Arsenal 2007/08: Wengerball 2.0, Squad Rivalries and What Might Have Been…
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.