Arsenal History 1996 – 2006: Arsene Who? The Invincibles and trophies galore

Our History continued: 1996-2006- Arsène Who and the Invincibles!

Within 18 months of losing Bruce Rioch, Arsenal appointed both Pat Rice and Stewart Houston on temporary contracts.

But the club wanted and needed someone at the helm who they hoped would become somewhat of a permanent figure when given the reins…

And so, after notable success at Monaco and a small stint at Japanese club Grampus Eight, in came Monsieur Arsène Wenger in October 1996, who no doubt was going to try his hand at guiding the team through a new age of football.

There is no doubt that he raised many eyebrows upon his appointment. He was an unknown figure, and many branded him as Arsène Who, especially as he would be the club’s first boss from outside the United Kingdom.

But David Dein, Vice Chairman at the time, showed immense faith in the Frenchman and continued with his appointment.

And the new manager didn’t disappoint.

Arsène Wenger’s first match was a 2–0 away victory over Blackburn Rovers on 12th October 1996 and in his first full season at the club we would go on to end the campaign winning the League Championship for the first time in seven years.

After his appointment it surely didn’t take his players long to realise the sort of manager he was with the fact that he wouldn’t be a walkover.

Wenger was definitely a different breed of manager.

It seemed that the old habits of throwing tantrums were not for him. Instead, the squad grew accustomed to nutrition and new training methods and off the pitch Wenger had been just as effective, taking an active role in the building of a new training ground, changing the way players viewed food and drink and in years to come with the Emirates Stadium project.

During his first few seasons though, Wenger was obviously going to be on the lookout for reinforcements and additions to his team and during the transfer window he set about to purchase several players including midfielders Marc Overmars and Emmanuel Petit and goalkeeper Alex Manninger.

As well as incomings, outgoings were also on the cards and so English midfielder Paul Merson’s time at the club came to an end and he departed to join Middlesbrough a year after Wenger came in.

In preparation for the 1997-1998 season, Wenger took the Arsenal squad to Austria, which would become the club’s usual pre-season base. And it was then that the players were given a night out under the manager, as a reward for vigorous training. And at the time, midfielder Ray Parlour revealed it was spent at a local pub with the other English players, while the French ones headed to the coffee shop and smoked. He then recollected and said “How are we going to win the league this year? We’re all drunk and they’re all smoking.”

Returning from Austria, Wenger continued to fine-tune his squad during this period.

Upon blocking John Hartson’s move to West Ham United in February 1997, he convinced French teenager Nicolas Anelka to join Arsenal and also raided his old club Monaco to obtain the likes of Christopher Wreh, Gilles Grimandi and Emmanuel Petit. The latter two were defenders, but Wenger thought both were capable of playing in midfield and this became an occurrence of Wenger’s, where he would play players out of position if he saw something he knew would work! And to his credit, more often than not, it did work!

And so, Arsenal began the 1997–98 season positively, but struggled come November. Although they beat Manchester United at Highbury without the suspended Dennis Bergkamp, this would end up being the only league win throughout the whole month. Defeat at home to Blackburn Rovers left the club in sixth position before Christmas and so we were seemingly deemed to be out of the running for winning the Championship in that year.

To make matters worse, striker Ian Wright was booed off by supporters over his performance, which he responded to the criticism of the crowd from the dressing room window. The boss obviously thought something needed to change and so he called for an urgent team meeting where it was reported “home truths were spoken, fingers pointed (and) players were geed up.”

No doubt it could be argued that there were too many egos and characters in one team that possibly had an effect on the poor run of games and mentality around the squad at the time.

So sitting 12 points behind reigning Champions Manchester United, at the end of February, a winning streak of ten matches ensured Arsenal went on to win the Championship title with a 4–0 win over Everton on 3rd May 1998.

So, I guess it would be safe to say that you can never rule any team out of anything regardless of where they may sit during the season! And it goes to show that maybe all of the drinking and smoking pre-season, as well as the team meeting, did well to propel Arsenal to the win, although it did take a bit of time to get to that point!

And no, I would not advice the smoking and drinking now lol…

So of course with trophies comes acknowledgement and in recognition of the team’s and Wengers achievements, Wenger became the first non-British manager to receive the Carling Manager of the Year award and striker Dennis Bergkamp -whom joined us from Inter Milan in June 1995 for a transfer fee estimated around £7.5million after becoming then manager Bruce Rioch’s first signing at Arsenal -was given the accolade of PFA Players’ Player of the Year by his fellow peers and FWA Footballer of the Year by football writers.

Despite some issues with being booed by a select number of fans, another player who continued to flourish under Wenger was Ian Wright and already closing in on the record set by Cliff Bastin as the all-time top goalscorer, not long after the Frenchman arrived, Wright reached the target, finally scoring his magical 179th goal against Bolton Wanderers on 13th September 1997.

