This is the latest, and for now the last, in a series of posts looking at the history of Arsenal Football Club.
At the end of the last post in this series, Arsenal had just done what no other team has ever done and finished a season without a single loss. In part because of that, the club didn't make any major moves in the 2004 close season, picking up Manuel Almunia and Mathieu Flamini, and, more importantly, bidding farewell to the last piece of the best back four to ever play the game, Martin Keown, and also saying a sad goodbye to another longstanding club servant, Ray Parlour.
At the beginning of the season, then, Arsenal were still flying - 40 games without a loss saw them start the 2004-05 season with a real chance of beating Nottingham Forest's record of 43 unbeaten, a mark that stretched over both the 1977-78 and 1978-79 seasons (side note: kids, if you're new to soccer and don't think it's cyclical like every other sport everywhere, know that Nottingham Forest, currently fifth in the Championship, have won two European Cups). With very little fanfare, Arsenal did just that, beating Middlesbrough to tie the mark and Blackburn Rovers to surpass it.
The unbeaten run would stretch to 49 games, and end at the hands of, who else, Manchester United, in a fantastically ill-tempered and ridiculously entertaining game that has come to be known as "The Battle Of The Buffet". It was a tense, tight game, scoreless until the 73rd minute, when Wayne Rooney jumped over, but didn't make contact with, Sol Campbell's leg and subsequently fell down (but remember, only non-English players dive!). The referee gave the penalty, Ruud van Nistelrooy buried it, and United were on their way to a 2-0 win.
After the win, though, is when the fun started. Campbell refused to shake Rooney's hand, and the bad blood continued in the tunnel, where a food fight broke out, with a 17 year old Cesc Fabregas reportedly hitting Sir Alex in the face with a slice of pizza. The whole thing got worse in the interviews, with Ferguson calling it a "disgrace" and saying he didn't expect Wenger to ever apologize, because "he's not that kind of person". Wenger returned fire, saying that "We know what kind of player van Nistelrooy is...we know him very well", and lamenting that the referee decided the game.
The two managers didn't really like each other to start with, and this cemented that hatred - it was the fuel that kept the rivalry going, and it burned brightest on the day that Manchester United broke Arsenal's unbeaten streak. Arsenal would have the last laugh that season, though, finishing the league in second place 12 points behind Chelsea, but six ahead of Manchester United.
The two teams would face each other in the FA Cup final that year as well; despite the acrimony, the final itself was a rather dull affair, going to extra time and penalties after nobody really wanted to win in regulation. Arsenal won on penalties, and as no shortage of media outlets will tell you now, that's the last trophy Arsenal have won under Arsene Wenger.
The 2005 season saw Arsenal ending their tenure at their beloved, amazing, awesome, and still-missed Highbury; their shiny new stadium at Ashburton Grove would be ready for the 2006-07 season. 2005 also saw the departure of Patrick Vieira for Juventus, after a couple summers of will-he-won't-he drama (I've said it before - the more things change, the more they stay the same, boys and girls). It also meant the arrival of Theo Walcott, Emmanuel Adebayor, and Abou Diaby; Wenger's philosophy was well and truly in charge now, and while defending didn't get forgotten, it wasn't as emphasized as it had been in the first years of Wenger's reign at Arsenal.
The Premier League season wasn't much to write home about in 05-06; Arsenal finished fourth, and never seriously threatened for the title. The Champions League, though, that was a different story; Arsenal sailed through an easy group consisting of Ajax, Thun (from Switzerland), and Sparta Prague, only dropping two points the whole way, which earned them a first knockout round opponent of...Real Madrid. Madrid were at the tail end of the Galacticos era, however, and not at their rampant best; Arsenal rode a single Thierry Henry goal in the 47th minute and a solid defensive effort to a 1-0 win over the two legs.
