February 2nd 2002 was a pretty non-descript day in the History of Football, or indeed the history of anything – Prince Willem -Alexander of Orange, heir to the Dutch throne got married, Euro-Monarchy Fans will tell you (and, er… wikipedia) – but that aside, Manchester United stayed atop of the Premier League with a 4-1 win against Sunderland, with Newcastle just behind after beating Bolton, and Arsenal dropped seemingly crucial points at home against Southampton, 1-1. Despite breaking the record for scoring in consecutive Premier League games, they were now sat on 48 points, 3 behind United and 1 behind Newcastle, with the title now in the Geordies’ hands.
The press were gnawing at the absence of a “real leader” at the back: three of The Back Four (Lee Dixon, Steve Bould and Nigel Winterburn) had left and the other (Tony Adams) was out injured, leaving Sol Campbell to hold together a backline that – Oleg Luzhny, Matthew Upson and Ashley Cole – looks better than decent now, but was raw and uncertain back then. Whilst all the big prizes were still ‘on’, they seemed to be slipping away. Jo Tessem’s 79th minute equaliser had summed up the situation – Arsenal’s away form had been sensational, but they had picked up just over half of the available points on offer at home (19/36), and had lost to title rivals (Newcastle, Leeds), as well as a Jason Euell inspired Charlton.
Despite the atrocious performances of late autumn 2001, a Manchester United side looking for 4 successive titles had stormed to pole position, and with Sir Bobby Robson’s Newcastle also flying high, Arsenal were in danger of falling away. Or so, it seemed, before one of the Greatest Title Charges in history.
Thirteen games, thirteen wins. It started slowly, with a fortunate Sylvain Wiltord (back then Arsenal’s record signing at £13m) goal looping past Steve Simonsen at Goodison Park, before sparkling into life. A comfortable win over Fulham led to a crunch game at St James’s Park – Newcastle went into the game 2 points behind Arsenal with a game in hand, in the knowledge that victory in this and that game in hand would take them top of the table, Arsenal needed a win to keep pace with the Champions – enter Dennis Bergkamp and Sol Campbell. The latter was superb at the back, snuffing out the threat of Shearer, Laurent Robert and co before crowning an exceptionally mature display with a powerful header; whereas the dutchman silenced The Gallowgate with a moment of either intricate, delicate genius, or remarkable fortune. After taking a pass from Vieira, he slung it out wide to Pires with a lazy precision so typical of his style, before sprinting feverishly forward, seeing the chance for a counter. Pires, carrying the ball forward under little pressure from his marker, cut inside and passed it towards Bergkamp, now back to goal, given a half yard of space to work in, nothing more. With his back to the covering centre half, Nikos Dabizas, he glanced it beautifully, left footed around the right hand side of the greek with his first touch, before swivelling around the left side of Dabizas, holding him off and sliding the ball past Shay Given with a serene insouciance. Did he mean such a magnificent first touch? If he didn’t, who cares?
Following that 2-0 win Arsenal strode mercilessly on, squeaking past Derby County to go briefly top, and after wins at Villa Park, at home against Sunderland and away at Charlton, went top once and for all. On April 1st they went top, and on top they stayed. Monstrous efforts from United and a resurgent Liverpool side under Gerard Houllier (Liverpool won 13 of their last 15 games, United 17 out of 20 going into the final week), couldn’t stop Arsenal sweeping all before them, and even though United had a run of five very tough away games out of six (West Ham, Leeds, Chelsea as well as Leicester and Ipswich, scrapping for their lives), and won them all – 5-3 at Upton Park and 4-3 at Elland Road were both hum-dingers – it was not enough to even guarantee a place in the top 2, such was the amazing form of the other two. Whilst Arsenal kept on flying through their fixtures (Robert Pires, soon to be named FWA Footballer of the Year, was in astonishing form, along with Thierry Henry and Freddie Ljungberg), with wins against Spurs, Ipswich, West Ham (late Ljungberg and Kanu strikes put the title two wins away) and Bolton (Ljungberg again, and Wiltord), three major results went in their favour:
The day after Campbell and Bergkamp thwarted Newcastle’s challenge, United dropped two crucial points at Derby to put Arsenal into The Driving Seat. United could only move one point clear, and they were lucky to get that after a Malcolm Christie goal was curiously ruled out in the last minute. The second was the Champions losing at home to Middlesbrough, an Alen Boksic sidefoot was created expertly by Juan Sebastian Veron… who was playing for United, and losing concentration on the edge of his own box. United couldn’t break Boro down, and Arsenal were given the perfect pick-me up after their Champions League exit. United were now one point ahead of Arsenal, but the gunners had two games in hand, and, as we know in hindsight, won them. With United all but out of it – a do-or-die game against Arsenal at Old Trafford was awaiting, but we’ll get to that later – Liverpool were left chasing down the to-be Champions. That was before Tottenham all but sealed the deal for Arsenal. Gus Poyet’s goal left a dent in the hopes of a Liverpool side hitherto flying under Gerard Houllier – the previous season’s treble (not The Treble, a treble) had raised hopes and a talented side including Michael Owen (before he got injured), a raw but exciting Steven Gerrard and Danny “Three Winners at Old Trafford” Murphy were pushing Arsenal hard. After this game, those hopes completely faded. Arsenal needed a point to be Champions, and they could do it at Old Trafford.
They did, and in style. Neutering the Champions’ threat completely, they kept up their record of scoring in every single game, ten minutes into the second half, with another goal from that man Wiltord. After holding on comfortably, Arsenal’s joyous players celebrated with the travelling support, as this win secured Wenger’s second league title, and both had included 1-0 wins at Old Trafford, right at the end of the season. With thirteen straight wins after a last win over Everton, Arsenal celebrated the double, with having gone the whole season without losing a game away from home.
The Aftermath – Why is it half-forgotten?
As usual in football, subsequent events can tarnish, to a certain extent, glories of the past. The very next season, Arsenal went on to lose the title dramatically to United – another magnificent run (15 wins from 18 games) – and a rather strange collapse (they lost at home to Leeds in the penultimate game, who avoided relegation. Just.) has rather taken the glow off this particular title charge, as the season is often remembered as “United’s Veron Season” rather than “Arsenal’s Charge Season”, because United won the title the next year, and the three previous, making 2001-02 seem like simply a blip. A Veron/Laurent Blanc induced blip. Furthermore, as Arsenal then went on to go a season unbeaten, this charge – until last season the most consecutive wins by any Premier League team, ever – is almost a precede to that triumph, rather one in its own right. “The Curse Of The One In The Middle”, as anyone with older and younger siblings might argue, also comes into effect. The first title (1997-8, for Wenger’s Arsenal) is the sweetest, the most recent is the most memorable… and, oh yeah, there’s the other one.