Arsenal v Barcelona in 1999: When Luis Enrique robbed Patrick Vieira

If you realise your ambitions so quickly, you start dreaming about new challenges.
Marc Overmars

Wenger must have felt he had a chance of winning in the Nou Camp, mainly because his defence was so strong. He had said Arsenal must defend collectively, a sensible approach because Barcelona had more brilliant players than any team Arsenal had ever faced in their entire history.

Rivaldo was more dangerous than Shevchenko, Zidane or Batistuta because he could win matches with dribbles, long passes, short passes, long shots, headers, crosses and free-kicks. The Brazilian was tall, strong, durable, awkward and very good in the air, but he had looked jaded against Real Betis the Saturday before. Rivaldo could be stopped by tight marking and tough, fair tackling.

In the larger scheme of things, Wenger knew that Arsenal needed time to get the hang of playing against the big boys in Europe. The Champions League is a steep learning curve, and the big question was not so much whether Arsenal could get a point. It was: Can the team handle it?Would they get stage-fright in Europe’s biggest football theatre?

Surprisingly, Kanu, the supersub, started the game and gave an astonishing 93-minute performance. Hungry, brave and immensely resourceful, he was better than Rivaldo. Bergkamp had travelled but, unfortunately, he played like a zombie. Overmars had missed chance after chance all through September, but now he played his best game of the season so far. Overmars showed, once again, that he had the big-match temperament.

The match had been billed by Wenger as a let’s-find-out-how-good-we-are exercise. On the evidence of the first 35 minutes the answer was: not good enough. Grimandi gave away two 25-yard free-kicks and Dixon had to kick a Luis Enrique header off the line. After 35 minutes Barcelona had enjoyed a mind-boggling 71 per cent of the possession. Manninger was flapping and punching, and when he spilt a tame Cocu shot the ball bounced up on to Vieira’s thigh inside the six-yard box.

Amazingly, Vieira took a second touch and wanted a third, so Luis Enrique came up behind him and poked it into the net from four yards. What a gift! What was Vieira thinking about? He should have whacked that loose ball into Row Z!

Bergkamp, having just witnessed the most idiotic goal Arsenal had conceded since he joined the club in 1995, reacted by kicking Rivaldo. It was an angry, dangerous kick on the ankle and he deserved his yellow card. Vieira also fouled Rivaldo, another yellow card.

The Barcelona crowd jeered Davor Suker when he warmed up and screamed when he replaced Bergkamp after 73 minutes. He had only been on the field twenty seconds when he lunged in late on local hero Guardiola and kicked his foot. Not content with that, Suker chased across the field, allowed Winston Bogarde to clear the ball, then dived in fractionally late so that Bogarde’s follow-through connected with his studs. It was a very bad foul and the crowd went ballistic. If Suker was a hate figure before that tackle, he was a demon now. His name went into the book and Barcelona’s concentration went out of the window.

The second half had been a different match, nothing like the first half, but now, suddenly, a third match started. Arsenal were still 1-0 down, but at last they looked capable of winning the game. Then Grimandi elbowed Guardiola when they were on the ground, right in front of the referee, and was sent off. The pendulum had swung dramatically towards Arsenal, but now it swung back.

Then, incredibly, Kanu equalised. When Guardiola jumped and missed the ball, Suker nodded it forward and Kanu nudged Guardiola off balance. While this was happening the Croatian readjusted his body position, just in case the ball rolled back towards his left foot. When the ball did exactly that, Suker hit a shot through Guardiola’s and Bogarde’s legs, wrongfooting keeper Hesp, who managed to parry the ball. It popped out to Kanu, who half-volleyed into the corner of the net from eight yards. The game finished 1-1.

Wenger must have been disappointed that half his team seemed to be overawed by the occasion. Manninger did not cope in the first twenty minutes and Bergkamp, Parlour, Vieira and Grimandi did not handle it either. So five of his eleven players did not really cope with the pressure of the event. But he must have been encouraged that they were, eventually, well worth a draw. Barcelona versus Arsenal had been fascinating but Arsenal versus Barcelona promised to be pivotal. Not decisive, but pivotal. Because if they could beat Barca at Wembley they could also beat Fiorentina.