In the quarterfinals, Arsenal faced another stern challenge in Juventus; the reigning Italian champions, however, were on the verge of a major scandal, the Italian match-fixing scandal known as Calcioppoli, which would see them banished to the second division of Italian soccer, docked 9 points, and stripped of their 2005 championship. But in April, all of that was still a month or two off, and Arsenal welcomed Juve to Highbury for the first leg knowing they had a lot of work to do to break down the Italians.
He may have Barca DNA, but Cesc Fabregas on that day was all Arsenal, scoring a goal and generally making people forget about who he replaced, Patrick Vieira, on his first trip back to London. Arsenal were at their Arsenal best that day, controlling the pace, moving the ball, and stopping Juve from doing anything; the 2-0 win was Arsenal's seventh consecutive Champions League clean sheet, and towards the end Juve got so frustrated that three of its key players, including Vieira, picked up bookings that would mean they would not play in the second leg.
The second leg in Turin was all Arsenal, all defending - there were a few moments when Arsenal could have scored, but their primary focus was on not allowing Juve to get a foothold in the game, and they did that well. 0-0, an eighth straight clean sheet, and it was off to the semis to face Villareal. I will simply refer you here to Aidan's excellent analysis of this game, and call attention to the ninth clean sheet in a row in European competition.
The second leg was a much more disjointed affair, Arsenal looking far from their best and relying on Jens Lehmann's save of a Juan Roman Riquelme penalty to collect a record 10th straight clean sheet and book their place in the 2006 Champions League final against Barcelona, in Paris.
The game was going well - Arsenal came out firing on all cylinders, Henry being denied two early goals by the excellent work of Victor Valdes - and then in the 17th minute, Jens Lehmann went for a ball, got Samuel Eto'o instead, and was sent off. Just like that, Arsenal were down a man (Pires drew the short straw and was subbed off for Almunia) and the game's complexion changed completely as Arsenal were forced to think a little more defensively. In the 37th minute, though, Eboue went down, the referee blew for a free kick, and Sol Campbell headed home the goal that gave Arsenal a 1-0 lead.
Cue what has come to be known as "parking the bus". Arsenal made a few forays into Barcelona's half, and could have scored once or twice, but Barcelona piled on relentless waves of attacking pressure, wore Arsenal down, and in the 76th minute, that man Eto'o scored to level the game. As I was sitting in the bar watching the final, when the Eto'o goal went in I thought "well, that's this game lost, pretty much" - it was easy (and really painful) to see Arsenal wilt, after battling short-handed at more than full speed for an hour, and four minutes later Barca finished the job, Juliano Belletti scoring the goal that would break Arsenal's heart once and for all.
Still, Arsenal had their chances - I won't blame the referee, because if the Lehmann red card was harsh (which I don't actually think it was, there was clearly contact, but many do), the Eboue incident that led to the Arsenal goal was even softer. Arsenal would collect the least-wanted medal in all of soccer, and haven't troubled the final since.
So where does that leave Arsenal? The easy, lazy, and cheap narrative is that Manchester United broke Arsenal that day in October 2004, and the team hasn't been the same since. Or that Barcelona did the job in Paris, and that was "the turning point" for Arsenal. The truth, though? That's a little harder to square up. There is no one point at which we can conclusively say things changed; Arsenal moved to the Emirates in 2007 and have generated ridiculous amounts of money from it, but that wasn't the game-changer because they have chosen to pay down their stadium debt and live within their means. Which is a great strategy except that in the years between 2007-now, European soccer has started getting drunk on vast and seemingly endless piles of foreign money, which changed the economics of the game almost irreparably, which is a whole different series of posts that I may undertake someday.
So it's here, after the Champions League final, that I am going to stop retelling Arsenal's recent history - there have been copious amounts of words written around the internets about post-trophy Arsenal, and about the seemingly annual departure of players from North London, and endlessly rehashing the reasons why, so going into detail about all of that here seems redundant. I prefer to conclude by looking back over the history of Arsenal and all the successes, innovations, and game-changers that Arsenal have brought to the modern game, and saying: no matter what happens from here on out, it's great to be a Gooner.