August, 2007. Life after Theirry begins at Arsenal. It was supposed to be a transitional year for the club. The invincibles had all but been disbanded and there was a crop of new players waiting to make their mark at the Emirates. Preseason predictions for the Gunners were gloomy with many media outlets expecting them to miss out on a top four finish. Once again, Arsene Wenger’s side would prove the doubters wrong.
Arsenal played some astonishing football throughout the 2007-2008 season. They were the best team in England once again and looked headed for an unlikely Premiere League title. Then they travelled to St. Andrews at the end of February. It may have only been a draw on the scoresheet, but it meant so much more to the club. That game cost Eduardo his Arsenal career. It cost William Gallas his captaincy and respect at the club. It seemingly altered Gael Clichy’s career trajectory. And it signaled the beginning of the end for Arsenal’s title bid that season.
Following that match, Arsenal went on a run that saw them win just one of their next eight premier league matches. That run included two losses, five draws, a heart-breaking champions league exit to Liverpool, and culminated in a defeat to United after leading 1-0. That result truly ended Arsenal’s chance of being crowned champions. It was a gut wrenching period for everyone at the club, and one that’s become all too familiar.
But when the season ended there was reason for optimism. The team had exceeded expectations when they were expected to struggle. The new crop of players had proven themselves capable of playing at the very top level and seemed poised to challenge for trophies like the group before them. Eduardo proved a classy finisher and another great Arsene Wenger buy. Emmanuel Adebayor picked up where Henry had left off. That season he bagged 24 league goals. Mathew Flamini showed there could be life after Gilberto Silva and Cesc Fabregas continued his development into one of the world’s best midfielders. Thomas Rosicky and Alex Hleb weren’t exactly Robert Pires and Freddy Ljungberg but they were adapting well and had solid seasons on the wings. Overall, there was reason to be encouraged.
But that team never won the Premier League. That team never won the Champions League or the FA Cup or even the Carling Cup. That team never had a chance to create its own legacy. Because that Arsenal team, the one that Arsene Wenger had assembled to replace the invincibles, vanished. Before most fans could even buy a shirt, and before the pundits could even reassess their trophy chances, a combination of injuries and premature departures eviscerated that team. Arsene Wenger was forced to tear up his blueprint and start over again, with precious little funds for the transfer market thanks to Arsenal’s beautiful new stadium. There wasn’t even time to stop and think what might have been.
On any given match day during the 2007-2008 season, you might have seen this starting XI playing for Arsenal:
Eduardo, Adebayor, Rosicky, Cesc, Flamini, Hleb, Clichy, Toure, Gallas, Sagna, Lehmann.
When the 2011-2012 season starts, it is entirely likely that Barcary Sagna will be the only remaining player from that 2007-2008 squad. And as you examine the details, it’s almost startling how quickly the team fell apart.
Lehmann lost his starting job and his Arsenal future in the early part of the season. He was replaced by Almunia, but he’s not going to be around this season either.
Eduardo’s Arsenal career essentially lasted a whopping seven months. His leg injury kept him out of football for an entire season and he returned a shadow of his former self. The promise he showed in 2007-2008 would remain unfulfilled.
Eduardo’s strike partner, Emmanuel Adebayor was the real star of that promising season. He had bagged 24 goals and looked set to be the perfect replacement for Theirry Henry. He had pace, control and was better in the air than the Frenchman. But Adebayor let one season’s worth of success go to his head. That summer he flirted with other clubs, made conflicting statements about where he wanted to play, and completely lost the fans. He ambled around the pitch the next season and was sold to Manchester City the following season for a king’s ransom. Now he’s weighing up the options between France and Russia.
Alex Hleb left immediately following the 2007-2008 season because he apparently didn’t like life in England. That was the end of his professional career as he knew it.
Like Hleb, Matthew Flamini departed at the end of the 2007-2008 season so that he could sit on the substitutes bench at AC Milan.
Thomas Rosicky had looked a quality player but suffered a muscle injury in 2008 that shortened his season. What no one could’ve expected is that the injury would keep him out of football for 18 months. When he returned, like Eduardo, he suffered through set-backs and lost form. Now he seems set to leave the club, his Arsenal career lost to the realm of “what if.”
The defense didn’t disband quite as quickly but it suffered all the same. Kolo Toure couldn’t get along with William Gallas and had to leave after the 2008-2009 season. He wanted to leave in January but lasted until the summer. William Gallas was never the same player at Arsenal after his strop at Birmingham. He lost the captaincy and the respect of teammates and fans alike. He played well in spurts the next two seasons but eventually had to be sold due to personality conflicts in the dressing room.
