Old Trafford hosts us on Monday night, with the fixture draped in fiery controversy.
A ground that isn’t fondly remembered by any, and arguably the venue for the destruction of one of Arsenal’s brightest ever young talents.
Visits to Old Trafford in 1990/91 and 2003/04 seasons had, respectively, seen points deductions and the biggest ever fine handed out by The FA.
Manchester United’s conduct in October 2004, however, was never dealt with.
The following season saw Arsenal go to Old Trafford having gone 49 games unbeaten.
The physical tactics employed by Manchester United had the desired affect of ending Arsenal’s record run, and none felt it more so than José Antonio Reyes.
Reyes had enjoyed one hell of a start to his Arsenal career.
An own goal at Middlesbrough arguably came to sum up his time at the club better, but he went on to announce himself with a thunderbolt against Chelsea in the FA Cup.
With Thierry Henry missing and Arsenal behind, Reyes stepped up and scored two goals. Another goal against Chelsea saw Arsenal take the lead in that ill-fated Champions League quarter-final, but it was already clear how much Arsène Wenger trusted the Spaniard.
After the side had clinched the league title Reyes helped us complete our unbeaten season with an equaliser in a lacklustre 1-1 draw at Portsmouth, before scoring the only goal in a 1-0 win against Fulham.
He had been signed halfway through that 2003/04 campaign, with Arsène Wenger saying:
“I bought him in January because I know you need six months to adapt, so he should be ready for next season and show how good a player he is.”
The Arsenal manager wasn’t wrong.
A good pre-season was followed up by a dazzling Community Shield performance. The BBC report from that day hailed the performance of a young man –“The mercurial Spaniard was a thorn in United’s side.”
A goal and assist, as well as a glorious dribble from which he could’ve scored a classic goal, may well have been his downfall, warning United of his talent.
Five goals followed in the first five Premier League games of the season, with Reyes scoring and assisting in perhaps my favourite ever game – a 5-3 win over Middlesbrough to equal Nottingham Forest’s record of 42 games unbeaten.
After Reyes’ 60-yard pass had helped Henry give Arsenal the lead, Arsenal found themselves trailing 3-1 after 52 minutes. Just 13 minutes later Reyes rifled a right foot effort into the far post to give Arsenal a 4-3 lead. The stadium erupted. Arsenal fans had a new hero.
Reyes came off the bench to cap a record breaking 3-0 win over Blackburn just days later. Arsenal had gone unbeaten longer than any side in the history of English football.
A goal in the 4-1 defeat of Norwich followed, and Reyes’ incredible form reached new heights in the next game at Craven Cottage. Lucky to be drawing 0-0, Reyes replaced Robert Pires. He had an instant impact, turning defence into attack as Freddie Ljungberg scored on the break. Reyes had a hand in a second goal before completing a 3-0 win.
A small dip followed – to be expected after such a start – but Reyes soon picked up again, assisting Henry three times in games against Charlton and Aston Villa, before a sumptuous flicked through ball right out of Dennis Bergkamp’s repertoire saw Ljungberg net against Panathinaikos.
Ten starts (two sub appearances), seven goals, five assists.
Crash, bang, wallop
Then along with Arsenal’s unbeaten run, Reyes came crashing back down to earth.
When he got up, he was put on the floor again.
Messrs Scholes, Neville, and Neville knew exactly what they were doing.
Paul Scholes had already done it in the FA Cup semi-final in 2004, and Gary Neville has more or less admitted to underhand tactics, yet shows no remorse:
“I knew above all that I had to get physical. I had to make Reyes lose his confidence.
“If there were question marks about him…they were over his temperament. It was my job to expose that weakness.”
In his autobiography Neville talks of one occasion where, after being nutmegged by Reyes, he “went through him” but blames the Spaniard entirely for his own lack of success, saying he “wasn’t tough enough to take it”, he “couldn’t properly handle the rough and tumble”.
Reyes’ decline proved Neville right.
But why should a player have to ‘take it’? Reyes was lucky to escape those games with Manchester United without suffering a serious injury, and it’s no wonder he was intimidated with the referee not prepared to take appropriate action to protect the players.
Reyes’ decline in form coincided with a controversial incident with Spain manager Luis Aragonés.
Just weeks before the visit to Old Trafford, Aragonés was caught on camera making racist remarks about Arsenal talisman Thierry Henry, telling Reyes he was far better than the Frenchman. Left in an awkward position that was never his fault, reports spoke of a fall out between Reyes and Henry; an awkward friction in the dressing room. Reyes had hailed Thierry Henry as the world’s best yet Aragonés told him to believe himself more, including racial comments against Henry.
That, however, had never affected the form of Reyes prior to the game in Manchester.
Nine league starts and nearly four months followed, without Reyes netting in the Premier League. A goal in the rout of Crystal Palace changed that, but the damage had already been done.
Reyes scored the goal following a tough week, and Henry praised his character. Early in February, Reyes had been caught out during a prank phonecall with Spanish radio station Cadena COPE, where he thought he was speaking to Real Madrid’s sporting director Emiliano Butragueno. He practically begged Madrid to sign him, citing issues with teammates and a disillusioned time in England.
As Robin van Persie improved, and Henry and Bergkamp were playing, Reyes was played wide more often than not. That hadn’t troubled him before, but did stifle any fledgling partnership with Arsenal’s main man.
Reyes went on to end the season with the winner in a North London Derby and a goal in a win over Liverpool but still looked a shadow of the player who had lit English football alight in August.
The FA Cup Final saw Reyes sent off in the closing stages, as he fouled Cristiano Ronaldo. A sorry season ended with a red card against a direct rival – with their similar ages and arrivals at the elite clubs in England, Ronaldo and Reyes were always compared.
What could have been.
New contract, same disillusionment
Claims that Reyes was unhappy were silenced when he penned a new 6-year deal in July 2005, but his Arsenal career never got going again.
Despite living here with his parents and brother there were always reports that Reyes was unhappy with life in England, and his class could only shine through sporadically in the 2005/06 campaign.
Four assists in a demolition of Middlesbrough were probably the highlight, but Reyes only scored six goals in forty-three appearances in what was his last season at Arsenal.
An outlet in the counter-attacking team which went to the Champions League Final, Reyes started eight of the nine games leading up to the Final, only to be dropped for the game in Paris.
His career since has simply never gone where it should have.
Always with exciting spells, but never consistency, José Antonio Reyes never lived up to his potential.
We were only ever lucky enough to catch glimpses of what he could have become.
The problems with life in England, never settling, a reported rift with Thierry Henry.
All things contributing and discussed as affecting Reyes’ unsuccessful time at Arsenal.
Zinedine Zidane asked a 19-year-old Reyes whether or not he was playing on an invisible motorbike as he tore through Real Madrid, his Sevilla side winning 4-1 against the famous ‘Galacticos’.
At an even younger age, Reyes scored at least 7 goals in an 18-1 demolition of a youth team which contained none other than Sergio Ramos.
For anyone with 20+ assists, nobody has laid on a goal more frequently than Reyes in Premier League history.
His disjointed performances saw him average just 64 minutes on the pitch for each Premier League appearance he made. Adding his 16 goals to his assist record, Reyes contributed to a Premier League goal every 119 minutes he was on the pitch.
His last Arsenal appearance came before he turned 23.
This wasn’t a grown man performing at his peak, but the career of a young star. A career that should have reached incredible heights, but didn’t take off following the way he was treated on that afternoon at Old Trafford.
An overlooked and maybe even forgotten contributor to the unbeaten run, José Antonio Reyes perhaps embodies ‘the Invincibles’ better than anyone: his time at the very top was far too brief.