as the Invincibles season. Instead it was top of Wenger’s near misses list alongside the 2006 Champions LeagThe headline reason they were left empty-handed was the team’s, and Gallas’, Birmingham meltdown. It became the symbol of Arsenal’s collapse – the day they lost their striker, captain and the title – but it was not as simple as that and was instead due to a combination of less-discussed factors:

  • Arsenal’s lack of winning mentality and footballing nous meant they made crucial mistakes at key moments or failed to see games through – for example, Clichy and Touré’s penalty give-aways at Birmingham and Anfield (in the Champions League) respectively; Adebayor not giving Bendtner an open goal to make it 3-1 in the same game; the players not refocusing after scoring a late goal at Anfield; not being able to defend leads in tight games.

  • The small squad and lack of quality after the first 14-15 players. Refreshing the squad in January like Wenger did by adding José Antonio Reyes in 2003/04 would have been a boost for the title run-in and the cups. Instead, Wenger weakened it by letting Lassana Diarra, a quality player and France regular, go. Arsenal went deep in the cups – Champions League quarter-final and League Cup semi-final, the latter featuring even younger line-ups – to the detriment of the title push.

  • Long-term injuries to key players van Persie, Rosický and Eduardo, who only started 13-15 league games each. Both the Adebayor-van Persie and Adebayor-Eduardo partnerships were struck down as soon as they developed. The Almost-Iconic Midfield four only started together twice in the league.

  • Failure to grind out a win when not playing well – with only one win in eight from the Birmingham game, including four draws in a row against teams that sat back, Arsenal lacked a ‘Ljungberg of 2002’ to step up with a crucial goal and convert the many draws into three points.

  • The at-times weak defence, especially when the first-choice four were broken up, conceded unnecessary goals from counter-attacks or long balls.

Read more on Arsenal in the Time of Wenger in the book Caviar and Sausages.



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  • Tony

Alexandre Lacazette has just turned 30 and has one year left on his Arsenal deal. Most clubs trying to step up from eighth place in the Premier League to Champions League level would take the transfer fee and scout a younger, faster and hungrier upgrade. Someone that can offer a vertical threat, hold the ball up, challenge for headers, press the defence and hit the 20-goal mark. What will Arsenal do? The worry is that giving him a new contract on a big salary is the sort of safe, short-sighted deal that Arsenal have come to specialise in.


The Frenchman seems a popular player among his fellow players and fans. He is hard-working and has quite a few netbusters in his portfolio, often with a short backlift. However, he is a number nine with an average strike rate at the top level, and doesn’t offer exceptional hold-up play or the creativity of say a Roberto Firmino to make up for it.


He doesn’t have the pace to get in behind defences, goal hungriness of a poacher and height or clever movement to get on the end of crosses in a crowded box. Yes he’s had to defer to Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and had spells in and out of the side – but so did Robin van Persie in his early years and Olivier Giroud in his later years, both of whom regularly made an impact with their substitute cameos.


So minutes per goal is a useful guide. Lacazette’s hit rate of 171 minutes per goal is, as expected, behind elite goalscorers Thierry Henry, Ian Wright, Aubameyang and van Persie. But instead of being in the next tier where Arsenal need their forward to be, he is firmly back in the pack (and not too far ahead of much-maligned Nicklas Bendtner, who was never first choice and was bizarrely deployed on the wing by Arsène Wenger for a while).


Minutes Per Goal – Strikers That Played Under Wenger + Selected Others

Minutes per goal for Arsenal – all strikers that played under Arsène Wenger + selected other attacking players. Thierry Henry, van Persie, Aubameyang, Lacazette, Kanu, Bergkamp, Giroud, Adebayor, Podolski, Alexis Sanchez, Anelka, Walcott, Bendtner, Robert Pires, Arshavin, Reyes
Source: www.transfermarkt.com. For Arsenal (all competitions). NB: Stats do not appear complete for late 1990s but enough to show trends.

