Ted Harwood Remembers the 2000s

Our regular contributor, Ted Harwood, gets his chance to muse on the decade past.

When I think back on the last decade of Arsenal football, I couldn’t imagine supporting any other team.  Two Premier League titles, three times runners-up; three FA cups, once runners-up; one Champions League final, never out of the top four in England…the list of the past ten years is superb, a list that only a handful of clubs worldwide could boast.

I will never forget the 2000s as my introduction to club football, my introduction to something more than occasional snippets on obscure cable channels and the World Cup every four years.  I feel quite fortunate to have been introduced to Arsenal, of all clubs, so that I had a beacon of light in my otherwise dismal sporting landscape.

A lot of the early part of the decade is lost in obscurity for me, the limited availability of live matches in the USA making it more difficult to follow every move as compared to now, but thanks to the Youtube revolution and the proliferation of Arsenal DVDs, Americans such as myself can catch perhaps a small glimpse of the moments otherwise lost to history.  Still, so many discrete moments in the past decade float up in memory: Bergkamp vs. Newcastle, Vieira leading the fightback vs. Leicester City to seal the greatest top flight season in English history, and lifting the trophy at Highbury.

With the availability of full-on television coverage here, the memories only grew.  I have wonderful thoughts of the run through the Champions League knockouts in 2006, a bittersweet memory for many supporters, but let’s be clear: we beat Real Madrid in their house, we beat Juventus 2-0 over two legs, and we shrugged off the robust Villareal, keeping clean sheets the whole way.  We all watched as Fabregas lead the charge at the San Siro in 2008.  Despite the draw, the 4-4 barnburner at Anfield this spring looms large in recent memory.

One of my favorite Saturday mornings was in early October 2007 when I woke up at 6 AM, biked four miles in the frost to my friend’s house, where our collective screams when Cesc buried a hammer at White Hart Lane woke up her bemused and smiling roommate.  There have been so many goals…Henry at Madrid, Ray Parlour in the FA Cup final, Arshavin at Blackburn, Cesc this year versus the spuds.

Despite these goals’ importance, my favorite goal remains the RVP volley at Charlton…Eboue galloping down the right and swinging in a cross with a ticket to nowhere, that’s never…OH MY GOODNESS…van Persie, out of the edge of the tv screen, catching a volley in midair, four feet off the floor, and absolutely crushing it under the bar.  There have been more meaningful goals, but that one remains my favorite simply because my mouth was open in sheer disbelief, and then, laughter.

The only thing missing from the decade is perhaps some perspective.  This is a team that has hauled in trophy after trophy, has a record that all but one domestic team would envy, and yet to listen to some folks, it’s not enough.  I see football as an aesthetic and humanistic undertaking, and there is absolutely no finer team that typifies athleticism, struggle, triumph, and hope for the 2010s than Arsenal.  Up the Gunners!

Arsenal Station’s Decade in Review

This week, Arsenal Station will look back at the decade that has come and gone with a few features including a few decade review articles from me and our guest contributors and a piece with my own personal rankings of the players and moments or matches of the decade. Enjoy and Happy New Year!

And so another decade has passed in our club’s long and glorious history-perhaps, its most glorious decade yet. Herbert Chapman and George Allison’s dynasty won 5 league titles and one F.A. Cup in the 1930s. In the decade past, Arsenal have won 2 league titles and 3 F.A. Cups. Yet the dynamics of the game, as sport and business, and the league has changed so much, that I tend to think trophies are much harder to win nowadays. Either way, those of us who have followed the club throughout the decade know that we were lucky enough to witness something very special. It was a decade full of dozens of magical moments-the kind of moments that are the reason anyone watches football or follows a club. We experienced many unprecedented highs over the last ten years that, at the close of the decade, it is worth recalling a few, though space restricts me from mentioning everything worthy of recognition.

For me, three moments stand out as the most satisfying. First was the match at Old Trafford on May 8th, 2002. Coming four days after goals from “It’s only” Ray Parlour and Freddie Ljungberg had secured our second F.A. Cup trophy under Arsene Wenger, the club traveled north and sealed their second double in four years with a single goal by Sylvain Wiltord. Ever since the double in ’98, we had played second fiddle to United and had to endure the pain of watching them win the treble in a season in which I still think we were the better side. The satisfaction following that league title was priceless.