Vieira let his team down again at West Ham on 3 October, where Arsenal lost 2-1. He allowed himself to be wound up by Neil Ruddock and was sent off and then he made it worse by coming back onto the pitch to spit at the defender, which earned him an eight-match ban. Vieira later apologised for his actions and said he was ashamed of himself.

Arsenal met Everton on Saturday October 16 and played their best football of the season in the second half and won 4-1. Then they moved to Wembley three days later and met Barcelona again.Why were they hammered 4-2? Three reasons: Tony Adams had a bad night, cynical strategic fouls by Barcelona, and exceptional counter-attacks by the visitors. Adams was very unlucky to concede an early penalty when Cocu dived. He slipped on the second goal, then scuffed a left-foot shot into the ground from five yards. He might have done better with two headers.

Tactically, the game was the most interesting contest Wenger has ever lost in England.

It looked as if Louis van Gaal had learned more from the Nou Camp encounter than Wenger had, so Barca had a superior game plan and would probably have won without the penalty gift.

The way Barcelona played was cool, shrewd and relaxed. They did not support their attacks, did not use overlappers, did not flood the box, and only won one corner against Arsenal’s thirteen. Their style was mathematical, geometrical and economical. Very little energy was wasted, very few passes were wasted, and they seemed to have thirteen players to smother every Arsenal move. There was an element of Muhammad Ali rope-a-dope about the night – Arsenal wore themselves out and never saw the punches coming. The pitch seemed to be full of spaces that the Barcelona players decided not to run into because they wanted to save them for later. The game would make for a superb instructional video because the near-misses were as good as the goals: Figo’s left-foot rocket, which Seaman tipped on to the post, Figo’s header just over the bar from Kluivert’s cross on 49 minutes.

Wenger must have been grateful for the enthusiastic support of the Arsenal fans, who were passionate, optimistic and marvellous.

No recent Arsenal crowd has been so supportive. When the penalty was awarded they sang `Seaman! Seaman!’ because the keeper had been a penalty-saving hero in big games against Millwall, Sampdoria and Scotland.When Luis Enrique made it 2-1 they sang `We love you Arsenal, we do!’ and at 3-1 down they roared `Stand up for the Arsenal, stand up for the Arsenal!’ And they still had enough left to get right behind the team when Overmars made it 4-2 after 84 minutes.

Frank de Boer had warned that Barcelona were cynical masters of the strategic foul forty yards from goal. Sure enough, after nine seconds, Guardiola grabbed Kanu and threw him on the ground. Then Cocu cheated with his dive. Swiss referee Urs Meier was deceived because it was a subtle, elegant dive.

He gave a penalty and Rivaldo scored superbly with a shot into the corner. Keown was off the field having treatment behind the goal when Arsenal, shell-shocked and furious, conceded a second goal just ninety seconds later, Figo making a terrific stretch to beat Winterburn and flick on for Luis Enrique, whose finish was perfect.

Figo was carded for a foul on Vieira, and when Bergkamp juggled the ball past Abelardo the defender handled and also got a yellow. Reiziger then obstructed an Overmars run, but escaped a booking. Arsenal’s four midfield players committed just three fouls in the game, while Barcelona’s four notched up ten. Not a huge total, but it highlighted their strategic ruthlessness.

As Wenger stood up from the bench at the final whistle and we saw his face on TV, he looked humbled. Of course, this very testing competition is an education for the club, the players and the manager, so the fans sympathised with Wenger, doubting whether he had ever wanted to play at Wembley.

The Champions League is home and away against the best in Europe and Arsenal’s choice to play `home’ games away from its own stadium two years running will rank as one of the biggest own-goals in the history of English football.

The Chelsea game at Stamford Bridge on 23 October, the day after Wenger’s fiftieth birthday, started badly. Dan Petrescu made the first goal and scored the second, and Arsenal were 2-0 down with about forty minutes to go against a team who were coming off a sensational 5-0 win over Galatasaray in Istanbul in the Champions League.

Most of the match was played in a monsoon, so the pitch was covered with surface water. The first Kanu goal came when Dixon crossed and the ball rebounded from Babayaro to Overmars, who hit a feeble shot from 25 yards that was going wide until Kanu stretched to control the ball with his left foot and toe-poked the ball hard enough for it to skim through the water and beat Ed De Goey’s right hand.

