If you've been around here any length of time, you're probably aware that, for one reason or another, pretty much everyone on The Short Fuse's staff is a fan of Arsene Wenger. Not a non-ironic #WengerOut to be found among us. Since today is the occasion of Wenger's 1000th match as Arsenal manager - a feat equaled in England only by Sirs Matt Busby and Alex Ferguson - we thought it would be appropriate to share some memories of Wenger's reign. We've each picked a game that stood out for one reason or another. Enjoy, and feel free to share your own in the comments.
It's April 2004. Despite going out of the Champions League to Chelsea and the FA Cup to Manchester United, Arsenal are at the height of their domestic powers. Following tonight's win, they'll be a point away from the Championship; a point they get in their very next match, famously, at White Hart Lane. Tonight, though, is about pure dominance. Leeds United, in fairness, were not a great side in 2004: their debt reached 100 million, and they went down with just 33 points. Arsenal, though, could've played anyone on this night and walked over them, such was the quality of their football. It was everything Arsene Wenger wanted in a side: pace, power, and devastating football. The first goal, after just 6 minutes, was a combination of Wenger's Arsenal: Thierry Henry, bought by Wenger and made into a world class striker, knocked the ball back for Dennis Bergkamp, a Bruce Rioch signing but perfectly made for Wenger, who played a first time defence splitting through ball for Robert Pires, who flashed the ball past Paul Robinson from the edge of the area.
Later, though, was the Thierry Henry show. Arsenal, and perhaps Henry were better in the fall of 2002, but Henry in 2004 was at his most devastating, with 39 goals in 51 games. The gulf in class between him and the Leeds defence is perhaps best shown by his first goal: Leeds, trying to play Henry offside, let a simple Gilberto Silva flicked pass send him through on goal. Like a dad playing with his children, Henry takes a circuitous route to goal, where he slides the ball in with his weaker, left foot. It was arrogant, it was brilliant and it was unstoppable: like Arsenal in 2004.
An impudent panenka penalty, won by Dennis Bergkamp, puts the match beyond Leeds, and makes it purely about entertainment. And this side could entertain: after just five minutes of the second half, Henry has his hat trick, running diagonally until he's behind the Leeds defence, and running onto another through ball from Gilberto. Despite losing his balance, Henry still pokes his shot under a despairing Paul "It's Behind You!" Robinson. The entire move was, at most, 5 seconds. Gilberto, the unsung hero of the side, won the ball back in his own third, carried it and then released it, knowing Henry would run onto his pass. It was, as many commentators said that season, in a blink of the eye. Take a few extra, and you'll miss it.
The final goal, though, was something special. Arsenal play their way out of trouble, with Bergkamp, Vieira and Gilberto zipping around passes for Pires, who caresses the ball until Henry, charging from deep, can run the ball into Highbury, his Highbury, his backyard. On Sky, Martin Tyler repeats the word "electrifying", and it is. Highbury sizzles when Henry scores his fourth and Arsenal's fifth; there's a buzz. They know it's special; they know the team they're witnessing is special, and they know that the man who put it all together, Arsene Wenger, is incredibly special.
16 April 2004
Arsenal 5-0 Leeds
The Arsenal season of 03/04 will go down as the best ever by an English club. Going undefeated may not have ever happened, however, had it not been for an early-season visit to Old Trafford. While The Battle at Old Trafford ended in a scoreless draw, this particular match is widely-considered to be the catalyst for the subsequent positive results that season. This match had everything many expected, ten years ago, from an Arsenal match away at Old Trafford: United players diving, Patrick Vieira and Roy Keane trying to kick each other's legs off, and Sir Alex Ferguson LIVID at Arsene Wenger following the match.
While this match is now mostly memorable because of Arsenal legend Martin Keown's infamous taunting of Ruud van Nistelrooy following the final whistle, due in part to his role in getting Vieira sent off and his hilarious missed penalty only seconds before the end of the match, what stayed with me was Wenger's post-match comments in the face of his players acting out the way he did. He didn't admonish them. He didn't hold his players accountable, which many rational people might have done in the face of such behavior.
