Arsene's fifth chapter: How will it be known? - Part 2
Chapter 3 - The pinnacle (2002 to 2005)
A double for Arsene was some achievement and whilst performances in the league of second in three consecutive seasons was impressive, and important for the stature in itself, ultimately the club were falling just short to an opponent that had dominated the English football scene. The success of the investment that followed was imperative, and key to it all was replacing the back four. Although the ‘old guard’ had proven great value to the manager both as players, leaders and ambassadors Arsene Wenger would have to eventually come to terms with the inevitable, his back line were living on borrowed time and would need to be replaced.
Not unsurprisingly it was the full back positions where the rebuilding begun. Sylvinho was the cultured unknown quantity and Lauren the powerful midfield wide man turned hard nut right back. Wenger had stolen a march on Real Madrid to sign the highly regarded right sided player, and worked wonders once more to not only convince the sceptical Cameroon international to move to right back but that he built him into a defensive machine. The rebuilding work though was only half complete, Ashley Cole arrived on the scene from the youth ranks via a loan at Crystal Palace to replace Sylvinho’s short-lived Highbury career and the controversial free transfer signing of Sol Campbell completed the picture.
It’s often said that Arsene lacks an eye for a defender, it’s a moot point but essentially Arsene Wenger replaced the old guard for a mere £7.5m. Not bad for a defence that would win a double and then follow it up with invincibility two years later. The replenished back four together in combination with two key signings in Henry and Pires were the catalyst for supremacy. Wenger had built a team of pace, power and flamboyance. Sol, Ralph and Paddy were absolute monsters whilst even the playmakers Bergkamp and Pires were both comfortably topping 6 foot.
The transformation took a couple of seasons, for the pieces to be put together and matriculate, but the three seasons of close but no cigar were at an end and how. In 2001-02 the Gunners overturned a ten-point gap from the previous campaign to claim a seven point winning margin, the oddity of an early FA Cup final success had given Arsenal the chance to clinch the double at Old Trafford, they needed just a point but took all three. Forget winning titles in your rival’s back yard, how about clinching doubles. Take that!
It was a blow that almost forced Alex Ferguson into retirement, had Arsenal not blown the subsequent league campaign it may well have proven a knock out blow and game set match Wenger. The sense of triumph was not lost on Arsene Wenger he knew this team was built to last and claimed his team had achieved the ‘power shift’. Tactically and stylistically Arsenal had moved light years ahead of their rivals.
The set back of failing to retain their title despite a red-hot start to their defence did not deter the club from its forward momentum, the consolation of an FA Cup provided Wenger with his first back-to-back success. The manager had dared to suggest his side could achieve the unprecedented unbeaten season. Of course the press lamented the audacity of the claim and ultimately the Gunners missed out, but Arsene would have the last laugh.
Kolo Toure a £150k buy from Asec Mimomas, had joined a year previous had begun to become an integral component remoulded from midfielder to centre back whilst Jens Lehmann completed a back line that for the first time comprised solely Arsene Wenger signings, joining for £1.5m. Jens on face value came across somewhat of a nutcase but it was in part superficial, hiding an inner ambition and focus that would see him claim the Germany No.1 jersey from Oliver Kahn. His task to replace Dave Seaman was an unenviable one, but not only did Jens achieve a title in his first season he would do so undefeated, an astonishing achievement that completed his manager's earlier vision. It says a lot of the mind-set of our manager to have made such a proclamation, it was a statement of a visionary and perfectionist obsessed by footballing achievement.
The target was rather a simpler one than today, a single opponent in opposition and where the rules of success were defined purely by footballing merit. The landscape though had already begun to change. Chelsea and Roman Ambramovich had already arrived, had the rules not been torn up who knows where Arsene would have led Arsenal today? In 2004 Arsenal had dominated, but unfortunate timing and the prospect of four matches in ten days against their nemesis Manchester United and Chelski took its toll.
The planning of the Emirates stadium had meant to provide Arsenal with financial parity, it would open in 2006 long after the affects of Chelsea’s new found wealth had been felt upon English football but the conception of which had long ago been envisaged. The duopoly was over and competing for players was now a whole new ball game.
Part 3 of this article will conclude with Chapter 4: 'A cultural and financial shift' and Chapter 5 concluding what may lie ahead in light of the manager's previous direction.
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