With this goal, Kanu became the first player to score against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge in the Premiership that season. Then he scored again. Overmars, on the right, crossed left-footed, craftily, to the rear of a crowded penalty area, picking out Kanu, who cushioned the ball at an angle away from the goal, avoiding the nearest defenders, so that the ball rolled towards the corner of the six-yard box. He got to it just before Desailly and buried a right-foot shot at the near post for 2-2. It was reminiscent of Bergkamp’s audacious pass to himself to score the third goal against Spurs back in November 1996.

The winner was the best goal ever scored from a bad pass by a striker who wanted to score the goal himself. When Wise made a poor pass Overmars chested the ball to Suker, who was wide right on the halfway line. Suker cruised infield on his left foot, beating Wise; Overmars scooted forward looking for a return pass from Suker, but the Croatian passed wide to Kanu, who was standing near him on his left. It was the wrong pass under the circumstances. It was a pass that said, `You get wide and cross for me to score the winner.’ Kanu chased the ball to the touchline, but Albert Ferrer got there first and attempted to clear down the line. Kanu somehow blocked, regained the ball and continued to amble down the left touchline. Incredibly, keeper Ed de Goey charged out of his area and tried to tackle Kanu near the corner flag. As de Goey came at him left foot first, Kanu jabbed the ball with his right foot against his own left ankle so that it bounced up and hit his right knee. Desailly was by now running back to cover the near post. The Nigerian then took a very delicate touch with his right foot as Leboeuf also ran back to cover the goal. This set-up touch was perfect, but he was a yard inside the penalty area and a yard from the goal-line. It was a hugely unfavourable angle, but Kanu hit a tremendous curving shot which flashed past the two French defenders.

What a moment! What a goal! What a player! What an electrifying hat-trick! Chelsea 2 Kanu 3!

Was this the greatest hat-trick in Arsenal’s history? Kanu had turned the game upside down. When all seemed lost, he had scored three goals in the last sixteen minutes to put Arsenal second in the table, one point behind Leeds.

It’s a real regret to me that Arsenal have not yet played to their full potential in the Champions League. We need to establish the club as one of the top teams in that league.
Arsene Wenger

Arsenal-Fiorentina was the crunch game of the club’s 1999/2000 European campaign, and it looked like being a tight, low-scoring chess match. ‘They play quite deep and wait for the right moment to strike,’ said Wenger. ‘I expect to be under pressure, but only for short spells, and then it is intense. They are like snakes, they have spurts and in five minutes they can kill you.’

He admitted that his team had yet to earn recognition among the European elite. `It’s a real regret to me that Arsenal have not yet played to their full potential in the Champions League. We need to establish the club as one of the top teams in that league. Historically, that’s what the club is missing. You are not a great team until you have done that.’

Wenger might have been expecting to be under pressure, but his players had won most of the important duels in Florence: Overmars had baffled Angelo di Livio, Keown had dominated Batistuta, and Luzhny had overpowered the fiery Jorg Heinrich.

Moreover, Barcelona’s pace had been in midfield, Fiorentina’s pace was in attack, so the Italians were more conventional – with the exception of Gabriel Batistuta, a shoot-from-anywhere centre-forward who always goes for power, not placement. His Italian record was 134 goals in 219 league games.

On the night, Batistuta scored with what seemed to be his third kick of the match. His first, a nasty late tackle after two minutes, almost broke Lee Dixon’s ankle. His second, after 48 minutes, was a ridiculous overhead kick which sailed six yards over the bar. Then, in the 75th minute, the Argentinian scored the goal that knocked Arsenal out of the Champions League.

The move that brought the goal justified Fiorentina’s defensive strategy in the match. Vieira broke forward powerfully and promisingly but was tackled by Firicano. Adani hit a crossfield pass, Rui Costa laid it back to Chiesa, who found Heinrich just inside his own half, and Heinrich broke past Vivas and ran straight down the middle of the field as Rui Costa’s run took Keown wide on the right. As Heinrich swerved past Adams, Batistuta was hovering onside and wide of Winterburn, on the corner of the penalty area. He stopped the pass with his right foot, and touched it forward instantly with his left, so that the ball went seven yards forward and he had to race Winterburn for it.