Although this tally would be eclipsed in a little over eight years from that day by who could be deemed as perhaps Wenger’s finest signing to date – Thierry Henry- it was and still is a great achievement for Arsenal and for Wrighty himself.

And so, we come to Thierry Henry who was signed in August 1999, transferring from Juventus after being rather unsettled in Italy and at the time his fee was £1.1m, something which is peanuts in the modern day.

He was another example of Wenger taking a player and switching his position as he was immediately moulded into a striker by Wenger, a move that would end up paying rich dividends in years to come.

However, doubts were raised about Henry’s ability to adapt to the quick and physical English game when he failed to score in his first eight games and after several difficult months in England, Henry even conceded that he had to “be re-taught everything about the art of striking.”

As Wenger’s side had been denied back-to-back titles by one point by Manchester United in the previous May it was clear that the recruiting of Henry was to shore up the goalscoring front yet struggles remained on that front even with Henry in the side!

As mentioned before, the Frenchman’s ability to adapt to the rough-and-tumble of the Premier League was questioned and after failing to score in his first eight games the doubts were soon dismissed as the former Juventus star managed to bag himself an impressive 26 goals that season.

Despite the goalscoring feat, during his time and not long after his arrival, we didn’t have much luck when it came to trophies.

Final defeats in the 2000 UEFA Cup to Turkish side Galatasaray, which was 0-0 after normal time which Galatasaray then went on to win 4-1 on penalties and the 2001 FA Cup final to Liverpool that we lost 2-1, saw us without a trophy yet again! And this also meant that Henry was still without any Highbury silverware after his arrival.

But this trophy drought was not going to last!

In the 2001-2002 season Arsène Wenger’s side including Henry would surge to a spectacular Double, finishing seven points clear of Liverpool in the Premier League. They sealed the title with a win over rivals Manchester United at Old Trafford, just days after dispatching Chelsea 2-0 in the FA Cup Final.

A year later in 2003 and a second successive FA Cup triumph followed.

But what could never have been pre-empted or written was what came next, and this would perhaps go down as Wenger’s greatest achievement… The never equalled Invincibles!

He led his team through an unbeaten season to lift the 2003-2004 title.

A league record of 49 games unbeaten without defeat – Played 49, Won 36, Drawn 13, Lost None.

Although we eclipsed Nottingham Forest’s 42 game run of League games without defeat, going 49 games unbeaten was just another feat in itself and is something in which to this day still has not been achieved!

Even though we have been rivalled by Liverpool in more recent seasons, nobody is yet to break our record and long may this continue!

This achievement by Wenger and his side surely propelled Arsenal into being one of the greatest clubs in the world, at least in the history books and despite the lack of trophies in years to follow, this record in itself is something that may never be eclipsed as this Arsenal side was truly “Invincible” and for those fans like myself who was old enough to remember it, it is something I will forever be proud of and so should every other Gooner!

(Although even if I wasn’t around, I would still be proud of my teams’ historical achievements, as I am of those previous ones from times gone by!)

After their heroics in the invincibles season, Arsenal were quickly becoming one of the most respected and admired sides in Europe and our ambitions were underlined when in February 2004, construction began on what would be our new state-of-the-art home at Ashburton Grove, only a stone’s throw from current stadium at the time, Highbury.

After that unbeaten season the trophies kept coming and yet another FA Cup win followed in 2005 as we ran out 5-4 winners on penalties after normal time ended 0-0, against Manchester United in the Millennium Stadium, Cardiff.

And so, the Frenchman continued to rack up the trophies and achievements.

It seemed as though we were destined for more a year later as Wenger took Arsenal to the Champions League final in Paris in 2006.

But this is where the tide would change!

We faced off against a Barcelona side in the final. But it wasn’t meant to be our trophy!

Having 11 men on the pitch is hard enough against any team, but after a red card for then goalkeeper Jens Lehmann – who became the first player to be sent off in a European final after he was deemed to have brought down Samuel Eto’o outside the box – meant a tough task became even tougher.

And with any sending off, one player needs to be sacrificed and it was Robert Pires who was the man to be subbed off to make way for back up keeper Manuel Almunia.

Although it looked like luck was going to be on our side as with 10 men, we managed to take the lead through a header from Sol Campbell after a Thierry Henry free kick and we would go in 1-0 up at half time.

However, that wasn’t to last as Eto’o equalised in the second half and then four minutes later Juliano Belletti shot through Almunia’s legs to make it 2-1 and that is how it remained.

This would be the trophy that got away, so near and yet so far, that is one night in Arsenal’s history that even to this day still hurts! Well to me it does…!

