1999-2000 season was Wenger’s Reality Check by Dan Smith
For the first time since arriving in English Football, Arsene Wenger was unable to compete with Man United, finishing 18 points behind them. Previously it was down to the skills of our manager as to why we could put up a title fight (his training methods, dietary ideas, knowledge of the French market) yet there were still financial differences between us and Man United in terms of transfer fees and wages.
In what would often be the case, we couldn’t keep our best talent when they wanted to leave. Anelka was called ‘Le Sulk’ long before this saga. Even when in form, his body language seemed negative. There was always talk about him not liking the media, the weather, etc. It’s believed his brothers would negotiate for him from secret hotels without giving contact details, so they were always in control. We eventually made a 22.5 million profit on the striker after Wenger played hardball with Real Madrid.
History tells us that we sold someone who cost half a million, and two years later traded him in for the best player of all time and a new training facility, with change left over. Obviously gooners in 1999 were not going to care about a state-of-the-art facility, but it was another crucial part of Mr Wenger’s vision. They also were not to know that a certain Thierry Henry would score more goals then Ian Wright, while Anelka never lived up to his potential.
In fact, as crazy as it sounds to write now, some were getting frustrated with how many chances Henry was missing, including the Frenchman himself. Having won the World Cup as a winger, he didn’t understand the need to learn a new position and the longer his goal drought the more he doubted his new role. It would turn out to be Arsene Wenger’s finest tactical decision.
Once he scored a wonder strike at the Dell he never looked back, but unfortunately his form mirrored the team. 7 goals before Xmas day were followed by 15 afterwards but by that point, we were off the pace. One bright point was Kanu’s amazing hat-trick in the comeback against Chelsea which will never be forgotten.
We never seemed to have a settled side with injuries to the likes of Bergkamp and Overmars compounded by our disciplinary record which was being judged in the media. This included a 6-game ban for Vieira for a fight with Neil Ruddock, starting talk that he was unhappy in English Football (talk that never went away). That was one of 7 red cards for us that season.
Our coach pointed out that previously his side had put runs together in the second half of seasons to catch Man United, feeling that the Champions now had an advantage because of being in the Club World Cup. Not only did United not play in the FA Cup, they had many domestic games postponed.
So, while everyone else was facing a difficult schedule, Sir Alex and his men were resting in Brazil having a break. Such was the lack of competition they were facing; it was more a marketing trip.
When they arrived back, we were level on points, but they would have three games in hand, our boss feeling this gave them a ‘mental and physical’ advantage.
The reality is by the halfway stage of the season we had conceded 3 more goals than the entire year before – Seaman, Adams, etc were also injury prone. The press were even suggesting that we had been replaced by Leeds United as the main challengers to Man United. With a young manager and young squad, David O’Leary and his men were given high praise without winning anything. At one point Leeds were 8 points ahead of us, but a run of eight straight wins between March and May including a 4-0 victory away at Leeds was crucial in us finishing 2nd.
Ironically where their season fell apart, ours improved, thanks to the UEFA Cup. In our second attempt in the Champions League we couldn’t get past the group stages. Not for the last time, the club were accused of putting money ahead of what was best for the team by making our home ties at Wembley (Highbury seats were reduced because UEFA wanted higher advertising hoardings). We lost our home advantage, with visitors inspired to play at the famous Twin Towers, with us winning twice out of 6 games.
Back at Highbury in Europe’s second tier competition we blew everyone away, including putting 5 past Deportivo (in the days when they were winning La Liga). A big fish in a small pond, we found this level comfortable and we seemed to be going into the final with some swagger. Which, at the time, made the loss to Galatasaray on penalties Wenger’s worst display?
Whether it was overconfidence or whatever, we simply had the wrong attitude in Copenhagen. Even then, we missed a couple of sitters to win in what was a poor 120 minutes. We had also been knocked out of the two other cups on penalties but there’s nothing worse walking away from a Final with regret. Player for player we were better than the Turkish Champions, but we simply didn’t turn up.
At that point there was talk of that being Viera, Petit and Overmars last game for the Gunners. With Anelka gone, was Wenger’s first great side being broken up?
Check out Dan’s previous season reviews…