When Batistuta spurted past Winterburn, he was flying, like Colin Jackson going over the last hurdle in an Olympic final, and he knew he was going to shoot if he got there first. He was stretching but he lashed a volcanic shot through Seaman and high into the far side of the net. It was an awesome example of centre forward play, one of those special moments where an athlete suddenly has access to all his talent, all his power, all his training, all his experience, all his ambition, and he is able to make a mark in the memory.

The whole move was superb – the dribble by Heinrich, the pass to Batistuta, the audacity and precision of the set-up touch, the electric movement. And the goal was astounding because of the velocity of the shot, the narrow angle and the fact that at the time the game was balanced on a knife-edge. It was the greatest goal I have ever seen in a one-goal game.

Afterwards, the articulate Wenger for once struggled to explain Arsenal’s failure. He seemed dazed, like a boxer doing an interview ten minutes after being knocked out.

`We lost,’ he said. `We don’t know why, but we lost. That’s the reality now. We can’t change it and we have to cope with that.’

So Wenger was still the manager of the biggest medium-sized club in Europe, still frustrated, still just one elusive goal away from joining the big boys.

There were still eight weeks to go until Christmas, and the big story from now on would be the success or failure of his record signing Thierry Henry, who was only a sub in Arsenal’s first four Champions League games and an unused sub in the fifth.

Quite simply, Wenger now needed to concentrate on making sure he got a return on Henry, his £8.5 million investment. If Thierry Henry did not score goals, Arsenal might not be in next season’s Champions League.

Freddie did not butt me. I don’t know how he has been sent off for that. I have no problem telling the FA this.
David Ginola

Referees have a very difficult job now that television proves them wrong so often. Wenger very rarely adds to the barrage of abuse, but in the game at White Hart Lane on 17 November David Elleray made two big mistakes, and the manager must have despaired when the Harrow teacher sent off two of his players.

He had picked Kanu with Bergkamp again, prompting fans to wonder why he had signed Suker and given him the number nine shirt if he was not going to play him. Suker was the only centre-forward at the club. Did Wenger now think the Croatian was a twenty-minute player?

Spurs took an early lead when Iversen scored after seven minutes, and Arsenal were losing the key duels. Overmars was well contained by Carr, while Bergkamp was pushing up on Campbell, asking for the ball to feet, backing in, turning, beating him occasionally, but never getting near enough to the goal to do any damage. Then, during a bout of argy-bargy near the touchline, a coin was thrown from the crowd and it hit Ginola. Astonishingly, Elleray then sent Ljungberg off for a headbutt on Ginola that did not happen.`Freddie did not butt me,’ Ginola said afterwards. `I don’t know how he has been sent off for that. I have no problem telling the FA this. I was just looking at what was going on and I was then hit in the face by something.’

The referee got it wrong again when he gave Keown his first yellow card. Sherwood had played a bad pass to Ginola and the Frenchman was not going for it as Keown made his challenge. Keown did not tackle Ginola from behind because Ginola was never between him and the ball. He was adjacent to the ball, which Keown played. There was probably slight contact, so Ginola dived, trying to con the crowd and the referee. When Elleray, standing only six yards away, called this a foul, Tony Adams and Bergkamp both complained vehemently. Elleray had made the game a farce. Next day, of course, there were big headlines: Arsenal’s 26 red cards under Wenger.

Like most managers, Arsene Wenger lives each game, and the preparations for each game, but for him every match is part of a sequence, a bigger picture. He thinks about the British game, the European game, the global game, and how football reflects the way society is going. However, like any manager, his mood becomes more expansive after a big win. So after Arsenal hammered Middlesbrough 5-1 at Highbury the ideas flowed out of him just as the passes and shots flowed out of his team. He hit some bullseyes when he talked about the stylistic evolution of the Arsenal attack in the post-Anelka period, and how performances depend a lot on fitness. He admitted that the two Dutchmen often perform below their maximum when they were carrying minor injuries.

Since late 1997 it had been apparent that Wenger loved a certain style of football, a dynamic way of playing which depended on early passes and explosive acceleration. So, day by day, week by week, he had built and tested an Arsenal machine that could win the ball and score two seconds later. He prepared his team to play technical power football, always hoping for the days when they would produce a ninety-minute goalfest like the performance against Middlesbrough, where he saw Overmars score three goals and Bergkamp two. It was an exhibition of fast, skilful, precise, penetrating football.