Gael Clichy lasted through this past season. But his form suffered. At one point it seemed he might develop into a better player than his predecessor, Ashley Cole. But that never happened. Whether coincidence or reality, the Birmingham game in February 2008 saw his career take a turn for the worse. He became more prone to key errors that cost the team dearly. Now he looks set to be sold.
But the most significant member of the 2007-2008 team, and the one that would prove to be the most important player at Arsenal over the next few seasons, was Cesc Fabregas. If you want to be a top side in world football, you need one of the top players. And Fabregas has certainly proved to be one of the best midfielders in the world. He went on to become captain of Arsenal by default after the Gallas debacle (a fact that many forget when criticizing Wenger’s choice of captains) and the fulcrum around which the attack pivots. But now, he looks set to return to his boyhood club, Barcelona. And with him, go essentially the last vestiges of the 2007-2008 team that looked set to challenge for trophies for seasons to come.
Arsene Wenger built a team designed to succeed the invincibles. It was a team with a good mix of young talent and experienced players from whom they could learn. In 2007-2008 they nearly won a title and at that time, it seemed clear that Arsene Wenger’s new version of Arsenal was positioned to be as successful as its predecessor. The unforeseeable way in which that team disbanded left Wenger rebuilding his squad again, but with meager resources. People criticize “project youth” but rarely put it in perspective.
Alex Song should’ve been the backup to Matthew Flamini. Young players like Wilshere and Ramsey should’ve been learning from Hleb and Rosicky. While players like Denilson and Diaby would’ve been further on the periphery. And Arsene Wenger probably never envisioned Robin Van Persie playing as a lone striker. Surely the sudden loss of Eduardo and Adebayor had some impact on his setup. I also doubt that Wenger’s master plan was to chop and change the defense repeatedly. Gallas and Toure were important figures whose Arsenal careers ended abruptly.
Despite all the problems caused by sudden departures and injuries, and a severely limited budget, Arsene Wenger made some fantastic purchases. He bought Nasri. He bought Vermaelen. He bought Arshavin, who has been dramatically under appreciated and single-handedly saved our champions league place in 2009. And he did all that business at a time when transfer fees and players’ wages were sky-rocketing.
Wenger also had the courage to trust some of his young players. Alex Song proved the doubters wrong. Jack Wilshere dominated in midfield in a season when most thought he should go out on loan. Johan Djourou came back from injury to have three-quarters of an excellent season.
But Arsene Wenger’s luck continued to get even worse following 2008. RVP hardly played. Cesc started to become an injury concern. Vermaelen lost a season to injury. Djourou lost a season to injury. Theo lost most of a season to injury. Aaron Ramsey became the third Arsenal player to suffer a broken leg in five seasons just as he was emerging as a first-choice player.
Arsene Wenger must wake up some days, look at his team sheet, rub his eyes, and wonder where his players went. Whether by premature departure or injury, he has been robbed of much of the talent he expected to be the foundation of his new Arsenal side. He’s done his best to keep the team competitive in an environment of unexpected change but finds himself increasingly under attack from fans who don’t consider top-four finishes good enough.
Perhaps he’s a victim of his own success. Had that 2007-2008 side slipped out of the top-four, most fans would’ve understood. At that time, many were prepared for a rebuilding period. And had that rebuilding period taken a few seasons, then our current predicament would be considered an outstanding success by comparison. Look at Liverpool for example. They slipped out of the top-four and down the table. Now a top-four finish would be considered a raging success. But the 2007-2008 team’s unexpected success left fans believing that Arsene could continue to deliver title-worthy, champagne football every season. And now, despite all the extenuating circumstances, there is no excuse for failure.
So here we are. Entering another season of uncertainty, with the possibility that we’ll be missing some of our favorite players. Just like the 2007-2008 season. And just like the 2007-2008 season, many fans and pundits are expecting a rebuilding year filled with frustration and a fall from the champions league places. But Arsene Wenger has proved the doubters wrong on more than one occasion. Were it not for a terrible tackle and awful penalty at St. Andrews, Arsenal might have been champions in 2008. Perhaps this season, Arsenal will fulfill the promise of Arsene Wenger’s lost team, and finally end the trophy drought. If nothing else, the great man deserves our belief.