In 1996 English football was simply that, English. Foreign players were somewhat of a luxury, and that’s if your side were fortunate enough to have one. In contrast the notion of having a manager from abroad was absurd.
Ossie Ardiles is to thank for that, back in 1993 the Argentinian was appointed as the Tottenham Hotspur manager, making him the first from outside Britain. He tarnished the English perception of overseas coaches by deploying a tactically naive side, often left exposed defensively. Expensive acquisitions didn’t prove the solution to Ardiles problems and his Spurs side finished a dismal season in 15th. By the following November he was dismissed, from then on it was arrogantly assumed that only British managers could succeed in the Premier League.Embed from Getty Images
Enter Arsene Wenger, “Arsene who?” is what the media quipped and quite understandably. At 47 years old he was still in his managerial infancy and despite his six foot three stature, cut a remarkably diminutive persona. His resume was impressive, winning Ligue 1 with Monaco and taking them to the semi-final of the Champions League, but a subsequent brief spell in Japan appeared peculiar and his appointment was met with scepticism.
Immediately it was evident the Frenchman was different, coaches at the time were imposing authoritarian figures who demanded a player’s respect, while Wenger had a unique approach. He would ask players questions and make recommendations, rather than barking out orders, in an attempt to create a thinking mentality amongst his squad. Henceforth his intelligent players develop themselves rather than mindlessly mimicking instructions.
Despite missing the entirety of pre-season, Wenger’s debut campaign began extraordinarily and Arsenal were three points clear at the summit in December – remarkable after coming fifth the previous season. The initial upturn in form was accredited to subtle changes made by the Frenchman, with regards to his squad’s diet and notorious drinking culture.
Although February’s dour performances meant the Gunners finished in third, level on points with Newcastle United and Liverpool, separated by their head to head record. Failure to gain more than 10 home victories was accredited as the source of their demise, to counteract this Arsenal went about acquiring more pace and power.
Much promise was shown in Wenger’s primary term and in preparation for the following campaign he relished the ability to manipulate his squad using the summer transfer window. The desired effect of obtaining Marc Overmas from Ajax for £7.5m was to employ a more expansive style of play, thus being able to unlock stubborn opponents at Highbury. The Frenchman also raided his former side Monaco, dispensing them of Emmanuel Petit and two others for a combined fee of £5.5m. Both Overmars and Petit would become instrumental in their debut seasons. While the entire squad would benefit from an array of the latest sports science equipment and techniques, as Wenger continued to stamp his mark during a first pre-season.
One of the most noticeable tweaks at the start of the 1997/98 season was Arsenal’s switch to a defensive four, which Wenger had been keen to implement the previous year, before Tony Adams talked the manager out of changing the system during the season. Arsenal lined up in a four four two without the ball, which became a four three three in possession, Ray Parlour provided defensive cover and Overmars was given the freedom to link exquisitely with a fluid front line of Ian Wright and Dennis Bergkamp.Embed from Getty Images
Bergkamp’s career was revitalised under Wenger’s management, after a timid start in North London. By embracing the Frenchman’s philosophies with regards to diet and exercise, Bergkamp was rewarded by being made the focal point of the attack. The Dutchman had an irreplicable style and was the epitome of finesse, maintaining a tranquil aura in an often combustible squad. Although not blessed with physical pace, his speed of mind and technique was second to none.
Throughout the latter stages of 1997, Bergkamp was simply irresistible. It was only the fourth game of the season away against Leicester City, but this performance was to be a signal of intent for the remainder of the campaign. The Gunners striker scored what Martin O’Neill described as “the best hat-trick I’ve ever seen” – high praise from a double European Cup winning player. The first was straight off the training ground. It came via a quick corner played into Bergkamp as he prowled the edge of the area. The Dutchman took a single touch to control, followed by a brief glance towards the top right corner, before promptly curling an effort to devastating effect, opening the scoring after nine minutes.
For the second, Arsenal broke forwards as Vieira carried his side into the opposition half, due to a neat exchange with Parlour. Bergkamp was situated between the lines of defensive and midfield, he drifted towards the ball and Vieira rifled a pass in the Dutchman’s direction. After miscontrolling the pass, Bergkamp pounced on the loose ball to chip it over the keeper and into the gaping net.Embed from Getty Images
Goal number three was the most phenomenal, in the dying embers of the match David Platt lofted a pass in Bergkamp’s direction, while exhibiting impeccable technique the Dutchman juggled the ball from his right foot to his left. This mystified a Leicester defender, Bergkamp swivelled and duly dispatched the finish. Despite not winning the game, as Leicester grabbed an even later equaliser, the goal remains a major part of Premier League folk law, subsequently rewarded with Goal of the Season. That Autumn Bergkamp was prolific, scoring all of the top three goals for the August Goal of the Month competition and picked up the Player of the Month award for both August and September 1997.
During that September, Ian Wright scored a hat-trick against Bolton Wonderers to become Arsenals all-time top scorer with 179 goals. Wright was almost 34 at the time and managed to bag 41 goals in two seasons under Wenger’s stewardship, the Frenchman’s training methods can be accredited to prolonging the strikers time at the pinnacle of English football. Breaking Cliff Bastin’s record proved to be a fitting homage to Wright’s six years with the Gunners, due to being transferred to West Ham in the summer.
