On the eve of the Frenchman's 1,000th game in charge, Nick Moore reels off the Gunners chief's most memorable episodes...
Five of the best
Arsenal 3-2 Man United (Nov, 1997)
A major tipping point in English football. If Arsenal had lost this match, they almost certainly wouldn’t have prevailed in the 1997/98 league title race; and with history rewritten, it wouldn’t be too much of a push to say that they might not have won any of their three crowns under Wenger.
Coming into this clash, United had lifted four of the previous five Premier League titles, Arsenal trailed them by four points and had just been humbled by Derby County at Pride Park. Here Nicolas Anelka and Patrick Vieira notched early to put Wenger’s men 2-0 up, before former Spurs icon Teddy Sheringham scored twice to level matters before half-time. The second period was tense, but a David Platt header clinched it. The result undoubtedly gave the Londoners belief, and by the end of the season they’d thundered to a historic double.
Man United 0-1 Arsenal (May, 2002 )
Arsenal love to bag the title in their closest rivals’ backyards, and while this didn’t quite match Michael Thomas’s legendary Anfield moment, it came pretty close. Having grabbed the FA Cup four days earlier (a 2-0 win over Chelsea), Arsenal travelled to Old Trafford needing a mere point to clinch the club’s third double. Twelve minutes into the second half, Freddie Ljungberg marauded into the box. United goalkeeper Fabien Barthez parried, but Sylvain Wiltord smashed home the rebound.
In north London, an army of Arsenal fans went wild (as Martin Tyler caterwauled: “WILTOOOOORD!”); in the away end a ‘Champions Section’ banner was hoisted; somehow Nwankwo Kanu vaulted over Wiltord. United’s three-year grip on the title was released, and Wenger’s exceptionally talented outfit had vindicated the Frenchman’s unshakeable belief in fast-paced, attractive play.
Arsenal 2-1 Leicester (May, 2004)
“Somebody threw me a t-shirt which read ‘comical Wenger says we can go the whole season unbeaten’,” remembered the gaffer in 2004 about a bold prediction he’d made a year before. “I was just a season too early.” When Wenger leaves the game altogether and we reflect on his manifold achievements – helping to free Arsenal from debt, the gorgeous football, three titles, two doubles, a Champions League final and relentless European qualification – it is The Invincibles season that will stand above all else. Only one other side have been through a league season unbeaten (Preston in 1888) and it is unlikely to happen more than once in the next 100 years.
Needless to say there had been wobbles when the run had looked in danger: a 2-2 draw with Spurs, a 1-1 with Manchester United (when Ruud van Nistelrooy made himself a hero). But after a joyous home crowd saw them seal the record with a 2-1 defeat of the Foxes (despite trailing to Paul Dickov's opener) – Thierry Henry and Patrick Vieira the scorers – it would take a brave man to argue that this is not the finest-ever side in Premier League history.
Tottenham 4-5 Arsenal (Nov, 2004)
Of Wenger’s many triumphs over Spurs – his record of won 20, drawn 16, lost six is better than any other Arsenal boss – this was surely the one that gave fans the most fun. An abysmal defensive performance from the Gunners offered Tottenham every chance to seize the initiative, but their rivals' own backline somehow managed to self-destruct even more spectacularly. Thierry Henry, Lauren, Patrick Vieira, Freddie Ljungberg and Robert Pires got the goals, Jens Lehmann pulled off some spectacular saves as the home side desperately tried to get back into it; new Spurs head coach Martin Jol watched horrified from the sidelines in his first game. North London Bragging Rights (TM) – and oh, how they did brag – once more belonged to Arsenal, as they almost exclusively have done during Wenger’s tenure: one of his greatest gifts to his loyalists.
Arsenal 4-2 Wigan (May, 2006)
A perfect storm of high emotion and comedy-tinged Schadenfreude elevates this otherwise routine pummelling of the Latics to one of the most enjoyable afternoons in living memory for most north Londoners of a red persuasion. The last fixture ever held at Highbury meant there was barely a dry eye in the house, as the Gunners bid a raucous au revoir to their lovely old home with Thierry Henry helping himself to a hat-trick.
