The Golden Generation of Arsenal

Mon 07 March 2022 | 14:30

They may not be a part of big four in today’s English football, but Arsenal is one of the most important clubs in the history of the sport and there is no doubt about that. In today’s article, we are going to review the golden era of Arsenal that made so many people to fall in love with the Gunners.

It all started from October, 1886 when sixteen munitions’ workers decided to form a football club which they named Dial Square FC before changing it to Royal Arsenal a month later. In 1913, Arsenal became the first club from South of England that participated in the Football League. It took them 11 years to get a promotion to the First Division in 1904. Playing at English top flight had it perks as the club’s revenue increased dramatically and they were able to afford one of the

greatest English managers of all time

, Herbert Chapman in 1925.

It was with Chapman that Arsenal won its first major trophies: A FA Cup title in 1930 and the First Division title in the following years. Chapman is also recognized as one of the most influential characters in the history of football with introducing the WM formation and numbered shirts among many other innovations in football that shaped up the game that we know today. Chapman’s legacy helped Arsenal to cement their place in the English top flight. Up to this day, the London side has won 13 league titles and 14 FA Cups. But if you are wondering when was the golden generation of Arsenal, we got some answers for you.

Everything About the Golden Era of Arsenal

After a successful era in 1930s, Arsenal won a handful of titles in the following decades but they never managed to build on those success and form a dominant side that we refer to as the golden generation. They come closest to having a golden team in the early 90’s with George Graham being at charge. Two league titles in 1989 and 1991 was a promising start but then Graham got dismissed 1995 and a year later Arsène Wenger joined Arsenal as their new head coach. A man who not only is the longest-serving manager in club’s history, but was responsible for forming the

best Arsenal team

in the early 2000s that we are going to talk about.

Pre-Wenger Era

The 90s started well for Arsenal with George Graham- who was a former


player, leading the club to its 9th and 10th league titles. Graham also won a domestic double of FA Cup and League Cup in 1993 and conquered the European Cup Winners Cup in the year after that. The trophies were coming one after another and people were starting to believe that they are witnessing the golden generation of Arsenal; but then suddenly everything collapsed! During the 1994-95 season Arsenal was underperforming compared to their last seasons under Graham. But that wasn’t the issue.

Following an investigation conducted by the FA, the manager George Graham was found guilty of receiving off the record money from a Norwegian football agent who transferred two of his players to Graham’s Arsenal in 1992. It meant that one of the most successful managers in the history of Arsenal, had to leave the club in a heartbreaking manner just when it looked like he is creating the best Arsenal team. Following his disposal Arsenal started looking for a new manager and it took them 18 months to find the right guy for the job. During this time, Stewart Houston, Bruce Rioch, and Pat Rice led the club as interim managers. 

Appointment of Arsène Wenger

As you would expect, there were a lot of rumors regarding Arsenal’s next manager prior to the 1996-97 season. Among others, Johan Cruyff was considered as a likely option to seat at Arsenal’s bench for the next coming years. But the truth was that Arsenal board were inquiring about a relatively unknown French manager named Arsène Wenger who was coaching at the Japanese club

Nagoya Grampus Eight

. Wenger was a former midfield player and started coaching in 1984 from Nancy. After two successful spells at Monaco and Nagoya, now he had the chance to step up in his career and took charge at one of the most popular clubs in the world.

Finally in the October of 1996 Arsène Wenger signed his contract with Arsenal and became the club’s new head coach. The Arsenal board showed their trust to the Frenchman by giving him full control in regards to club’s strategy in the transfer market, the training methods, and players contracts situation. In his early days at the club, in addition to implementing his modern attacking tactics, Wenger set some new rules in regard to player’s diet and lifestyle off the pitch. As a charismatic figure, Wenger had a good relationship with his players and had the dressing room under his control which helped him in the process of building up his dream team. 

Wenger’ First Successes at Arsenal

Arsène Wenger joined Arsenal 8 fixtures into the 1996-97 season but still he managed to make his impact on the team and led them to a 3rd place spot at the end of the season. That was Arsenal’s first top-three finish in the league since the 1990-91 season with George Graham. In the summer of 1997, Wenger started the recruitment operation and signed the defensive midfielder Emmanuel Petit from


, the pacey winger Marc Overmars from Ajax, and the talented attacker Nicolas Anelka from PSG who still was a teenager back then.