It’s also a bit sentimental as 2001-02 was the first title-winning season in which I was able to see a majority of the matches. I started following the club in late 1997 and for the first few years was lucky if a dozen matches all season were broadcast here in the States. Perhaps, more importantly though, 2001-02 was the launching pad for a 4-year run during which Arsenal played a class of football not seen before in England or many other places. And I still firmly believe that the Arsenal side from 2001-2005 was the greatest team in Premier League history, if not all of English football history. Of course, the lack of a European trophy means many people will never consider them in the same way as say Liverpool and Nottingham Forest of the 70s and 80s. But, domestically, the amount of records the club broke and the style in which they did it in has no match.

The second and third moments have to do with the unbeaten run. Closing out 2003-04 unbeaten still takes my breath away when I think about. I remember knowing what a big deal it was at the time, however, I now feel as though that achievement has somehow become underrated in English football history. Domestically, 2003-04 was as close as you can get to a perfect season. To go unbeaten, win the league at White Hart Lane, and come from behind in the final game to seal the record at home was better than a movie script. Especially considering the sticky business at Pompey a week and a half earlier.

While the match against Blackburn broke Nottingham Forest’s record, it was the previous match against Middlesbrough that remains far more memorable for me. 1-nil up and cruising into the break, quick goals on either side of the interval saw us behind and when Queudrue’s shot whistled past an out-of-position Jens Lehmann, it looked like the jig was up. But before the full level of despair could set in, Bergkamp had waltzed up to the box and brought the match back to 3-2. Something had clicked and you would be hard-pressed to recall another instance where a team with the lead looked such unlikely winners. A goal by Pires and another from Reyes off the re-start and Boro was sunk and the record equaled.

The caliber of player we have seen wear an Arsenal shirt in this decade is just astounding. For me, it was an absolute honor to watch players like Bergkamp, Henry, and Pires on a weekly basis and, as time goes by, I become more attuned to the fact that it is highly unlikely I will see players like that lining up in the red-and-white again. Don’t get me wrong, we are seeing some great players now, but there is a big difference between this and the previous Arsenal sides.

Coverage of the club here in the States in the early part of the decade was hit or miss. I was able to see maybe half of the club’s league matches by driving long distances and paying cover charges, but I had to follow the rest over the internet and in day-old, overpriced English newspapers. The reward was well worth the effort, however. Recent American fans of PL football are spoiled for choice as no less than 8 matches are shown every weekend on American television, with about half of them carried live. And, with a satellite package or broadband subscription, you can watch them all. It is now a very rare occurrence indeed for an Arsenal match to not be broadcast somehow. And even then there are internet streams.

Of course, the greatest disappointment of the decade has to be the 2006 Champions League Final. Champions League football in the mid-90s was my introduction to the club game. Ever since I started following the club, I dreamed of seeing them win the Champions League. I have to say that I truly believed it was our destiny, our fate to win that Final. The amazing run in the knockout rounds defeating Madrid, Juventus, and Villareal… it was like watching a script being written. Campbell’s goal after going down to ten men only reaffirmed that feeling. I don’t believe I have ever felt so empty after a match as I did after that Final. Not getting there is disappointing but getting there and losing is devastating.

Perhaps slightly more devastating was the move to the Emirates. I was never in the kind of financial shape that would have allowed me to hop the pond to catch a match, like many American Gooners, and so I ended up missing out on a trip to Highbury. The ground mesmerized me from the first time I saw it on television. The row houses between the North and East stands, the pitch, the closeness of the stands to the pitch… all of it gave Highbury some kind of mystical and mythic aura, even through a television set thousands of miles away. I have, in fact, had dozens of dreams of going to a match at Highbury, and, without exaggeration, not getting there before the move is one of the biggest regrets of my life.

The bright side after the Champions League Final disappointment and the closing of Highbury was that we began to see a new side coming together along with the emergence of Cesc Fabregas. In 2007-08, I had a similar kind of feeling about us winning the league title. The victory at Milan was incredible and the subsequent loss at Anfield, despite Theo’s amazing run was even more incredible.

Flamini and Hleb’s departures put a speed bump in the way of the development of the team but, following a necessary year of re-tooling last season, we seem to be back on track towards becoming a side that can dominate the PL and Europe for years. I truly believe that. All that needs to be done is to keep the team together with very few, but critical, additions, with Arshavin and Vermaelen being the examples.

