Deja Vu – Arsenal’s Worst Premier League Campaign

This season has been at times calamitous for Arsenal. Finishing eighth, crashing out of the domestic cup competitions and two tepid performances in the Europa League semi-final against Villarreal has left a bitter taste in the mouth of fans. Add the vociferous protests against owner Stan Kroenke over the doomed European Super League, but also the regression from a Champions League final appearance in 2006 to no European football next season and it has been a season to forget for the North London club. 


Their league finish makes for hard reading to Arsenal fans, seven home losses is the most since 1992/93 and have failed to reach Europe for the first time since the 1995-96 season. The Gunners’ lamentable campaign has many similarities to their worst league finish in the Premier League during the 1994-95 season, where there was more twists and turns than a Shakespearean play.


Just like the start of the 2020-21 season, the Gunners under George Graham were coming off the back of winning a trophy, beating Parma to lift the European Cup Winners Cup. They were looking to make good on their fourth-place league finish the previous season and had signed Stefan Schwarz – fresh from his exploits with Sweden in the 1994 World Cup.


Also like this season, the opening league game of the season boded hope for the Gunners, as they comprehensively beat Manchester City 3-0. But things soon went downhill for Arsenal by going five games without a win, consisting of three defeats and two draws. Finding themselves in 15th (in 1994 the Premier League had 22 teams), the Gunners shook off their bad form by snapping their winless streak with a 2-0 win against West Ham in late September. Yet one step forward became one step back on the 1st October when Crystal Palace traveled to Highbury and snatched a 2-1 win. 


Even so, Arsenal went on a Ian Wright-inspired revival up until the international break in early November – going five league games unbeaten, consisting of three wins and two draws. Wright would score five of Arsenal’s nine goals during their unbeaten run and drive up to tenth in the league. Furthermore, the Gunners were progressed decently in the cup competitions.


Arsenal had beaten Hartlepool United, as well as Oldham Athletic after a reply, to reach the fourth round of the League Cup. Meanwhile, Arsenal in Europe defeated Cypriot side Omonia in the first round of the European Cup Winners Cup and Danish club Brondby in the second round. But things would take a bleak turn for Arsenal when the international break ended, succumbing to back-to-back away defeats to Southampton (1-0) and Leicester City (2-1) in the space of four days.


Dropping down to 11th, a tough moment was to come for the Gunners on November 25th, just two days after losing to Leicester City and the day before a home game to Manchester United. A press conference was called where Paul Merson sat alongside George Graham and broke down while confessing his addictions to alcohol, cocaine and gambling. The midfielder would undergo a three-month rehab programme.


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Things would not get any better for Arsenal, drawing their next two games against Manchester United and Nottingham Forest. A 2-1 win away to Manchester City on December 12th lifted the Gunners up to 11th, but inconsistently reared its ugly head yet again five days later, losing 3-1 at home to Leeds United. There would be little for Arsenal to cheer about during the festive period, as they were held to a goalless draw at home to Aston Villa on Boxing Day. However, there was a glimmer of hope two days later, as a 2-0 win at Ipswich Town propelled Graham’s side up to ninth.


Yet such hope of a Happy New Year was squandered, as another 3-1 home defeat (this time to QPR) on New Year’s Eve made Arsenal drop down four places to 13th. Worse was to come two days later when Arsenal lost 1-0 at Tottenham in the North London derby, Stefan Schwarz sent off for two yellow cards. George Graham had long prided himself on a strong defence at Arsenal, his side conceding just 28 league goals the previous season. The 1-0 defeat at Spurs now meant they had conceded 26 league goals by the halfway stage of the season.


Graham hoped he could use the domestic cup competitions to salvage the season like in previous years. However, trying to rely on competitions that had given him past glories would not end well for Graham, starting with the FA Cup. Drawn against Millwall in the third round, they were held to a goalless draw at The Den on the 7th January. Favourites for the replay at Highbury eleven days later, the Gunners were stunned when Millwall took the lead after 10 minutes through Mark Beard. A shoddy performance was made worse on 90 minutes when Mark Kennedy doubled the lead to seal a famous victory. 


The Gunners’ domestic cup woes were compounded by losing 1-0 at Liverpool in the League Cup. The rest of January lifted Arsenal’s spirits in the league, with a win away to Coventry sandwiched between two 1-1 draws at home to Everton and Southampton to lift them three places to 10th. February began with defeat to AC Milan over two legs in the UEFA Super Cup.


The Premier League continued the gloom at Highbury, as Arsenal fell to a 3-1 defeat at Sheffield Wednesday and were then held 1-1 at home to Leicester City a week later to drop to 12th. Without the steely defence Graham had instilled in his team since becoming Arsenal’s manager in 1986, the Gunners had become dull. Yet Graham’s downfall did not come on the pitch, but off it.


