Here we are at part seven of a look into Arsenal's history.
Following the dismissal of George Graham, Bruce Rioch and Stewart Houston sorta tag-team managed Arsenal; Houston had a shift from Feb-June 1995, Rioch took over in June and managed until August 1996, and then Houston took the reins for another month, until Pat Rice managed for a couple games in late September 1996. Why all the revolving-doorness? Well, Rioch was originally planned to be Graham's permanent successor, but after his year in charge he had committed the fatal managerial error of "losing the dressing room" - nobody at Arsenal really liked or respected him, and he wasn't taken seriously by the players.
It's important to note here that this was the era of some pretty industrial drinking in the game, both at Arsenal and league-wide; the Arsenal training room was (in)famous for being the home of "The Tuesday Club", led by Tony Adams and Paul Merson, that was basically a bunch of hard-drinking players who would train all day and more or less drink all night. With that as a backdrop, I'm not sure any manager would be listened to or taken seriously, and Rioch was certainly a casualty of that atmosphere. He tried in vain to get the players to drink less and focus more, but those efforts ended up costing him his job.
Over the summer of 1996, Arsenal were starting to refresh their style a bit. They had spent much of the 90's playing the very English, very defensive long-ball style that had met so much success under George Graham, but during the mid-1990's, a few clubs started playing a more possession-oriented game and getting away from the more physical, direct style that was prevalent at the time. English clubs were also starting to look outside England for talent - there had long been a few foreign players in the league, but with the arrival and success of the likes of Eric Cantona, English clubs started to realize that Johnny Foreigner was actually good at "the English game" and clubs started importing players pretty regularly.
Five days before the start of the 1996/97 season, Rioch was dismissed as manager. One day after that, Arsenal signed Remi Garde on a free transfer and paid £3.5 million for another French player I'd never heard of, Patrick Vieira. That was a confusing week, to be sure - here we were, about to start a UEFA Cup Winners' Cup campaign and a league season, and Arsenal had a caretaker manager and two new players. I'm guessing that the handbook on "how to run a major professional sports team" doesn't include a chapter called "Fire the boss a week before the season and change your roster a lot", but there we were, managerless.
Houston started the season with a couple wins and a couple draws, then he left to take the managerial job at QPR. Pat Rice then took over for a couple weeks, during which he led Arsenal to three league wins but a departure from the Cup Winners' Cup, and then at the end of September, there were murmurs that Arsenal were hiring a new manager. Finally, at the very end of the month, it was official - Arsene Wenger was named Arsenal's new manager.
Whaaaaaa? A French guy? With no English experience, who was managing in....Japan? How was this going to end well at all? It's fair to say that there was a large amount of skepticism surrounding this hire, from the fans as well as the players themselves. But once Wenger was hired, it became apparent that he had been Arsenal's target all along, and in fact they had tried to get Wenger in time for the start of the season but Nagoya Grampus Eight didn't want to let him go. Negotiations took six weeks, but at the end of that time, there's Wenger, on the touchline at Highbury.
When Wenger took over, Arsenal were in second place, and under Wenger they continued that good run, losing only once in their first dozen league games. The team did, however, start to develop a rather nasty tendency in this season, of playing really well against the "lesser" teams but falling short against the big boys; that first loss of the season was to Liverpool, and Arsenal would go on to drop both games against Liverpool and Manchester United. Arsenal also lost to Newcastle at the end of the season, which cemented second place and the last Premier League Champions League spot for Newcastle that season. Read that sentence again. I'll wait. Okay, don't read it a third time, you probably get it by now. Newcastle!
Arsenal finished third in the league in 1997, which given the revolving managerial door at the start of the season was a pretty solid accomplishment. More importantly, though, was that Arsene Wenger started slowly to evolve Arsenal, both in style of play and in training habits.
Arsenal were always a very physical, direct team, and the first few years under Wenger didn't change all that much; Wenger worked with the players he had - he inherited the best back line in the history of the English game in Seaman, Dixon, Winterburn, Bould, and Adams, and he started building a fast, physical team to go with that amazing back line, employing Dennis Bergkamp as a true playmaker and relying on Ian Wright to score the goals.
In the first few years of Wenger-branded football, this was the recipe - evolve, don't recreate - and it worked a treat. Wenger was starting to shape a team that was fast, deadly, and unafraid to mix it up, and apart from some rather, shall we say, glaring disciplinary issues, which Wenger always deflected with the now-famous "I didn't see it so I can't comment", things were going well.
It was in the 1997/98 off season, though, that Wenger really started to make the team he wanted to make. Paul Merson was sold to Middlesbrough*, and in came the foreigners: Petit, Overmars, Boa Morte, Grimandi, and Manninger joined the squad prior to the transfer window closing that summer. As did Matthew Upson, but whatever. With players like this, it became clear what type of team Arsene wanted to construct - a really, really fast one.