No, Arsene Wenger doubled-down in the tunnel after the match and stood beside his players, calling out van Nistelrooy for provoking Vieira and saying he "cheated" during the match. These comments, when relayed to Ferguson, left him so mad he broke out the unintelligble Scottish accent reserved for only his angriest of moments, speaking faster than his mind was processing the words. It was clear to everyone that day: Wenger had successfully gotten under the skin of his rival manager while showing his players that, no matter what, he believed in them. It formed a solidarity that was unbeatable.
The Battle of Old Trafford, technically, didn't produce a winner. It did, however, produce The Invincibles.
21 September 2003
Manchester United 0-0 Arsenal
Arsene Wenger, 1000 Games
Arsene Wenger is a freaking genius
From October 2013: Arsenal.com talks to the manager about the team and the transfer window, and it's very instructive, particularly for those who doubt.
Arsene Wenger, 1000 Games
Everyone rightfully remembers The Invincibles as the best team in Premier League history, if not in the history of English football. Everyone also knows that Arsenal won the title in 2002, but what they may not remember is that the 2002 title was won with a feat that is arguably as impressive - Arsenal closed out the 2001-02 season with 13 consecutive wins. Not 13 games without a loss - 13 wins, no draws. After 11 straight wins, Arsenal went to Old Trafford on May 8, 2002 with one hand on the championship trophy; a win at the home of their closest rivals would seal the championship with a game left in the season.
Manchester United, the 2000-01 champions, fought through the first half like they wanted to beat Arsenal up with the trophy, not hand it to them - they gave no quarter and showed no signs of wanting to surrender their crown. Arsenal, without Bergkamp, Henry, and Tony Adams, seemed headed to their first dropped points of the last two months, until Sylvain Wiltord scored in the 55th minute, Arsenal closed up shop, and the final whistle eventually blew on a 1-0 win that completed Arsene Wenger's second Double in four years.
The winning streak was extended with a win against Everton at Highbury the following week, and the 14th win in this remarkable streak came in the opening game of the 2002-03 season (before Arsenal finally dropped points in a week two draw against West Ham), a mark that stands as the longest winning streak in the history of English football (shared with three other teams, most recently Preston North End in 1950-51).
There isn't one "Wenger moment" that stands out from this game - what stands out for me is that this game was the culmination of a streak of incredible, fluid, dare I say stylish play from a manager and a team at the peak of their collective powers. It was one of those stretches where, when you turned on the TV or went to a match, you KNEW Arsenal would win - there was simply no doubt in your mind that the outcome would be three points for the Londoners. And that, to me, is one of Wenger's greatest legacies (he's leaving a few) - throughout the years, when his teams are playing at 100% and clicking through the gears, they're unstoppable. It's been that way his entire tenure, and it's been a joy to watch throughout.
8 May 2002
Manchester United 0-1 Arsenal
While Thierry Henry delivered me to Arsenal fandom, Arsene Wenger has keep me there resolutely. His intelligence, his choice in players, and his consistent leadership (especially when compared to the impatience of rival teams with its managers) has made Arsenal a distinctly beautiful and fluid team, playing with a joy and camaraderie which always seems an echelon above other Premier League teams. I even love Wenger's irascibility -- Wenger vs. zipper, Wenger vs. water bottle, and the indelible image of Wenger helicoptering in response to a September 2012 late-game miss by Giroud against Chelsea all show a manager who is human, who is unconcerned about how the cameras capture him, who displays all of the surface emotion that you or I display when we see a late-game miss by Giroud.
