Arsenal were 52 seconds into life after Thierry Henry when the first discernible signs of panic showed themselves. It was the simplest ball, slipped by Gael Clichy back to his goalkeeper Jens Lehmann, but which the German promptly tripped over, presenting a straightforward tap-in for Fulham debutant David Healy.
As Healy wheeled away in surprise, Arsenal simply scratched their heads, and the distress flares screeched high above the Emirates into the N5 sky.
Of course, Lehmann’s fumble had nothing directly to do with Henry’s departure, and neither did a repeat performance seven days later at Blackburn, when he dropped a David Dunn shot through his hands to gift the home side a draw in a game Arsenal had dominated.
These were the first difficult days following the end of a dynasty, though, and every movement the club made on and off the pitch was coming under massive, un-relenting scrutiny.
Lehmann’s position in the team didn’t survive the season. After Blackburn he started only four more Premier League games in 2007/08 and a few weeks after the season’s end he was quietly released, to no discernible fanfare or ceremony, just disappearing stoically from the scene.
Days later the Brazilian Gilberto Silva followed, still only 31 but allowed to join Greek side Panathinaikos for a song at £1 million. Suddenly one looked around the Arsenal team and saw, good players certainly, but no longer a great side; little, if anything, had survived from 2004’s title win. By 2008 the dismantling of Arsenal looked to be complete.
This is 2016, though, and there have been changes since the last of the Invincibles hopped on the last tube out of Holloway Road and rode off into the sunset.
There is cause for optimism here again, in spite of the reservations still held, understandably, by swaths of fans. Per Transfermarkt, £96 million has been spent in this transfer window and the squad is stronger, deeper and equipped to go toe-to-toe with the Premier League’s heaviest spenders, despite making a shaky start off the back of a tricky schedule.
The problem with assessing the current Arsenal side is that the narrative tends to race away from the reality. Recent history weighs heavy on Gunners fans, but the selling-club mentality that once stalked them is in the past. Interpretations are what have been slow to catch up.
After Patrick Vieira left the club in the summer of 2005, the drop-off was instant. By the end of that season Arsenal had completed a 35-point turnaround at the top of the Premier League table—from 11 points ahead in 2004 to 24 behind in 2006—and the Gunners entered a brief crisis period.
The team suffered psychologically from the loss of Vieira, a malaise which was to continue into the following season, finishing 21 points off the pace as Dennis Bergkamp, Robert Pires, Ashley Cole, Sol Campbell and Lauren all left at the season’s conclusion. That left only Kolo Toure, Freddie Ljungberg, Lehmann, Gilberto and Henry from the side that had played any major role in the last title win.
And this is precisely where Arsenal’s problems over the last decade can be traced to. Between 2004 and 2008 the team was decimated. Some left because it was just their time, others had ambitions that turned their heads and led them to new clubs.
But the problem was not that a team of great players got older, developed new ambitions and moved on. In that sense, football changes the way life changes. The problem was that the pace of the changes out-stripped the club’s means to adapt, leaving them without a chance to properly usher in a new generation.
Last summer Henry talked on Sky Sports about what he found at Arsenal when he arrived at the club in 1999. “Those guys [the longtime back-four of Tony Adams, Steve Bould, Nigel Winterburn and Lee Dixon] taught me what it was to be at Arsenal and to play for Arsenal. It’s massive. All those guys before they left, they gave us that. [Afterwards] we made it our Arsenal team and our Arsenal way, but they gave us that.”
Those players who joined the club from 2006 onwards, instead of finding a group of older hands who knew the club and had experienced success there, found themselves walking into a fire-sale, with no-one left to transmit that sense of club that Henry talks about.
The result was that good players—Alex Hleb, Bacary Sagna, Andrey Arshavin, Eduardo, Alex Song and Samir Nasri—struggled to lay down roots, the kind of roots that ultimately lead to title-winning chemistry between clubs, players and fans. These players arrived at a time when the Arsenal party was petering out, and never seemed to believe in the club as a result.
To put the crisis into some kind of context, at the time of his leaving the club in 2014, Johan Djourou was Arsenal’s longest-serving player, having made just 86 appearances for the first team in eight years since his debut. Twelve seasons of under-achievement can be traced to this broad pattern.
The last few years, though, have seen a gradual return to something approaching an identity at the club. There are players here now who have a history with Arsenal. Not an illustrious one, yet, but there are miles on the clock right through this team.
Laurent Koscielny, Per Mertesacker, Santi Cazorla, Kieran Gibbs, Theo Walcott and Olivier Giroud; all have copped their share of criticism, much of it earned, but this is recognisably the core of Arsenal, and for the first time in a decade there feels like a stable, permanent nucleus to which new blood can look in order to learn something about what the red-and-white shirt means.
Whatever that something is, we can be sure it’s changed since the days when Henry, Pires and Co. took over at Highbury from the rugged, English core of the 1990s. Today the place has a cosmopolitan twist that would have looked alien to Adams when he made his debut in 1983, but which has found form with Mertesacker having inherited the armband and the Emirates Stadium having inherited the club.
It’s a new, different kind of Arsenal; usually exciting, sometimes vulnerable, but a marked improvement on the troubled years of the late 00s when the place felt like a vacuum.
Crucially, also, the arrivals of Mesut Ozil, Alexis Sanchez and Granit Xhaka in the last three seasons have re-established Arsenal as a player in the market for the world’s best players, not a feeder club for those with greater ambition.
Taken this way, there is much to be positive about in assessing the latest transfer activity. There is quality on the end of Arsene Wenger’s summer spending spree, and these players will have a genuine shot at building something lasting at the club, now that there is something to build around.
This is a strange time in the world transfer market; one where no-one is quite sure what kinds of figures represent good value; one where a World Cup-winning defender, an 18-goal striker from LaLiga and a £38.5 million ball-player can still leave fans doubting whether good business has been done, and whether this represents title-winning ambition.
But Xhaka is one of the best players in Europe at moving the ball, while Lucas Perez and Shkodran Mustafi have done enough in their careers to deserve a crack at the Premier League summit. Now they must seize it.
Whether these players will be good enough to take Arsenal to the title is a matter of conjecture, and not one to be decided here. It falls into the same category as whether or not Michy Batshuayi and Marcos Alonso will be able to do the same for Chelsea, or whether the volumes of Pep Guardiola’s tactical logbook will get him through his first season managing in a league where there are seven or eight sides that can compete with his team, not one or two.
For all the riches being flung here and there, the one thing they cannot buy is that certainty.
There are no certainties this season at Arsenal for sure, but there is once again something to build a future around.