But it would all have been for nowt had it not been for the fact that across London, their Tottenham foes were failing to beat West Ham, having been decimated by an outbreak of the wild sh*tes caused by an underpowered lasagne. Wenger’s impressive record of faultless Champions League qualification remained intact – undoubtedly one of his finest achievements – and for Spurs to be the fall guys, in such an amusingly, unfairly pleasant way, put the cherry on the top for Gooners.
Five of the worst
Man United 1-0 Arsenal (Apr, 1999)
A game where one kick could have re-written history. Had Dennis Bergkamp managed to slot home a last-minute penalty at Villa Park, it might have been Arsenal lifting the trophy a month later at Wembley, while United’s historic treble would be the stuff of Alex Ferguson’s wildest fantasies. Instead the Dutch Ice Man blew it, the game went to extra-time, and Ryan Giggs scored a mazy wondergoal, humiliating half the Gunners’ XI in the process. It will haunt Wenger for eternity. His despairing comment afterwards – “It is not easy to take the defeat, the luckiest team won” – has become almost a Wenger mantra since, but his pain was visible. Given the fact that Arsenal had also blown the league, losing at Leeds 1-0 in a midweek match, the horror was doubled.
Liverpool 2-1 Arsenal (May, 2001)
A trophy Wenger fully deserved to win, but didn’t. Arsenal played Liverpool off the park at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff, going ahead through Freddie Ljungberg, and with two decent penalty appeals for handball turned down by the referee. But if Wenger’s sides have a fault, it is not turning utter dominance into victory-ensuring quantities of goals, and so it proved here: having blown several clear-cut chances to put the match out of sight, Liverpool hit them with two sucker punches. The lethal Michael Owen – a player who, had he played for Arsenal at his peak, would surely have turned them into a trophy machine – hit home twice. It was the ultimate smash and grab. “It was obvious we should have won, we had a clear penalty turned down, but this is the story of our season,” said an ashen Arsene afterwards.
Arsenal 1-2 Barcelona (May, 2006)
Wenger’s best chance to take his place among his contemporaries – Ferguson, Mourinho, Benitez, Guardiola and the gang – as a Champions League-winning coach, was scuppered early. Goalkeeper Jens Lehmann, who had helped to keep 10 consecutive clean sheets before the final, was red carded early for hauling down Samuel Eto’o; Robert Pires was sacrificed in order to bring on reserve custodian Manuel Almunia. Somehow Arsenal remained ambitious and got in front thanks to a terrific Sol Campbell header – and Thierry Henry then missed a golden chance to potentially seal the deal. But Eto’o and Juliano Belletti scored in the final quarter of an hour to give the Catalans the trophy. Of all Wenger’s near-misses, this must have hurt the most. “The referee made a big mistake… the way we lost was difficult to take”, he despaired afterwards.
Birmingham 2-2 Arsenal (Feb, 2008)
A rotten moment for Wenger not so much for the match itself – a point at Birmingham isn’t a disaster – but for the collapse it prompted. The eye-wateringly hideous injury to Croatian hitman Eduardo, scythed down by City’s Martin Taylor, deeply upset the players. Arsenal’s bad luck didn’t end there, either: although Theo Walcott scored twice, they were denied a stonewall penalty, only for City to be awarded a dodgy one in the final minute. The Blues converted their chance; William Gallas threw a bizarre tantrum then sat weeping in the centre circle at the final whistle, and the Arsenal meltdown began. They subsequently lost to Chelsea and United, and finished four points off the top. It was another case of what might have been for Wenger – and Eduardo was never quite the same player again, either.
Arsenal 1-2 Birmingham 2 (Feb, 2011)
A game Arsenal had looked nailed on to win: City were relegation strugglers, Wenger’s side had been flying in the tournament and were challenging for the title – and they’d already done a Premier League double over the Blues that season. But it was a now-familiar narrative of pain for the Gunners: they dominated the game, created twice as many chances as their opponents, but didn’t take them. Nikola Zigic put the Brummies ahead; Robin van Persie equalised in the first half. The Londoners bossed the second period, but in the very final minute, a dreadful mix-up between Wojciech Szczesny and Laurent Koscielny handed glory to City’s Obafemi Martins on a plate. He casually popped the ball into the vacant net. Both of Arsenal’s guilty players were “destroyed” afterwards, with Wenger adding, as he always does, that it was “hard to take.” The hoodoo continued.