This week sees the start of the new Champions League season, with Arsenal travelling to Zagreb for the first group game.
It isn’t the first time Arsène Wenger has taken an Arsenal side to Zagreb, with the last visit coming in 2006 when Arsenal won 3-0 in the play-off round of the competition.
Of the current squad, only Tomas Rosicky and Mathieu Flamini were present that day. The latter left in 2008 only to return to north London six years later. Theo Walcott was an Arsenal player in August 2006 but, as a 17-year-old, hadn’t yet featured for the first-team.
This young side managed a strong title challenge just 12 months later and, having knocked out holders AC Milan, were more or less cheated out of a Champions League semi-final by referees and Liverpool. Between them, they never won a thing for Arsenal. What went wrong?
Here’s how the side, roughly, lined up that day back when Arsène Wenger had two mobile strikers and more than one complete midfield player.
The formation was completely fluid, Robin van Persie and Emmanuel Adebayor would alternate in dropping deep as well as running both channels. From midfield Fàbregas could orchestrate from deep or join attacks late, while Alex Hleb and new signing Tomas Rosicky would work hard defensively as well as using their incredible acceleration and close control to help Arsenal attack at pace and dominate the middle of the pitch.
Numbers only ruin people’s ideas of a team’s shape as they are more rigid than teams usually are, but they also make things easier to grasp. So let’s say Arsenal would play something of a narrow 4-4-2, which would sometimes look like a ‘diamond’ or 4-1-3-2 formation. It was fluid, fast and vibrant. With these players, Arsenal played some of the best football in the history of the club.
Manuel Almunia was between the posts instead of Jens Lehmann that night, and would go on to become a rather unreliable number one. If Arsenal 2006-2010 had a constant Achilles’ heel it was the goalkeeping position.
Kolo Touré was a supreme athlete; combative, fearless and good technically, the Arsenal defender was a rock at the back. Often he would be rash but had all the attributes of a top drawer centre-half. He was later partnered by William Gallas, who brought out the best in both him and, later, Thomas Vermaelen. However, Touré’s partner in Croatia was Johan Djourou. At the time Djourou was just 19 and could have gone on to be fantastic. Nights against Chelsea and Barcelona in the 2010/11 season underlined his ability but he could never show it consistently.
Emmanuel Eboué was soon to be replaced by Bacary Sagna, an incredibly reliable right-back and a brilliant defender who everyone knows enough about already. Justin Hoyte played in Zagreb and five months later became the first Englishman to score for Arsenal at the Emirates Stadium. 21-year-old Gaël Clichy was about to replace Ashley Cole as the first-choice left-back and was excellent for number of years, if prone to a lapse in concentration.
In Touré, Djourou, Clichy, Sagna, the absent Philippe Senderos and the soon-to-join William Gallas, Arsenal had a huge amount of talent at the back.
They, truly, could have had it all. Gilberto Silva, Alex Hleb, Tomas Rosicky and, the jewel of this young team, Cesc Fàbregas. Each and every one of them had the talent and intelligence to play for any side in the world.
Nearly a decade later and Arsenal haven’t replaced Gilberto at the base of the midfield. A giant and a genius, integral to the unbeaten season. His engine was incredible, his reading of the game exceptional, and his experience in this young side invaluable. After losing his place in the team, Gilberto was not offered a long-term deal by the club and departed in 2008. It was a costly mistake as Mathieu Flamini, seen as the deepest midfielder for this next generation midfield, ran down his contract and left for AC Milan the same summer.
Hleb and Rosicky played ‘from’ wide, rather than out wide. They made the Arsenal midfield completely fluid, but also didn’t shirk their defensive duties. Hleb had an incredible eye for a pass (and grabbed two assists in the game against Dinamo Zagreb), often contributing with the famed ‘pre-assist’. He also had wonderful balance, and could glide past players at ease, only to consistently release the ball at the right moment.
On the other side, Tomas Rosicky had recently been signed from Borussia Dortmund for a bargain £7m. He replaced the legendary Robert Pirès and, like Hleb, had a fantastic ability to dribble. Rosicky would also get into the box, posing a scoring threat from inside and outside of it. At 26 – the same age Pirès joined the club – he was hitting his best years, but never had the chance to make them count. The Czech midfielder, at 34, still has incredible energy and acceleration now, he was a nightmare to deal with back then.
Then there’s Cesc Fàbregas, who scored twice in Zagreb nine years ago. The Spaniard was 19 at the time and was making his 100th appearance for the Arsenal first team. Two years later he would be made Arsenal captain. Truthfully, this team was all about him. Everyone else was very good and had room to grow, but the Spaniard was world class as a teenager. The talisman of Wenger’s young generation, the hub of the team, and one of the greatest talents to ever play for our club.
Injury robbed us of Rosicky’s best years, Hleb and Fàbregas were tempted by the promised land of Camp Nou, but together with Gilberto and then Flamini they probably formed the most underrated Arsenal midfield of all time. To have three attack-minded players who could all speed up and slow down the game when necessary, could manipulate the shape of the opposition, and could time runs and passes to perfection is almost unthinkable but Arsenal had it. Power is overrated and, had the circumstances been different, this would have gone down as one of the best midfields English football has ever seen.
That talented midfield was behind two huge natural talents up front. Robin van Persie, raised by the idea of total football and the streets of Rotterdam went on to become one of the finest strikers in Arsenal history, despite a career which saw him battle injury after injury. Ignore his unceremonious departure and look back at the 2011/12 season.
The Dutchman literally had everything. He could play anywhere, a complete attacking player and one of the greatest of our time. In this Arsenal side he dropped deep and ran behind, doing the job of two strikers even though he had a partner. Truthfully, van Persie was a long way from his peak but he was already showing glimpses of what would come. Had fitness allowed he would have developed even further, even quicker, and who knows what would have happened? I would wager that he would have gotten close to Thierry Henry’s club record 228 goals, but that’s just speculation. This van Persie in 2006 had just turned 23 but already had everything, he just had to hone his skills.
Partnering him in Zagreb that night was Emmanuel Adebayor, about to embark on the best two seasons of his career. Again, Adebayor had everything but his major downfall was, basically, that he was insane. The striker was a supreme physical force and technically superb. Lacking only the intelligence of van Persie, which was more than made up for by pairing them, Adebayor was another player who could have set Arsenal records. If only his brain, his attitude and his temperament matched up to his talent.
Only trophies matter in football, and that’s where teams like this don’t get the credit they deserve. Circumstances help you win trophies, and this side didn’t ever have the right ones.
Had these players stayed fit and stayed together into 2008, 2009, 2010 they really could have won it all. Theo Walcott was a teenager at the club at the time, Flamini’s energy and nous (yes, he once had that!) allowed the midfielders to play when Gilberto lost his place, and guys like Eduardo (who played, alongside Luka Modrić, for that Dinamo Zagreb side) and Samir Nasri were brought in to reinforce the team.
That team deserves to be celebrated, and it deserves to be remembered. Just for a moment put aside the negative feelings you have about the way these players left and, ahead of our trip to Zagreb on Wednesday, spare a thought for the last Arsenal side to go there.