Well, enough ranting, by me. It was a decade to which we should all be thankful to have beared witness. We did things that no one thought any club could do and played football that no other club could play. And at the end of it, despite the lack of trophies, we have gotten to watch an unbelievably entertaining side, second only to Barcelona, be created from scratch right before our eyes.

LEAVE A COMMENT AND LET US KNOW WHAT WERE YOUR FAVORITE MEMORIES OF ARSENAL IN THE 2000s

The Differences between the Invincibles and the Current Arsenal Side

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While many Arsenal supporters are already mourning the loss of Kolo Toure ahead of his expected move to Manchester City in the coming hours, Arsenal Station would like to take this occasion to look at the major differences between the current side and the Invincibles, of which Toure was the last surviving member at the club.

Far more significant than the personnel changes in the club since Arsenal lifted the Premier League trophy with a record of 26-12-0 on 15 May 2004 have been the changes in style. I would like to take a look at what I see as the six major differences in style between these two Arsene Wenger sides.

The most glaring difference between the current side and the Invincibles is in central midfield. In fact, it is the biggest difference between this and ALL of Wenger’s Arsenal sides. Wenger used to rely on a strong central midfield and strong central midfielders to win and hold possession. Even when Arsene brought in a Brazilian in Gilberto, he was the hardest Brazilian midfielder at the time. However, Wenger’s choosing of Fabregas to replace Vieira in the midfield upon the latter’s departure signaled a momentous shift in the footballing philosophy at Arsenal. It meant that Arsenal would move from a strong, powerful central midfield to a smaller, more creative type of midfield.

robert piresBecause of the strength in the center of midfield, the Invincibles had most of their attacking creativity deposited wide on the wings in Pires and Ljungberg. Yet both players were equally adept at regularly getting into more central scoring positions. This allowed Arsene to counterbalance the choice for strength over creativity in the center. Since players like Ljungberg and Pires are not widely available, if at all, Arsene has sought to create that type of player by putting players whose natural position is the center out on the wings and giving them free license. But while Hleb and Rosicky never really fulfilled the hopes of 12-15 goals from the wing, it seems that he may now have found the answer in Arshavin, Nasri, and Walcott.

Another by-product of the change in midfield style has been the loss of the counterattack as a primary weapon. In all my years watching football, I have never seen a team break more quickly, more efficiently, and more creatively than the Arsenal of 2002-05. Yet as Arsenal’s style became more dependent on possession, counterattacking opportunities have become fewer and seemingly less appealing to a team in search of the “perfect goal.”

Dennis with Prem trophyAnother difference between the sides is the lack of a player in the role of Dennis Bergkamp. Arsenal only truly play someone in that role when they have used a 4-5-1 in recent years. Now one might say that Robin van Persie plays off the main striker and, positionally-speaking, that may be correct at times. But van Persie doesn’t link Fabregas in the midfield to the main striker with the same determination as Bergkamp. This is not necessarily van Persie’s fault since that was Bergkamp’s defined role and he relished in it. van Persie is far more useful in and around the box than 25-30 yards out looking for runs into the box, anyway. Yet it remains a serious stylistic change.

The most tangible difference between the sides are their homes. The Invincibles played their matches on the narrow Highbury pitch in a stadium that reeked of history and tradition. The current side ply their trade on a significantly larger pitch created to accomodate this change of style in a state-of-the-art facility with no aura surrounding it. That is where the biggest challenge to the new side comes in… the Invincibles inherited a home, this new side must create their own home… by bringing trophies back to it.

Finally, and quite possibly the most significant difference between the sides is in the defense. This has less to do with the makeup of the back four than its overall record. No Wenger team has conceded more goals than the current side. In fact, the late defensive run by the club last season saw them narrowly avoid conceding an average of a goal per match, something the club has done only once in Wenger’s reign (2002-03). The center back pairing of Gallas-Toure has never come close to that of Campbell-Toure and that is mostly down to the fact that Gallas is no Campbell but also Kolo is not nearly the player now that he was then. In 2003-04, Toure was only in his second season at the club and just beginning to get regular starts in his new position. He still had the hunger of a young, unproven upstart. Following his return from the 2008 African Cup of Nations, he never really looked the same player.

I am not implicitly saying that any of these changes are necessarily for the worst, though, inevitably, they may be perceived that way, and may actually be, until Arsene and his new style finally bring the first trophies to the Emirates. In honour of the “Invincibles,” enjoy “49: The Complete Unbeaten Record.”

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