Although Wenger conquered England, unfortunately he couldn’t quite achieve the same feat in Europe!

And so as always when you fall down and take knockbacks the team had no choice but to move on and look forward.

But Wenger had and has always been about more than results and trophies, He has transformed relative unknown players into world-class stars, such as the likes of Vieira, Petit, Anelka, Freddie Ljungberg and Francesc Fabregas to name a few.

And he no doubt will always be remembered for turning Thierry Henry from a talented winger into a superstar striker as well as being part of a new era, home wise, where it felt positive times were coming after the new stadium was built and finished, -the Emirates Stadium- officially opened its doors in the summer of 2006 – a bold step into the future for a Club with a glittering past.

But would the winning trait, mentality, team fight and spirit continue there?

Only time would tell!

To be continued…

Shenel Osman


Tags Arsene Wenger Invincibles


  1. Henry cost 11m I thought, not 1.1? Not a massive fee at the time, but not a pittance either. I thought it showed that wenger had great faith in Henry even before signing him, and it wasn’t just a “let’s take a chance on this one” type of deal. He was bought to replace anelka as our main goalscorer, I’d thought. (although I think suker was signed at a similar time? Can’t remember exactly)
    Nice article though, good times

  2. Wenger won two EPL twice with tall, pacey and athletic attackers/ midfielders, such as Henry, Bergkamp, Vieira, Gilberto and Pires

    After those glorious years, he was collecting fancy diminutive playmakers such as Fabregas/ Nasri/ Cazorla/ Ozil and he never won another major trophy since then

    1. GAI come on man, you love the tall and short thing and left and right things…. football is never won by short or tall. Barcelona have always had short players but look at the trophies they have won over the years.

        1. Barcelona were just on another level – Messi, Xavi and iniesta defined their playing style, and they got the right players to fit into it

          1. La Masia was a world class academy in that era and I believe it still is. Ours wasn’t that mature, but now it’s getting better

        2. Gai,
          I believed Baca was in an era of Xavi, Iniesta and Messi. Now football dynamics have changed. B. Munich beat Baca years back 7:0 in Champions league with a blend of tall, physical and technical players. Arsenal manager need to take a clue from the Arsenal glory days to succeed. Sign tall, technical and Pacey forwards like D. Nunez or Osimhen. A tall physical DM like P.Viera. and talented full back like Ashley Cole. The truth is Arsenal shall never be in top4 or win the league without investing in quality players. I say it’s all down to Kroenke how ambitious they are. Winning the league will surely cost something. And including a good experience technical bench. Ie Klop is a top coach but Anceloti has more experience in winning champions league.

          1. Yup. Heynckes’ Bayern Muenchen trashed the prime Barcelona with powerful players, similar to the Invincibles’ style

            As for Ancelotti and Klopp, I think it’s easier to win UCL with Real Madrid and Barcelona, due to their supporter base size, world class training facility, stadium and huge transfer budget

            Ancelotti left Everton in shambles, but he got much better players at Madrid. Zidane won UCL three times there, but I doubt he could win a major trophy with an EPL club

    2. “Pace, power, technique.”
      When wenger moved away from this mantra, things started to slide, it’s true.
      Liverpool don’t have so much height throughout their side, but you could say they work to wenger’s original concept for players

  3. Unfortunately that will be the last time we will ever see Arsenal lift the Premier league title!

  4. As I mentioned, during the GG era, the drinking culture was a common problem, with Tony Adams admitting he played games while still feeling the effects of binge drinking.

    That was one of the first things that AW sorted out and the reason, in my opinion, why Merson was transferred out of the club.

    I don’t think anyone can fully describe what Arsene contributed to the club during this period – his style of football was something never seen in my lifetime and I went to every game never thinking that I would be disappointed.

    We were the powerhouse of the PL, despite AFerguson deploying every crafty effort to deny us winning.

    I was so lucky to have lived through this era and see how Arsene changed our club in every way possible.
    He was a giant of a man, who fell in love with our club and remains so to this day.
    Intelligent, honest, confident, funny, faithfull to his principles and always protecting his players against a hostile media.
    He was worshipped by the fans and responded to us in a calm but likeable way.
    There will never be another Arsene /Arsenal match up, simply because it had absolutely everything one could ask for.

    This is about Arsenal and what Shenel forgot, was the arrival of Abramovitch and the Sheik in her last paragraph, along with the loss of David Dein, the arrival of Stan Kronkie and Gazidis, plus the cost of the Emirates would alter the PL forever.

    Merci Arsene!!

    1. Nicely written Ken 👍

      The natural course of football was changed when Abramovich arrived… Chelsea, Mancity and soon to be Newcastle have jumped
      Decades with the buying of success… which puts Leicester achievements into perspective, maybe the greatest championship win to date….

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