Lacazette was bought in summer 2017 for a club-record £50m with the aim of being an upgrade on Giroud, who was sold in the subsequent transfer window. However, Lacazette hasn’t offered a significant step up in mobility or pace, while Arsenal lost Giroud’s aerial threat and link-up play. Giroud’s 153 minutes per goal at Arsenal, admittedly in a more creative team, is far superior to Lacazette’s 171. As a sidenote, both have since won an FA Cup with their new clubs, although the former has also added the World Cup, Champions League and Europa League.


Six months after Lacazette arrived, Arsenal broke their record transfer again when they bought Aubameyang. Imagine if Arsenal had signed Aubameyang as a team/squad compliment to Giroud and invested the Lacazette £50m on a quality centre-midfielder and centre-back? Given the price paid and return, the Lacazette deal has gone under the radar – it is not in the top ten list of Wenger’s worst signings (and to be clear, worst signings not worst players – ie taking into account the price paid, what the money could have been spent on and what Arsenal needed at the time) but deserves an honourable mention. Mikel Arteta and Edu should thank Lacazette for his service – and an improved season just gone where his strike rate hit 144 minutes per goal – but sell and upgrade.


Alexandre Lacazette stats


Arsenal (2017-21): 65 goals in 170 games (17, 19, 12, 17 per season respectively).

Lyon (2009-17): 129 goals in 275 games.

France (2013-17): 3 goals in 16 games.

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Arsène Wenger’s 22 years at Arsenal are often split into the trophy-laden years up to 2005 and the barren years after. In Stage One, his innovative methods, in terms of both coaching and lifestyle, unsurpassed knowledge of footballers around the world and eye for talent quickly turned Arsenal into serial Premier League and FA Cup winners while playing breath-taking attacking football.


The post-2005 years are more accurately divided into two parts – Stage Two in 2005-2013 and Stage Three in 2013-2018. In Stage Two, there is some context to the lack of trophies as Arsenal had to fund the new stadium and oil-rich rivals came in the shape of Chelsea and then Man City. During this time, the media constantly reminded everyone of the number of years since Arsenal had won a trophy (something other ‘big clubs’ like Spurs and Everton never faced despite their much longer dry spells), enthusiastically adding another year when Arsenal’s season faltered, often around February or March.


Wenger had raised expectations in Stage One to his detriment in Stage Two. He was managing under financial constraints and Arsenal could not pay top dollar for established players like their rivals could. They played the long game, paying off the new stadium debt while – with the benefit of hindsight mistakenly – putting their faith in the UEFA Financial Fair Play Regulations. At times, most notably in 2007/08, the Wengerball was as good as it was during Stage One. Later, given some of the sides Arsenal fielded, getting into the Champions League every year was actually an impressive achievement.


However, the strategy to prioritise a top-four finish (Wenger’s 2012 statement that “The first trophy is to finish in the top four” was a sign of the lowered expectations) often meant Arsenal missed opportunities in the cups to get the trophy monkey off their back – for example, the mistake to bench Andrey Arshavin in the 2009 FA Cup semi-final versus Chelsea then see him fire four brilliant finishes in an ultimately meaningless league game at Anfield a few days later. On the other hand, the 2011 League Cup loss to relegated Birmingham was a choke with no excuses.


When the financial shackles came off in Stage Three (signified by the £42m signing of Mesut Özil in 2013), Arsenal still could not mount a serious league challenge and still got dumped out of the Champions League in the first knockout round. Despite the fun days out at Wembley, the three FA Cups in four years did not hide that Wenger had let things drift. His once-innovative methods had been overtaken, he had lost his touch in the transfer market and was now buying expensive misfits instead of unearthing gems, and he did not give his coaching staff more power to address obvious tactical faults, particularly defensively, as Alex Ferguson did throughout his Man Utd reign. Fifth and sixth place league finishes in the last two seasons confirmed the decline.

 

*** This is an extract from the book Caviar and Sausages: Arsenal in the Time of Wenger. Click here for more details and where to order your copy ***

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