1995/96. 1997/98. 2002/03. What do these three seasons have in common? In each of them, a team came back from the dead to win the title.
95/96 was the season where Kevin Keegan famously lost the plot in an interview at about the same time his Newcastle side were losing their hold on top spot. 97/98 was the one where we overhauled Manchester United with 10 straight wins to capture our first title under Wenger (hurrah for us!). And in 02/03 the roles were reversed as the Mancs eroded away our lead to regain the Premiership trophy. In all three seasons, the eventual Champions got off to a relative ‘mare of a start. If I remember correctly, Newcastle were 10 points clear once before the returning Eric Cantona helped guide Fergie’s Fledglings to the promised land, whilst in our glory year were 12 points behind at one stage (albeit with games in hand) and at the turn of the year we were actually in 5th or 6th position. In the most recent turnaround in 02/03, Man City handing out a drubbing to a piss-poor United outfit in November, thus leaving them far adrift of us whilst we ourselves looked on our way to retaining the title after handing out a 5-1 battering to City themselves in February.
However things changed soon thereafter. The following season was our fantastic unbeaten one, so you could say that we raised the bar all on our own. In all honesty though, I believe it is the introduction of Roman Abramovich’s millions into our game that has led to a higher standard being set. Since our unbeaten season, the Champions (Chelsea twice and United once) have all hit the ground running. Any bad result was quickly rectified with a good one, leaving them either ahead of the chasing pack or well in touch with the leaders.
The old adage is that you cannot win the league in autumn, but you can certainly lose it. This rings especially true for us Gooners. Whilst in 02/03 we didn’t win the league, it wasn’t our start which hampered our title chances – in fact, we were playing the best football ever seen in the land to date – four-goal thrashings of Leeds away and PSV away in the space of a few days particularly stand out in the memory. Indeed, it was during the run-in where we ran out of steam, throwing away silly points at Villa and Blackburn along with the now infamous assault job that Bolton carried out on us at the Reebok. Not much has to be said about our start in the 03/04 season, as we all know what happened: come November we’d set the record for best unbeaten start to a Premiership season and from there on in we led from the front, fighting off ‘loadsamoney’ Chelsea and perennial challengers Manchester United.
04/05 is an intriguing year in the memory of Arsenal fans. On the back of Invincible season we played THE best football ever seen in this country to race to 25 points out of a possible 27 (the only hiccup being those bastards Bolton snatching a late draw at Highbury). Then came the definitive game of the season at Old Trafford. I don’t need to go into what happened as it’s probably still fresh in all your memories, but after that day the empire truly came crashing down, and in my opinion we have never recovered domestically since. Similar to the 02/03 season where we also lost a long unbeaten run, we failed to regroup sufficiently to win the league. In 02/03 after that damn Rooney killed our 30-game run with a screamer, we lost our next 3 games. However, therein lies the difference: 02/03 was pre-Abramovich and in a way pre-excellence, as we managed to bounce back well enough to get an 8-point lead over the Mancs, despite losing it in the home stretch. 04/05 was Mourinho’s first season at the helm of Chelsea, and whilst never firing on all cylinders early on like The Arsenal were, they managed to stay in touch initially before overtaking us after that fateful 50th game and then accelerating away in the New Year. After OT, we didn’t have a sniff.
During the last two seasons we’ve had to endure some pretty average starts. 05/06 saw horrible away form and a frustrating habit of being bullied off the park as our downfall, whilst last season it was shoddy home form at the new stadium – understandable, if not wholly excusable. In each of these seasons the eventual Champs were off and away early doors. 05/06 saw Chelsea continue their dominance with 10 wins out of 11 at the start of the season, rendering any potential title race null and void by Christmas. Last year was United’s turn as they won a whopping 14 of their first 17 games. The key for them was that they never had two bad results on the trot, every time they suffered a defeat or unexpected draw they came out and won the next game, showing that they meant business.