But my favorite Wenger moment comes from this season, after the 1-0 victory against Spurs on Sept. 1, on the eve of the transfer window's closing. In response to a question about much-anticipated transfer window activity, knowing that Mesut Özil was on his way to the Emirates after months of behind-the-scenes work, out of the eyesight of the media and its zeal for transfer rumors, he smirked toward the Sky Sports cameras and said, demurely, "Maybe we will have a good surprise for you." In the same press conference, asked about the signing of Mathieu Flamini, he remarked, so those with opinions on how to spend Arsenal's money could hear it, "I said it was a no-brainer; I am just sorry that he did not cost £25 million!"
There, on display, were all the traits that make Wenger so incredible: intelligence, independence, conviction, and just a little bit of mischief. When the Arsene Wenger statue goes up outside the Emirates, it will probably be something suitably noble, a steady captain's gaze, a dignity that befits a manager with such a long history of service to a single club. But I would love to see a hint of the impishness and cleverness that still, after all these years, gives Arsenal its inimitable edge, the joker in the Premier League's deck of cards.
1 September 2013
Arsenal 1-0 Tottenham Hotspur (and buying Mesut Ozil the next day)
It had to be Mike Dean that did it. In a week that Eduardo was being "investigated" for diving against Celtic -- which he did, but a situation that quickly turned into a witch hunt -- which Arsene labelled as a "disgrace", Arsene was sent off into the stands against Manchester United. Arsenal were down to Manchester United in the dying minutes of the match when Robin Van Persie seemingly equalized and sent the fans into raptures. Unfortunately, the lineman incorrectly judged that William Gallas, the assist man in this situation was offside -- who really knows this rule? Arsene, angered by this decision and the fact that Arsenal were already denied a penalty earlier in the game, kicked a water bottle over in frustration, and the fourth official then relayed the event to Mike Dean.
Dean of course, sent Arsene off into the stands. The next part is the best part as Arsene made his way up the stairs, Mike Dean judged that he had to go even further in. Wenger, in all of his sassiness, stood on a ledge in the midst of all of the Manchester United fans and outstretched his arms as if to ask "Is this far enough?" The United fans spent the rest of the time chanting disgustingly at Wenger, implying that he was a pedophile for his transfer and youth policy. Arsene of course, was not shaken, he just stood there, arms folded and brazen till the match ended. In the post match interview, Arsene commented on the confusing set of events. "Thirty seconds to go…It was really spectacular. I didn't even know where to go. They told me to go to the stand but there was no way up to the stand. Just because I kicked a bottle of water – I didn't say a word to anybody. And it was quite a good kick…"
Referees chief Keith Hackett would later apologize to Wenger, "Although correct in 'law', the decision was completely out of context in the game and it was followed by the nonsense which followed over where Arsene Wenger should sit." The damage was already done though and only one individual was better from the rubble. That was Wenger, disgracefully sent off and hounded like an animal, he was class throughout. That has been Arsene Wenger during my time as a fan, every year he's faced with situations that test his mettle and every year he manages to handle it in the best possible way. From opposition managers like Jose Mourinho making snide comments to Arsenal fans creating banners and chanting that he doesn't know what he's doing, the manager always comes out unscathed, leaving the others to reveal their vile characters in the process.
29 August 2009
Manchester United 2-1 Arsenal
What has marked Arsène's greatest teams out across the years is their ability to foster a siege mentality. To win 10 games in a row in 1998, to put 13 straight wins together in 01/02 while not losing a single game after December, and to go a full 49 games unbeaten a couple of years later. That mentality was not needed at an awful lot of individual points through the Invincibles' run, but two notable exceptions exist: the 4-2 home win against Liverpool and this, the 5-3 against Middlesbrough.
This side so rarely had to dig themselves out of holes because they so rarely fell into them. Avoiding defeat meant equaling British football's top flight record for an unbeaten run, set at 42 games by Brian Clough's Nottingham Forest. They took an early lead, as they so often did, through a glorious Thierry Henry lob, and from there it was expected that a comfortable victory would follow. Then Middlesbrough scored three outstanding goals across 10 minutes either side of half time (two with a little help from Cygan and Jens Lehmann respectively).