On his first full season at the charge of Arsenal, Wenger didn’t have a promising start with getting knocked out from UEFA Cup by the Greek side PAOK who beat Arsenal in the play-offs. After the defeat, Wenger suggested that eliminating from UEFA Cup was a blessing in disguise as he prefers to focus on the league campaign rather than Europe’s second tier club football tournament. The Gunners had a decent start to the 1997-98 Premier League season and didn’t lose any match until November, when the dark days arrived. During the last two months of calendar year, Arsenal only won 3 out of their 8 league matches which dropped them to the sixth place in the table.

But in the second half of the season, Arsenal got back on winning ways and saw themselves in the title race. At one stage, Arsenal had a run of 10 straight wins in the league which helped them to reach to the top of the table in the 33rd fixture. Arsenal held on to their spot and won their 11th Premier League title with 78 points, only one point above Manchester United. In the same season, Wenger also won the FA Cup by defeating Newcastle in the final. A delightful performance throughout the season and winning the domestic double gave enough reasons to the fans to believe that this might be 

the golden generation of Arsenal


Rivalry with Manchester United 

Back in those days of Premier League, the rivalry of Arsenal and Manchester United was one of the fiercest competitions across the European football. Sir Alex Ferguson was appointed as Man. United manager 10 years earlier than Arsène Wenger setting foot in English football, but the Scottish coach started to dominate the league from the 1992-93 season. This was the first season of “Premier League” as the top flight of English football got rebranded. Before Arsenal won its first league trophy with Wenger, Manchester United won 4 out of 5 seasons from 1992 to 1997.

So, Arsenal started the 1998-99 season as the defending champions and once again, Manchester United was their closest chaser. Arsenal was at the pole of title race with only two weeks to go, but a bitter loss to

Leeds United

on the road gave the chance to Manchester United to win the league and complete their treble as they won both the FA Cup and Champions League in the same season. Arsenal went through a trophy drought for the following next two season. In both of those seasons, Wenger’s team finished the league as the runner-up with double-digit points gap with Manchester United at the top of the table.

The Invincibles

Arsenal was playing an eye-catching and flawless attacking football with Wenger at the wheel but they needed some silverwares to show for it. The golden generation of Arsenal was hungry for glory and they were ready to put a halt at Man. United’s back-to-back championships. In the 2001-02 season of Premier League, Arsenal didn’t lose one single game away from home and won their 12th league title with 87 points while Liverpool got their hands on the silver medal with 80 points. Just like the 1997-98 season, Arsenal also won the FA Cup to complete a precious double in English football. That was the club’s 8th championship in FA Cup.

The 2002-03 season was another close battle between


and Wenger for the Premier League title. Although Arsenal won another FA Cup title in that season, but it was Man. United that lifted the PL trophy for the 15th time with 5 points higher than Arsenal. Then the best season of the best Arsenal team in history arrived. It’s safe to say that the 2003-04 season was the pinnacle of Arsène Wenger’s career as a manager. During the 38 fixtures of the Premier League campaign, Arsenal didn’t lose any matches and won the league undefeated with 26 wins and 12 draws. 

Hence the nickname


was given to Wenger’s team. The only other English team that managed to win the top flight title undefeated, was

Preston North End

who did the same in the 1988-89 season. The club was awarded with a unique golden edition of Premier League’s trophy for their unbeaten championship which now became a souvenir of the golden generation of Arsenal. Arsenal kept their unbeaten run for the first 9 rounds of the next season’s league and finally it was the archrivals Manchester United that ended the run with a 2-0 win at Old Trafford. The Invincibles season was Arsène Wenger’s last league championship with Arsenal. Though he added another 4 FA Cup and 8 Charity Shield titles to his name and retired from the game in 2018 as the most successful manager of Arsenal’s history.