Last season, I had the misfortune to be present at our two worst performances of the season – Sheffield United away and Liverpool away. Interestingly, these games were during key periods of the season: the Sheffield game was during the hectic Christmas period, whilst Liverpool was around Easter time. I don’t think that is a coincidence at all – with nothing meaningful to fight for, the players may subconsciously lose interest. By the time the Sheffield game rolled around, we were well out of the title race and produced a drab and dire performance, creating next-to-nothing. Hark back to Christmas games of the past where we were fighting for the title – consecutive wins against Liverpool away (with 10 men) and Chelsea at home (from a goal down) spring to mind in 2001.
For last season’s trip to Anfield, we had all but secured 4th place, leaving a relatively meaningless (to the players anyway) 3rd place to play for. And how they showed it, giving a shocking defensive performance as ‘world-beater’ Peter Crouch grabbed a hat-trick against such defensive luminaries as Gallas and Toure. Once again, I’d like to divert your memories back to happier Easters, such as in 2004 where having been knocked out of the FA Cup and Champions League, the lads came from behind to banish the Scousers courtesy of an Henry hat-trick, which was followed up by a crucial point at St. James’ Park to keep us on track for the Premiership trophy.
The current squad, I believe, do not lack quality or talent or even team-spirit. But what they may lack, as evidenced by the performances last season at Bramall Lane and Anfield, is self-motivation. How often did we see the boys turn up for the big games, only too go through the motions against the so-called ‘smaller’ teams? How is it possible to do the double over eventual the eventual Manc Champions, to be so close to beating Chelski twice, to hammer Liverpool three separate times, but then to be so abject against the likes of Fulham, West Ham (twice), Everton and Sheffield United? I believe the key IS self-motivation, of which there was a distinct lack thereof last season. And how did this come about? Because of our poor start, which saw us so far off the top, but still in the comfort zone of 3rd/4th place.
Senior players like Jens, Kolo, Willy and Gilberto are all winners. They need to transmit this mentality to the likes of Cesc, Gael, Phil, Ade and Robin. Confidence breeds confidence, and if we are to get off to a good start and be at least on a par with the leaders come January, then I have no doubt that the players are good enough and mentally strong enough to carry the fight through to the end of the campaign. Performances like those at Bramall Lane and Anfield at key times of the season will simply not occur as the players will be desperate to keep in touch with/hold off their rivals a top of the league. Cesc and Robin are both fighters and have the potential to turn that spirit into a winning one, as long as they have something meaningful to fight for. This attitude will only come about thought IF we get off to a good start. By the term "good start", I don’t necessarily mean being unbeaten for the first 15 games (although that would be very nice indeed). Sure there will be banana skins and doubtless we will drop points. But like United did last season, we need to pick ourselves up after a bad result and get back on track ASAP, not descend into a deep malaise like our 02/03 and (especially) 04/05 predecessors did. The phrase I think is ‘bouncebackability’.
Although it’s always important to begin the season well, for The Arsenal it may be more even important to do so this time round than ever before. As is widely-reported, Le Boss’ contract expires at the end of the season, and while I think he will stay come what may, the team being up there with the best of them early on will certainly help to ward off any potential suitors after January 1st. Lets put it this way, if we’re fighting for 4th spot with Tottenham and any other upstarts come New Years Day, then Real Madrid and Barcelona will be licking their lips in anticipation.
So there you have it. It’s not a season preview as such, or an in-depth look at the squad, or an outright prediction as most websites seem to be doing before the big kick-off. Rather, it is a look at how the season may pan out, depending on early results. Get off to a flyer and I believe that the fighting spirit and character within the squad will shine through, and whether we triumph in May or not, at least we would’ve been in with a shout. Get off to a damp squid and be prepared for another season of transfer rumours, unrest in the boardroom and encircling Spanish vultures over our coveted boss. I hope and pray it’s the former, not the latter.
What do you all reckon?