Just over a minute later, a 17 year old Cesc Fàbregas sent a pass through Dennis Bergkamp, the day's captain, who charged at the ‘Boro defence and drove a low, powerful shot past Mark Schwarzer. The tempo increased, Robert Pirès came on, 10 minutes later it was 3-3 as Bobby drifted in at the far post to tap in an Henry pass. 12 seconds after that, Bergkamp set José Antonio Reyes up for a sensational goal on his weaker right foot. After that they settled in a style more typical of that team. Relaxed and completely assured. Henry knocked in a final goal in added time.
No other game captures Arsène's Era like that one. Special players playing his football to achieve something no one thought possible a few years before. Bergkamp represented what Arsène had found on arrival and enhanced; Henry and Pirès his ability to recruit the semi-fallen and fix them; Cesc locating and developing younger players. And Reyes, who shows a different side: the extraordinary talent with a softer centre, who should have achieved so much more than he did but for unfortunate circumstances. The three conceded goals reflecting a volatility that has existed in many of his sides, but as in this game, one that was overridden by its virtues. They were something no one had ever seen before, and he made it all happen.
22 August 2004
Arsenal 5-3 Middlesbrough
While I mostly write about the ladies side of things at Arsenal, I can assure you that my love for the Gunners started with the lads and had quite a lot to do with that Wenger fella who is the sworn enemy of jacket zippers everywhere (dear god Puma help him).
My first season of support for Arsenal was just a mere 13 years ago (give me a break, I was born in the 90s) during the 2001-2002 campaign. I came for the jerseys that read SEGA (Sonic the Hedgehog is my hero) and stayed because of the man that lead his team with such calmness and yet such power that I was transfixed.
His players seemed to genuinely love putting on the Arsenal jersey and I attribute that, for the most part, to Wenger. He has a remarkable ability to find players that genuinely love the club and want to succeed for the club. Then he makes it possible for them to succeed. He does this over and over again.
The season ending, and double clinching, win at Manchester United was a moment that perhaps set my psyche for many years to come. Manchester United, the goliath, the team that had dominated so much, and bought and bought and bought so much talent, fell. Perhaps not by a "David", but instead by a team that genuinely believed in what they were being told by the man in charge.
In that moment, I found a sort of justice in the sports world. It was a sign that loyalty and true desire to succeed for the club, the team, and the fans can lead to the ultimate success. For that, I’d like to raise my water bottle to you Arsene.
8 May 2002
Manchester United 0-1 Arsenal
2011-12 was a weird year for Arsenal. There was no more Cesc Fabregas. Robin van Persie, by the end, was in full-on inner child mode. Arsenal had been behind Tottenham Hotspur for much of the year. All in all, it was another of the sort of gray years where no trophies were forthcoming and where there seemed to be more questions than answers. There weren't a lot of great matches to speak about, and in some respects, picking the last match of the 2011-12 season as a highlight of Arsene Wenger's 1,000 games in charge may seem silly.
However, there has been no Arsenal match in recent memory that has filled me with as much emotion that I've been able to personally watch (I didn't see the lasagna match, so, well, there you go). Arsenal had to go to the Hawthorns on the last day and pretty much win if they were to finish third and guarantee a spot in the next year's Champions League, as Chelsea were playing in the final of that competition with a possibility of sending that year's fourth place team to the Europa League. The lineup wasn't super shiny, as Carl Jenkinson manned the right and Andre Santos the left; Francis Coquelin and Yossi Benayoun worked in midfield with Tomas Rosicky and Gervinho and Alex Song. It was a bit janky by the standards of the best possible XI, but things seemed to be going okay when Benayoun -- an unsung hero on loan that year from Chelsea -- crept in and took the ball off of West Brom's backup keeper (if that term can even apply) Martin Fulop to shoot into an empty net. But Arsenal's Koscielny-Vermaelen defense sort of fell apart after that, allowing a suspiciously onside Shane Long to get behind and score before also allowing a good Graham Dorrans shot to fly in. Arsenal were down 2-1 after 15 minutes.
