Continuing on from the look back at the decade that has been for Arsenal Football Club, today we arrive at the 2001/02 season. Under Arsene Wenger, Arsenal has always performed better in big tournament years, and this was no different. For the second consecutive World Cup years, Arsenal have won the double on both occasions.
After finishing second to Man United for the last 3 seasons (98/99 – 00/01), more reinforcement were brought in to provide a stiffer challenge to the Manchester club. Going out of his norm, out of the 5 new purchases, 3 of them were English. Sol Campbell came on a free transfer right under the noses of our archrival. This was a momentous feat for Wenger to be able to persuade the English international to swap the white of North London for the red. Campbell go on to form a wonderful partnership with Tony Adams and occasionally Martin Keown to provide a defensive wall in front of the ageing David Seaman.
Also arriving at the club were Richard Wright (Ipswich), Francis Jeffers (Everton), Giovanni Van Bronckhort (Rangers) and Junichi Inamoto (loan from Gamba Osaka). Wright was to get a lot of oppourtunites as Seaman was injured frequently during the season. However as good a shot stopper that he is, his commanding inside the box left a lot to be desired. Jeffers, the fox in the box, that is so wanted by the fans for the failings of previous season when Arsenal made most of the attacking but without a predator to finish those chances off. Constantly plagued with various injuries, Jeffers’ Arsenal career never kicked off and only made 10 starts and 2 substitute appearance during the season.
Van Bronckhorst had more playing time than Jeffers and was mostly used on the left of midfield with occasional appearances deputizing for Ashley Cole. Like all Dutchman, he possesses wonderful technical ability and slotted seamlessly into Wenger’s style of play but didn’t quite get as much chance to perform as he would’ve like due to the quality that Arsenal had in midfield. Many would say that the loan move of Inamoto was just a marketing ploy by Arsenal to get more sales from the Asia market. However, the Japanese is a good thinking type of player that can hold his own in any leagues in Europe. Though, his chances were very limited with only 4 appearances in total, 2 each in the Worthington Cup and the Champions League.
Arsenal started brightly enough in the league wining 4-0 away at Middlesbrough with Bergkamp grabbing a late double but were handed their first lost of the season in only the second game, losing 1-2 to Leeds. The team basically continued in the same fashion with wins punctuated by several draw and the few losses. The startling one in particular was the 2-4 defeat at home by a Charlton side who were gifted the match after Wright made a mess of his limited chances with several schoolboy errors.
The season really began for Arsenal on the 25th of November when Man United came to Highbury. This was the test that critics claimed that Arsenal would fumble and thus handing the advantage to Alex Ferguson’s side. We won the game 3-1 albeit rather fortunately with Fabian Barthez gifting his French teammate in Henry, 2 easy goals. From then on, the team didn’t look behind anymore. They continued their unbeaten run in the league up until the end of the season with 19 wins and 4 more draws. In between there were several highlights that really made Arsenal’s season. There was the 10 man fightback at Anfield, the wonderful effort from legend Dennis Bergkamp at Newcastle and the beautiful lobbed goal from Players Player of the Season, Robert Pires.
It all culminated to May 8th 2002. The stage was Old Trafford. Arsenal could seal their league title if they beat the home team in the Manchester cauldron. Arsenal were without Thierry Henry, the season’s top scorer for the club with 32 goals and Robert Pires, so influential in all things good that season with a cruciate ligament injuries in the FA Cup. However the team worked and fought valiantly throughout the game. Ray Parlour, so often underrated was the playing the match of his life as he harried and fought for every ball. On one such challenge, he won the ball and fed it to Fredick Ljungberg who went on a mazy run but had his shot saved by Barthez only for Sylvain Wiltord to slot it home. It proved to be the winning goal and in the away section of Old Trafford, the champions stood. Ljungberg was akin to what Pires was on the left of midfield. After Pires’ disastrous injury, the Swede, sporting a streak of red hair, was the hero in many matches with his incisive and perfectly-timed runs into the box for Bergkamp to feed him. That combination alone won countless points for the club.
As it was the previous season, Arsenal found the European competition a bit harder to handle compared to the domestic ones. Coming through a relatively easy group in Mallorca, Panathinaikos and Shalke in the first group phase, Arsenal came unstuck in the second group phase. Against Deportivo La Coruna, Bayer Leverkusen and Juventus, we found it hard to cope. Eventually needing a positive result from the Depor-Leverkusen game to advance, but it was made immaterial as we also lost away to Juventus.
Two 4-0 scorelines tell the stories of Arsenal involvement in the Worthington Cup. First was a good win at home against Man United, marked by another Wiltord hattrick at home. The second was the exit at the hands of Blackburn away at Ewood Park. However, Arsenal was not to be denied in the other domestic cup competition, exacting revenge on Liverpool in the fourth round along the way. By the time Adams lifted the trophy at Cardiff, we had beaten Chelsea in the final via the same rout. Both were curlers into the top corner from virtually the same position outside the box. Ljungberg and then Parlour were the scorers that day.
Arsene Wenger’s second double in his Arsenal career that was marked with many wonderful memories. From the class and quality that was Robert Pires, finally showing his true credentials in Arsenal colours to the longevity of Dennis Bergkamp who took home another goal of the season award and more than lead the way with his exceptional assists count.