Dennis Bergkamp played his best match since the FA Cup semi-final against Manchester United seven months earlier, making the first goal, scoring the next two and winning the penalty for the fourth.

So I kicked off the press conference by asking Wenger about the Dutchmen. Had they found another mood, another level, today?

“Yes, they played very well, but I think overall it was a very good team performance. And I’m very happy for them that they scored because they missed that a little bit. We had a good creative game today – good passing, the right concentration for nearly ninety minutes. We lost it a little bit at the beginning of the second half when we were under a little bit of pressure and lost our game, but I’m quite happy that we had a good, creative game for eighty minutes. The challenge is to repeat it.”

Best performance so far this season?

“Over ninety minutes, defensively and offensively, yes. I think we had some quite good games this season, but we could never put together defensive concentration and offensive efficiency. For example, against Barcelona, at home, I personally believe that going forward we were outstanding, but defensively we were very poor.”

Pleased with Dennis today?

“Yes, I’m pleased with his runs. It was maybe the first game when he had so many runs forward, behind the defenders. And he looked really sharp going forward. That’s why I’m pleased. Because he looks like he has changed his game, and is playing really to go behind the defenders. The mixture he had today, between coming off the ball and running behind the defenders, was right.”

Bergkamp often plays too deep and does not vary his game enough, so I could not resist the obvious question: `Have you asked him to do that?’

“Yes. He wants to do that as well. He’s an intelligent player, and he adapts his game to his physical potential. So when he had some problems at the beginning of the season, and was not feeling as sharp as he is at the moment, he came deeper for the ball. When we don’t play so well as a team he doesn’t get as many balls behind the defenders, so he comes and tries to build up the game. And last year he was always in a situation where we wanted him to come to the ball, and Nicolas to go behind the defender. And this year we try to mix that with Kanu, and that takes some time as well.”

This was a very significant point. Wenger had just admitted that he had asked Bergkamp to make more runs behind the defence in Anelka’s absence because he could do that better than Kanu.

Basically, August through to November had been a period of transition in which Wenger had had to decide whether to play Suker or Kanu at centre-forward. He had looked at both and played both and decided on the younger Kanu.

Wenger said that everybody at the club felt they had lost some games they should not have lost. `But I think the team realised that they have to show more concentration. Look at our season. We lost at West Ham but we should have won. We won at Chelsea but we were 2-0 down. And we were 2-0 down at Tottenham after twenty minutes. So we are missing something. I think that is down to concentration sometimes. Not the right concentration when you start the game – maybe you think it will be easier than it is. And I believe that the English Premier League is every year more difficult.’

Bergkamp’s best game of the season?

“Difficult to say. He had a very good game against Barcelona. But it’s the game where he got what I want from him right. That means his runs, the way he balanced his game, was maybe the best, yes. That’s what we miss a little bit. So it gets easier for the defenders to push in on every player if they know that you don’t go in behind them. So it’s easy for them to hold the line if you don’t make the runs.”

Wenger almost always talks moderately, never over-reacting, never exaggerating, even when the adrenalin is flowing after matches. He is a natural teacher, always supportive, always encouraging, but always patiently demanding more from his players. Here he had an almost tangible aura of satisfaction about him because, having seen Bergkamp outpace a defence as Anelka used to do, he seemed to be halfway towards solving the biggest problem in his team.

The five goals were proof that this was the best his side had ever played without Patrick Vieira. The key point was that Bergkamp and Overmars had pulled their fingers out because Vieira was not playing. They knew they had to do the business. Necessity was the mother of Dutch invention.

The five goals were also excellent preparation for the start of a fresh European campaign, for the UEFA Cup now beckoned, if Arsenal were really up for it. Eight of the 32 Champions League clubs had now been eliminated from Europe, including AC Milan, and another eight third-placed clubs had parachuted into the 32-team third round of the UEFA Cup in an absurd new format. This gave Arsenal a chance to play at Highbury and redeem themselves with a few victories.

There were five Italian clubs in the UEFA Cup – Juventus, Parma, Roma, Udinese and Bologna – and four Spanish clubs – Celta Vigo, Atle÷tico Madrid, Deportivo La Corunœa and Real Mallorca – so Arsenal were quite fortunate when they drew Nantes, who were second from bottom in the French league and had lost their last six games. This virtually guaranteed another four games in Europe.