But over the course of that 1996/97 season, Arsene discovered a problem in creating the team he wanted to create. Fitness. The typical English training routine featured some light jogging and stretching, some head tennis, and maybe some drills or five-a-side games, and some work on set pieces and penalties, then a big fry up or a pie and a pint as a meal afterwards. Arsene soon realized that this was holding Arsenal back - he needed his players to be really fit and sharp to play the style he wanted to play. So instead of finding players like that, he made them.
He instituted a strict training regimen, including specific drills for specific players to work on their specific fitness needs; he eliminated fried foods from the Arsenal training table, replacing them with lean meats, vegetables, and pasta; and he encouraged players to take better care of themselves when not at training (which was basically code for "quit drinking"). Many players, most prominently Tony Adams, were understandably skeptical of this approach - after all, Arsenal had experienced tremendous success under George Graham while basically being pie-eating drunkards. Why change? This won't go well, will it?
Uh, yes, it actually will.
12 league games without defeat to start the season, with only a UEFA Cup loss to PAOK Thessaloniki blotting the loss column in that time. Both Ian Wright, who broke Cliff Bastin's all-time Arsenal goalscoring record in September, and Dennis Bergkamp, who was well on his way to total godhead status, were scoring goals for fun; Arsenal had wins of 4-1 (over Bolton), 4-0 (West Ham) and 5-0 (Barnsley) during that run, which saw them rack up 30 of a possible 36 points. So, yeah, a pretty decent start.
In the 11th game of that stretch of unbeatens, though, Dennis Bergkamp picked up a three-match ban for accumulated bookings (Said Wenger, probably: "I didn't see it"), and Arsenal promptly lost two of their next three, with the lone win being against Manchester United in early November. The season kinda went downhill fast after that - Bergkamp took a few games to regain his Bergkampness, and Ian Wright's form dipped. Wright picked up a knock in the Leicester City match at Highbury, which would prove to be the first in a series of injuries he picked up over the course of a few games, and Wright subsequently didn't play much of a part for the rest of the season.
After s 3-1 loss at home to Blackburn Rovers, Tony Adams got into it with Wenger; frustration with the new style of play and with all the other changes was kind of boiling over, and as the captain, Adams took it upon himself to do something about it. The result of the blazing row that was apparently had was that Wenger decided that his defenders needed more protection from a stronger midfield, so he took the unusual step of starting Emmanuel Petit alongside Patrick Vieira in the midfield line.
What happened next wasn't all down to My Little Pony and Vieira, but that was the catalyst - from December 26th, 1997 until May 3rd, 1998, Arsenal did not lose a single league match. The only points they dropped were in draws against Spurs, Coventry City, and West Ham; otherwise, it was an imperious march through the league table, highlighted by the emergence of Marc Overmars as a goalscoring threat and by the emergence of the entire squad as valuable contributors to the win streak - goals came from Bergkamp, Petit, Overmars, Christopher Wreh, and probably the head groundskeeper as well.
This depth would be sorely tested in February, as there was a point at which Wenger only had two of his first choice 11 healthy and available; no matter, they just kept winning. The problem was, Manchester United was also winning rather regularly, and no matter what Arsenal did, it wasn't enough to catch United; bookies were actually paying out bets on United winning the league as early as March, when Arsenal went to Old Trafford and absolutely had to win. Arsenal played an amazing game that day, a tense affair that was decided by a Marc Overmars goal, and with those three points collected Arsenal were six points back, but they had three games in hand.
Seven consecutive wins later, Arsenal faced Everton at Highbury knowing that three points would win the title with two games left to play. Three goals later, Arsenal were cruising to an easy win and the championship, and then they decided to score a fourth goal.
So there was Arsenal, league champions in Wenger's first full year in charge. They lost their last two games of the season, because they were champions and it didn't matter; the week after the season-ending loss to Villa, They completed the Double by winning the FA Cup 2-0 over Newcastle.
So all in all, Wenger's first couple years went fairly well, I'd say. After 1998, nobody doubted the strange training methods, the overly restrictive dietary regimens, or Wenger's stoic approach; quite the opposite, actually, people started copying it. The game has never been the same since, and it's all thanks to Arsene Wenger and partly thanks to the 1997/98 season.
Next time, we'll talk about the rest of the 90's, the early 2000's (including a special "what I did on my summer vacation" report on my trip to the 2001 FA Cup Final), and a little team we like to refer to as the Invincibles might come up, too.
*After the sale of Merson, Wenger said "You are never happy to lose a player of his calibre, but it's a good deal for him and for the club". The more things change, eh?