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It’s perhaps inevitable that, in any retrospective of Arsene Wenger’s time at Arsenal, the “Invincibles” season overshadows pretty much anything else.
But surely his first league title, won in his first full season in England, has to at the very least rank alongside it as the most impressive feat in his tenure.
We looked back on the 1997/98 season, when Arsenal won their first Premier League title and added the FA Cup as a nice flourish, in this week’s Totally Football Show.
“I don’t think they had quite evolved yet into that attractive, possession-based side that we think of in the Wenger era,” said Michael Cox on the podcast. “They were very physical, they got a lot of red cards.
“I know a few opposition players – certainly Gary Neville – have said this was the best iteration of Wenger’s Arsenal, because they had the technical quality, but were also pretty strong, and basically were willing to get stuck in [in midfield], which maybe later teams weren’t.”
It was a season in which Wenger managed to stitch together the best elements of old and new, keeping the good parts of the Arsenal team that he inherited while adding the international brilliance that would essentially overtake the team in the following seasons.
“One of the reasons I like this Arsenal side,” said Matt Davies-Adams, “was that blend of Wenger, Overmars, Vieira, with that spine of Seaman, Adams, Ray Parlour and Ian Wright. It was not only that Wenger was willing to incorporate [that spine] into his plan, but that their willingness to adapt to his methods. It’s not like he came in having won the Champions League, or having won titles in France, Germany or Italy: he came from – as Alex Ferguson said – JAPAN, and they all bought into what he was saying.”
Michael Cox continued: “For all the big names, I think this was a real squad effort. We mentioned Christopher Wreh – I don’t recall hearing his name either before or after this campaign. I think he ended up playing for Bishop Stortford in the Isthmian Premier League only three or four years later. But he scored some absolutely crucial goals: there was a winner against Bolton, one against Wimbledon, a winner in the FA Cup semi-final against Wolves.
“And at the back, there was a period where Arsenal were without David Seaman for six or seven games, and Alex Manninger came in. Particularly in that United game, he made some absolutely extraordinary saves: he was a rare player who got a Premier League medal despite not playing ten games, because he’d just been such an outstanding player.”
All that said, some of the individual performances were exceptional, and Daniel Storey picked up on one particular moment: when Tony Adams ran through the Everton defence, in the game that clinched the title, to score the final goal in a 4-0 victory.
“That season from Adams, coming not that long after his very public admission about his relationship with alcohol, to becoming one of the key parts of a title-winning team, under a very modern manager, it’s pretty remarkable.
“That goal against Everton: that is probably my favourite Premier League moment. I loved that it was so fitting, that Adams got to have that moment, and put his arms in the air and have that adoration.”
Michael Cox added: “There was a game just before Christmas where Arsenal lost 3-1 to Blackburn: Adams had a bit of a shocker, and I think was having an ankle problem. Wenger basically said “take five or six weeks off, go to a rehab place in the south of France and get it sorted.”
“That doesn’t seem that interesting today, but at the time [the attitude was] “if you’re Arsenal captain you play on through the pain and get to the end of the season.” That was a microcosm of what Wenger was all about, he was just a few years ahead of his time in comparison to the rest of English football.”
And then of course there was Dennis Bergkamp, who had recovered from a tricky start to life in England to become the genius that we all saw.
“There’s an argument to say that’s one of the best ever individual Premier League seasons,” said Daniel Storey. “He was Arsenal’s top scorer as they won the league with 16 league goals. He wasn’t ever a 20 goal-a-season man, but he also got the second-most assists in the league and nobody better reflected the new “Arsene Wengerness” of Arsenal, and that modern approach.
“He started the season in remarkable fashion. Those are the goals we remember of Bergkamp: there’s always a touch, there’s always a drop of the shoulder, or a curled or stabbed finish. The Leicester ones were amazing.”
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