Arsenal beat Nantes 3-0 at Highbury on 25 November, although the result was better than the performance. On the Sunday, for the Derby County match, Bergkamp and Henry were partners again for the first time since the Liverpool game at Anfield in August, when Arsenal had lost 2-0.
It was a big test for Henry, and when Dean Sturridge scored for Derby after two minutes he really was in the spotlight. Wenger had left Kanu and Suker on the bench so that Henry could start, but now Arsenal were losing at home and the pressure had doubled. Any chance he missed now would trigger a groan twice as loud as those which had accompanied his misses in previous games. After eleven minutes Overmars made a speedy run from inside his own half and saw Henry making a run from right to left, so he passed forward and Henry hit a first-time shot across Mart Poom and just inside the post, a beautiful finish. So the score was 1-1 and we began to realise that Wenger’s changes were not rotation, but an admission that the Bergkamp-Kanu partnership had not really worked against Nantes.

Henry’s pace had already elongated the game, forcing Derby to sit back more than they would have done against Kanu, and that gave Petit room to dictate the play, which he did in magnificent style. Overmars spurted forward again and found Henry, who took one touch into the box and fired across Poom for 2-1. So Thierry Henry came good at last and won the fans over. But was it a flash in the pan? Could Henry replace Anelka as a striker who terrorised Premiership defences every Saturday?

What Wenger calls `our game’ is a very fast, precise passing game which is based on explosive choreography, a game which, for the sake of convenience, we might call `Bergkamp football’. The Derby match was a return to Bergkamp football: direct, dynamic, penetrating attacks. The fact that Bergkamp had a stinker was ironic, but Overmars and Petit played Bergkamp football on a day when Dennis did not.

Only three weeks earlier Wenger had told us that Henry could not time his runs, so his best position `at the moment’ was on the wing. The $64,000 question now was: Can Henry score regularly? Arsenal’s attack often failed because the movement was not varied enough and if the attack was to be consistently effective Henry would have to improve his off-the-ball movement.

The Derby game was only the second time Wenger had selected Thierry Henry as Bergkamp’s strike partner and he had scored two goals. After four months of experimenting he had at last found his best pair of strikers. But, this being football, as soon as something goes right, something else goes wrong. Bergkamp had gone off with a calf injury and would miss the next eight Premiership games, so Kanu partnered Henry in five of those games. Bergkamp did not partner Henry again till February.

The return leg against Nantes on 9 December was really an appendix to the first leg rather than a proper second leg, and the game turned into an entertaining battle which finished 3-3. Wenger was angry with his team for not taking it seriously enough. Their next game would be at home to La Liga leaders Deportivo La Corunœa, who were like a Spanish Dynamo Kiev: well organised and technically sound in midfield and defence, giving very little away.

Then, on Monday, 13 December, Arsenal met Blackpool in the third round of the FA Cup. The date was an innovation everyone hated, since the third round had always been played on the first Saturday of January. Blackpool were third from bottom in Nationwide Division Two, and after fifteen minutes it was a massacre, but still goalless. Blackpool struggled to cope with Arsenal’s pace, skill and movement and Arsenal struggled to cope with ninety per cent possession. Then, after 23 minutes, Overmars squared the ball to Grimandi who hit a fine shot into the bottom corner, his third goal in three matches. Phil Clarkson equalised, but Adams and Overmars soon made it 3-1. Oleg Luzhny, at centre-back between Dixon and Adams, covered well, headed solidly, passed accurately and ran confidently with the ball when space opened up for him. It was a successful experiment.

Thierry Henry was improving with every game, and he scored in a 1-1 draw with Wimbledon on 18 December, although that was little consolation for the loss of two vital points. However, a quick scan of the Arsenal teamsheet reveals that failure was almost inevitable.

The side was : Manninger; Dixon, Grimandi, Luzhny, Winterburn; Overmars, Ljungberg, Petit, Silvinho; Kanu and Henry. The enforced changes had broken up all the vital partnerships which cemented the side together. There were five key partnerships in this Arsenal team: Seaman-Adams, Bergkamp-Overmars, Bergkamp-Parlour, Adams-Keown and Petit-Vieira. This match was the first time all five of those partnerships were missing from the team. It was the dodgiest team Wenger had ever fielded in the Premiership.

From  The Professor 2008