The European Final

It’s fair to say that

the golden generation of Arsenal

underperformed when it comes to the European tournaments. Before the 2005-06 season, Wenger’s Arsenal had never managed to progress higher than the quarter-finals in the Champions League and lost a UEFA Cup final to Galatasaray on penalties in 2000. But the 2005-06 season had a different story in it. Arsenal topped their UCL Group with 16 points and advanced to the knockout stages alongside Ajax from group B. In the round of 16, Arsenal had to deal with the


of Real Madrid which they came on top thanks to Henry’s sole goal in the first leg match at Madrid.

An aggregate 2-0 win versus Juventus meant that Arsenal has reached to their first UCL semi-finals with Arsène Wenger sitting at the dugout. Once again Arsenal won the tie with a narrow 1-0 win against


with Kolo Abib Touré’s goal at the Highbury. The final was being held at Stade de France, Paris between Arsenal and Barcelona who was coached by the Dutchman Frank Rijkaard. Arsenal didn’t have the perfect start as their German goalkeeper Jens Gerhard Lehmann was handed the red card in the early minutes of the game due to a foul outside the box.

But still it was Arsenal that scored the opener through Sul Campbell in the 37th minute and came close to winning its first ever Champions League trophy. The lead stayed intact until the 76th minute when Samuel Eto'o made it level for Barca and 5 minutes later, Juliano Belletti of all people gave Barca the lead which they protected for the remaining minutes of the match. That concluded Arsenal’s only Champions League final up to this day and the golden generation of Arsenal failed to add a European trophy to the club’s cabinet.

Key Players in The Golden Generation of Arsenal

As mentioned above, since his arrival at the club Arsène Wenger had the full control of transfers and renewal contracts of his players. It turned out that the French tactician also had a sharp eye in finding talents and improving his side by recruiting them. To compete at the highest level, you will need some well experienced players as well and Wenger was aware of that. So, in addition to bringing young players with high potentials, Arsène Wenger convinced his veteran players that they will still be a key part of his plans for the coming years and kept them at the club as long as possible.

Wenger’s base formation was a 4-4-2 scheme but as a versatile manager, he used numerous variations of that formation and evolved it throughout the years. He insisted on a possession-based style of football and thanks to his efficient attacking tactics, Arsenal was a joy to watch under Wenger, especially during their golden years from 1997 to 2006. There were so many great players and some

Arsenal legends

that flourished in this time span which we are going to meet a few of them:

Tony Adams 

If you are looking for a captain for the Arsenal all time XI, Tony Adams is the obvious choice. Tony Adams is the only player in the history of English football that captained a title winning team in three different decades. The English defender enrolled in Arsenal youth academy when he was 14 years old and it only took him three years to earn a spot for himself in the first team’s squad in 1983. A solid four-man defense was the cornerstone of George Graham’s successful Arsenal in the 80s and Tony Adams was the leader of that defensive line consisted of Lee Dixon, Nigel Winterburn, and Steve Bould.

Adams became the club’s first captain in 1988 as an exceptional 21-year-old defender and held on to the armband until his retirement in 2002. As a one-club man, Tony Adamas is one of the most popular Arsenal Legends who has his statues built outside of the Emirates stadium. With 669 appearances in Arsenal’s shirt, he is the second most capped player in the club’s history behind the Irish David O’Leary. In his 19 years with Arsenal, Adams as known as

Mr. Arsenal

has won 13 trophies with the club and he lifted every single one of those cups as the captain.

Dennis Bergkamp

A classic number 10 who was a product of the famous Ajax academy. After developing his talents at the Dutch club’s youth team for 5 years,

Dennis Bergkamp

started his senior career in 1986 with Ajax. The best position for him was behind the striker as a number 10 who can score goals as well as providing key passes in the final third of the pitch. Bergkamp had his breakthrough with Ajax and became one of the most wanted attackers across Europe thanks to his brilliant skills and in 1993, Inter bought him for €9.7m. But the Dutchman’s career at Italian football didn’t pan out as expected.

Just after two years at Inter, they decided to sell him and it was Arsenal knocking at the door with a €11m offer that brought Dennis to English football and the rest is history. Bergkamp became one of the key players in the golden generation of Arsenal and at the meantime, he was also a national hero due to his impressive games in the Netherlands national team. Because of his incredible composure on the ball, the Arsenal fans gave him the nickname Iceman. Denis Bergkamp played 367 games in Wenger’s Arsenal and scored 98 goals and 92 assists during those matches. 