By November the Gunners had begun to lose some of their early season momentum, needing a win in their fixture against Manchester United to stay within touching distance of the league leaders. With top scorer Bergkamp injured, 18 year old Nicolas Anelka deputised alongside veteran Wright. This encounter would mark his emergence, Anelka capitalised on the opportunity by beating Peter Schmeichel at his near post, after just seven minutes.Embed from Getty Images
Exactly 20 minutes later, Arsenal won a corner and the resulting cross was cleared to edge of area. Patrick Vieira latched onto the loose ball and hit a powerful strike, thundering in off the crossbar. Highbury reached indescribable levels of ecstasy. Ally McCoist summed it up perfectly, “he had no right to shoot there, never mind score”.
Teddy Sheringham attempts to spoil the party, the Manchester United striker bagging himself a brace. This proved futile, as Platt rose to meet an Arsenal corner, the header was simply out of this world. The England international looping the ball over an on looking United defence and planting it in the top right hand corner. An appropriate winner for a classic Premier League encounter, Arsenal deciding to snatch all three points as opposed to settling for one.
That game would come to mark the start of a rivalry between Arsenal and Manchester United, which culminated around the turn of the millennium. The 1997 encounter was the beginning of an era where both sides set about asserting their dominance over English football.
However, injuries caused the Gunners season to stall after that momentous occasion and by 1998 they were in sixth place, 12 points behind leaders United. Arsenal were written off for the title, to the point where Manchester bookmaker Fred Done decided to pay out on punters who backed Manchester United.Embed from Getty Images
This near catastrophic slump in form was rectified via a sensational start to the New Year. During Arsenals decline, doubts had risen on Overmars ability to adapt to the Premier League, largely due to a string of tepid performances. The former Ajax player answered these critics by amassing both goals at Leeds United, during a 2-1 win in January. Following this up by scoring the solitary goal during a victory over Manchester United, to shift the balance of power in the title race. That left Arsenal just six points behind United with three games in hand. During a post-match interview Overmars said “This was a great result for us. But you don’t win the Premier League against Manchester United; you have to beat the other clubs” and that’s exactly what they went about doing.
Sir Alex Ferguson claimed it was “inevitable” for Arsenal to drop points, but momentum was with the North London side and they put together a then Premier League record run of eight successive clean sheets. The foundation for this success was their impenetrable back line containing Lee Dixon and Nigel Winterburn on either flank, with Steve Bould and Adams partnered at centre back. Anyone who managed to negotiate the defence was then met with the daunting task of beating David Seaman between the sticks. Even when the England goalkeeper was ruled out through injury, replacement Alex Manninger stepped in with some vital displays to maintain the streak and rightfully earned himself the accolade of Player of the Month for March.
The Gunners finished the campaign marvellously and after Manchester United slipped up, Arsenal never relinquished their grip on the title. It was won with a 4-0 victory over Everton, completing a ten game unbeaten run, which obliterated the previous record. The only sour note proved to be Bergkamp being side-lined for the remainder of the season through injury.Embed from Getty Images
By winning the 1997/98 season Wenger, became the first non-British manager to be crowned Premier League champion, yet in the time that has elapsed since, Ferguson remains the only Brit to have received the accolade. Undoubted evidence that Wenger paved the way for foreign managers.
After securing Arsenal’s first Premier League title in seven years, there was only one thing on the squads mind, delivering an FA Cup triumph to crown their season. Their route to the Wembley final was composed of victories over Crystal Palace, West Ham and Wolverhampton Wonderers. Yet in the final they would face the much tougher prospect, the previous year’s Premier League runner up, Newcastle United.
Wenger controversially left Wright on the bench in the final – a bold decision – instead partnering Anelka and Cristopher Wreh. Arsenal began the final with intensity, after some neat build up play Dixon put in a cross to Anelka, whose close range header flew over the empty net.
Shortly after, Petit was allowed time and space on the halfway line, promptly scooping a long ball over the top of Newcastle’s defence for Overmars to latch on to. The Netherlands international poked the shot through Shay Given’s legs, after leaving a defender for dead.
Despite gaining the lead the London side rode their luck as Newcastle grew into the game. First hitting the crossbar through a header, moments later Shearer dispensed Keown of possession 20 yards out, agonisingly for Magpie’s fans hammering the shot into the post.Embed from Getty Images
Shortly after the hour mark, Parlour split the Newcastle defence with a lofted through ball, a fatigued back line unable to match Anelka for pace. The teenager coolly dispatched a strike to knock the wind out of Newcastle’s sails and for only the second time in their illustrious history, Arsenal won the double.
Over a short time frame Wenger managed to revolutionise the Premier League to an extent few have ever matched. His expansive, fast-paced brand of football had a rugged beauty and was significantly quicker in transition than the Gunners style prior to his appointment.
Off the pitch, he modernised player’s perceptions of nutrition, thanks to being heavily influenced by Japanese food culture during his time, as well as introducing plyometric exercises and routine stretching before and after games.
Youth development and scouting talent were also central to Wenger’s recruitment policy. He has a network of scouts and uses a multitude of data to evaluate any potential targets. The Frenchman’s knowledge of his home market, combined with a shrewd business brain has led to numerous profits being made on young starlets. One such example is Anelka, who won Young Player of the Season 1998/99 and was promptly shipped to Real Madrid yielding a £23 million profit.Embed from Getty Images
Wenger’s influence was far reaching during the summer of 1998, as France won the World Cup on home soil. During the final Arsenal pair Vieira and Petit combined to give the hosts an unassailable 3-0 lead. This season proved to be Vieira’s coming of age, his relentless dynamism was a trademark of Wenger’s side for years to come.
Vieira was one of only four players from the 1997/98 campaign to survive the transition to the ‘Invincibles’ squad. A side whose monumental accomplishment dwarfed Wenger’s initial success and is perhaps the reason this significant season is regularly overlooked.
Written by Harvey Sayer.