Just over 11 years ago, a last minute Jens Lehmann penalty save booked Arsenal’s place in the final of the Champions League for the first time in the club’s history.
It seemed like a logical next step for a club whose transformation under Arsene Wenger was complete. From double winners to invincibles, and the next stop was surely European glory, too. Even if Barcelona, with some of the world’s best players in Ronaldinho, Deco and Samuel Eto’o stood in their way.
After all, Arsenal had made the final against all the odds. Beating Real Madrid in the Bernabeu wasn’t just a fantastic result, it was also one achieved with Mathieu Flamini at left-back and a centre-back pairing of Kolo Toure and Philippe Senderos. With Thierry Henry, though, anything was possible. They may have ‘won ugly’, but perhaps that made them believe all the more.
In the end, an early red card for Jens Lehmann probably thwarted the Gunners’ chances, even if Arsene Wenger’s men took the lead and almost held out in Paris.
But if there was a charge that could be levelled at Arsenal – even back then, over a decade ago – it was that they could be too nice. The free-flowing, champagne football was a far cry from the old George Graham days, where one-nil to the Arsenal was embedded into the culture of the club. They had been successful with their new identity, too.
Very successful, actually. A new stadium was on the way, scheduled to open its doors the very next season, and a Champions League triumph would have been more than a fitting way to close the curtain on the Highbury era. Even though Manchester United were recent treble-winners and capitalising on that to become one of the richest clubs in the world, Arsenal were their natural rivals, and the future looked bright.
We all know what happened next. The arrival at the Emirates Stadium was a difficult transition for the club, who spend the guts of the next decade feeding off scraps and finishing fourth just to guarantee Champions League football. The atmosphere at the new stadium didn’t match the old ground, and neither did Arsenal’s football.
And yet, even having come out the other side of that cliched ‘transition period’, Arsenal are still possessing of all the same problems. Especially the label of being ‘too nice’.
We are not just a team that can win by playing good football. We can win by playing ugly, too.” – Thierry Henry before the 2006 Champions League final
The Arsenal side who were winning Premier League titles at the turn of the Millennium weren’t too nice at all. With Martin Keown, Tony Adams, Lee Dixon and Nigel Winterburn already in place, Wengers additions of Lehmann, Patrick Vieira and Gilberto Silva at various points over the years show that the French boss liked more than a bit of steel in his defence.
For all the beautiful, fast-paced, attacking football for which Arsenal had become known, it was a solidity and a ferocity that underpinned Arsenal’s actual success under Wenger.
That’s what makes Thierry Henry’s insistence that Arsenal could ‘win by playing ugly, too’ all the more interesting.
Even though the Arsenal side, by 2006, had lost their most rough and ready characters, they did still have grafters in abundance. They had experience, too. Henry was the poster boy for a team that had lost quite a few of its Invincibles stars, and those still at the club were ageing by 2006. Dennis Bergkamp retired after the Champions League final, Freddie Ljungberg was being undone by injuries and Patrick Vieira had left for Juventus the previous summer. The names who arrived that summer now read like a mosaiced memorial of Wenger’s haplessness: Theo Walcott, Nicklas Bendtner, Abou Diaby, Alex Song….
In hindsight, the 2006 Champions League final looks like more of an aberration than it should. Arsenal, if they were going to get there, really should have done so before that season. By then, Wenger’s power was starting to slip. It had been two years since the club had last won the title, and the Vieira penalty that won the shootout and sealed victory for Arsenal was the end of an era in more ways than one: not only was it the Gunners legend’s last kick as an Arsenal player, but it was also the last time the club would win a trophy for nine years.
Henry was right, Arsenal could win ugly. But he was clinging onto an old Arsenal, and one that was slipping from the grasp of all the old trophy-laden Invincibles. Crucially, it was slipping from Wenger, too.
His teams in north London had always been able to compete at the physical side of the game. They had passion, steel and more than a little nastiness, and that was something that carried them far.