Patrick Vieira

In Wenger’s football philosophy, the defensive midfielders have a crucial role so we can’t rule out Patrick Viera as one of the key parts of Arsenal best team from 1996 to 2006. The capable midfield player grew in the French football and joined Arsenal at the same season that Arsène Wenger took over at the club. Pat Viera didn’t need much time to adopt to English football and became a fan favorite in his debut season for the club. The Frenchman was a physically strong defensive midfielder who had a good mind in reading the game.

In addition to being a decisive player in the defensive phase, Viera also had a decent vision when he had the ball on his feet which helped him to make key passes that lead to creating goal scoring chances for his side. Patrick Vieira was a member of France’s World Cup winning team in 1998 when he was playing for Arsenal. He remained at the club until 2005 and wore the Arsenal shirt in 397 games. Not only Viera is a member of

Arsenal all time XI

, but he also is considered as one of the best midfielders in the history of Premier League. 

Robert Pires

Another French midfielder who flourished in Arsène Wenger team: Robert Emmanuel Pires shortly known as Robert Pires. Pires was a versatile player who would mainly get deployed at the left side of the midfield or on the wings. But he could also perform quite well at the right-hand side of the pitch and he even played as a central attacking midfielder sporadically. Pires started playing on the senior level at


in 1993 and after 7 years of playing in French football, moved abroad to join Arsenal in 2000.

At that time Pires was 27 years old and many elite clubs across Europe were keen on signing him, including Juventus and Real Madrid. But he decided to work with his compatriot Arsène Wenger and it turned out that it was the right choice both for the player and the club. Due to his elegant style of play Pires was praised by the Arsenal fans during his 6 seasons at the club and is considered as one of the best players that wore the number 7 shirt in Arsenal’s history. His career at Arsenal concluded with scoring 85 goals and providing 60 assists in 284 games from 2000 to 2006.

Ashley Cole

If you ask Arsenal fans, some of them will label him as a traitor since he left Arsenal to join the rivals Chelsea in the summer of 2006. But you could barely find anyone that doesn’t believe that

Ashley Cole

was one of the best left backs of his generation and arguably, the best English player in that position throughout history. Cole grew up as a homegrown talent and showed his protentional at the Arsenal youth academy. At the age of 19, Wenger gave him the chance to make his debut at the senior level and after a couple of seasons, Ashley Cole became an unreplaceable player in Arsenal’s line-up.

He was a fast and agile player and had the perfect profile for a modern full-back. During the famous Invincibles season, Ashley Cole was one of the outstanding players in Arsenal’s squad and had a remarkable role in keeping alive the unbeaten run for more than a season. On the international front, Cole was one of the few players in England’s squad that could replicate his club level form in England’s shirt. Yes, he is not the most popular figure for Arsenal’s fan from their golden generation, but we just couldn’t ignore his spectacular form at Arsenal as a world class player who won 7 titles with the Gunners. 

Thierry Henry

Thierry Henry joined Arsenal in 1999 and didn’t take part in Arsène Wenger impressive domestic double in the 1997-98 season. But still, not only he became the face of

the golden generation of Arsenal

but also, he is now one of the legendary figures in the history of Premier League and many people fell in love with Arsenal because of him. The French striker started his journey from Monaco and moved to Juventus in a January transfer market in 1999. But just like Dennis Bergkamp, Henry’s performance in Italian football was below par and he was sold to Arsenal for €16m in the following summer. All of a sudden, Thierry Henry emerged as one of the most prolific strikers in the world and led Arsenal’s attacking line with his goals and assists.

From 1999 to 2007, Henry scored 226 goals in 369 games for Arsenal and became the club’s all time top scorer with Ian Wright being the second one with 185 goals. During this time span, Thierry Henry won 4 Premier League top scorer awards and two back-to-back European Golden Shoe in 2004 and 2005. In 2010 Henry joined Guardiola’s Barcelona for a €24m transfer fee which broke so many Arsenal fan’s hearts; but his place as one of the Arsenal legends remained intact. Alongside Tony Adams, Denis Bergkamp, and Herbert Chapman, Thierry Henry has his statue built outside of the Emirates stadium which gives you the idea of how much popular he is for the Gunners. 

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