However, up stepped Andre Santos, and as the Baggies defenders fumbled around, the enterprising Brazilian fired home a shot that Fulop really should have saved, and Arsenal came out after the break and found a way to pull ahead as Fulop (god, the highlights of this man that day!) basically set a corner kick onto Koscielny's foot for the defender to acrobatically knock in.
There remained 36 minutes for Arsenal to hang on, as West Brom pushed and pushed. I was sitting on my couch rocking back and forth in the fetal position the entire time, occasionally pacing around my apartment. It was excruciating. Extra time arrived, and Kieran Gibbs, on as a sub, made quite possibly the Most Important Tackle in Arsenal History, sliding in to deny Bill Jones an almost-sure sure equalizer. It was so huge a tackle, so incredible a moment, that Arsene Wenger did this, in one of the most indelible images of his career.
And Arsenal had held on, finishing in third after a very tough campaign. Not the most glorious of matches out of Wenger's 1000, and certainly not the best year, but no other match had brought me such relief that I had to live through live and in the moment. If Wenger never has to hug Steve Bould in agony for the rest of his life, we'll be robbed of an image, but we'll know that everything is basically okay in the world, too.
13 May 2012
West Brom 2-3 Arsenal
I've been an Arsenal fan for a while, but I haven't ever seen Arsenal win a trophy. I was nominally a fan in 2005, mostly because they were the English team I'd heard of that wasn't called Manchester United. I knew Thierry Henry, and those two things were enough to cement me. But I didn't watch the FA Cup final, didn't see Patrick Vieira's winning penalty, didn't see him lift the cup. By the time I was the screaming obsessive you know today, we were already into the "trophy drought" narrative and the overload of annoyance that accompanies it.
So unlike many of our staff, and many of you readers, my Arsenal glories are all individual matches. Beating Tottenham 5-2. The 5-3 win at Stamford Bridge. The 7-5 madness against Reading.
Okay, some of those "glories" are overstated. But the night Arsenal beat the greatest soccer team ever assembled was not. That was real.
Arsenal shouldn't have even been in that game. We had drawn a comparatively easy group in the Champions League: Shakhtar Donetsk, Braga, and Partizan Belgrade. After three games Arsenal had nine points. But losses at Donetsk and Braga hurt, and a final day win wasn't enough to get Arsenal back atop the league. Second place - advancement into the knockout round, but a matchup against one of the group winners. Tottenham, Manchester United, and Chelsea all won their groups but couldn't be drawn; Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, Schalke 04, or Barcelona awaited.
Of course, it was Barcelona. And nobody gave Arsene Wenger's side a chance against Messi, Iniesta, Xavi, David Villa, and the rest. And frankly, for the first 78 minutes, it looked like "nobody" was right. Villa had scored, Messi somehow had been kept out, but Arsenal were being shut out. Until Robin van Persie scored a ridiculous goal - something we'd come to expect over the next year or so, before he turned heel - to level the score.
I can honestly remember most of Martin Tyler's call.
Fabregas...it's Nasri. Can he go all the way here? Still Nasri...looks for...ARSHAVIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIN!
I don't remember seeing Andrei Arshavin's celebration (including an undershirt with a picture of himself on it) because I had my own shirt over my head, running around my living room screaming with my dog. But the reason this makes the list for me isn't just that it was one of the greatest sporting moments of my life. It was this, which Tyler said as the celebration of Arsenal's wondergoal raged.
Arsene Wenger's philosophy, put into practice!
You're goddamn right it was. And that philosophy, and his team, beat The Great Barcelona, on the backs of players like Jack Wilshere, raised in the Arsenal system; and Laurent Koscielny, the cheap French unknown who blanketed the great Lionel Messi and shut him down. Wenger players through and through, in style and in pedigree.
Arsenal - and Arsene Wenger - can beat any team. I know it because I've seen it.
16 February 2011
Arsenal 2-1 Barcelona