On the 21st February 1995, hours before a league game at home to Nottingham Forest, Arsenal’s board sacked Graham after a Premier League inquiry found that he had received bungs totalling over £400,000 from the signings of John Jensen and Pal Lydersen. Graham’s assistant Stewart Houston would take charge of the side and made a good impression by beating Forest later that night (1-0) and achieve a 3-0 win at Crystal Palace four days later. Rising to eighth in the league, it seemed that appointing Houston as caretaker manager until the rest of the season could provide a temporary stabilising block.


March would dispel such optimistic notions as Arsenal lost all of their four league games during the month. The statistics during their losing streak were nightmarish – just one goal scored, eight goals conceded that included a 3-1 defeat at would-be champions Blackburn Rovers and a 3-0 loss at Manchester United. Such horrid form made the Gunners go into freefall – dropping six places to 14th


At one point they were just a point from the relegation zone, with growing talk of Arsenal being sucked into a relegation battle. The only solace during March for Arsenal was the European Cup Winners Cup, as a 1-1 draw at Highbury against Auxerre on the 2nd March and 1-0 in France two weeks later sealed a place in the semi-finals. 


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April began with a boost for the Gunners by thrashing Norwich City 5-1 just days before their European Cup Winners Cup semi-final 1st leg game against Sampdoria at Highbury. The match was a pulsating affair, with Arsenal scoring two goals in as many minutes in the first half through Steve Bould. But Sampdoria got an away goal six minutes into the second half when the wily midfielder Vladimir Jugović took advantage of a defensive mishap. Ian Wright would restore the Gunners’ two-goal lead on 59 minutes yet Jugović got another away goal twelve minutes later for Sampdoria and have something to fight for in the second leg two weeks later.


Arsenal’s league form prior to the second leg was atrocious, suffering back-to-back league defeats at QPR (3-1) and at home to Liverpool (1-0) to make it six defeats in nine league games under Houston since Graham was sacked. Such ropey form was on full display in the early stages of the 2nd leg when Sampdoria took the lead on 14 minutes when a simple ball over the top set Roberto Mancini through on goal and lobbed David Seaman. Arsenal equalised, putting themselves ahead on aggregate when a Paul Merson corner on 61 minutes was flicked on by captain Tony Adams and stabbed in at the far post by Wright. 


However, with just eight minutes remaining, it would be a substitute that would take the game by the scruff of the neck and spark a crazy six-minute period. With a free-kick for Sampdoria around 25 yards out, Siniša Mihajlović’s effort was blocked by the wall, with Mancini’s speculative shot from the rebound cleverly nodded in past Seaman by Claudio Bellucci. The 19-year-old, who had been only on the pitch for five minutes, took off his top and sauntered off to the other end of the field in delight. Not even a yellow card would dampen his spirits and things went one better for Bellucci less than 145 seconds later.


Arsenal immediately searched for a goal after Sampdoria had scored, but the Italians broke quickly when an attack by Arsenal broke down. Within moments the ball was played to Lombardo on the right just inside Arsenal’s half and it was two on two. Bellucci made a run, which Lombardo played a nicely weighted ball to break the offside trap and Bellucci showed great composure to guide it past Seaman. With Sampdoria 3-1 up (5-4 ahead on aggregate), it seemed the Blucerchiati were on the way to the final. But Arsenal got back into the tie less than three minutes later when Stefan Schwarz rifled a long-range free-kick that experienced goalkeeper Walter Zenga failed to keep out.


With the score now 3-2 to Sampdoria, 5-5 on aggregate, the game went into extra time after 90 minutes. Both teams failed to score during the 30 minutes and so it went to penalties. Lee Dixon kicked off the penalty shootout for Arsenal by assuredly converting his spot-kick. The Gunners were boosted when Mihajlović’s penalty was parried away by Seaman. Yet Arsenal failed to capitalise, as substitute Eddie McGoldrick blazed his spot-kick over the bar. Jugović, who was Sampdoria’s shining light in the first leg, soon became the villain when his tamely hit penalty was easily saved by Seaman.


Arsenal took control of the penalty shootout when John Hartson’s spot-kick managed to sneak past Zenga’s clutches to put the Gunners 2-0 up. Sampdoria made it 2-1 when Riccardo Maspero found the bottom corner. Arsenal restored their two-goal lead in the shootout when captain Tony Adams thunderously smashed his penalty into the back of the net. The veteran fullback Moreno Mannini scored his penalty to make it 3-2 after four penalties each taken by both sides. Paul Merson had the chance to win the game for Arsenal but his penalty was saved by Zenga. 


That left Lombardo with Sampdoria’s all-important fifth penalty. Scoring would put the penalty shootout to sudden death and a miss would send Arsenal to the final. The balding 29-year-old confidently ran up and struck the penalty powerfully to his right. Yet Seaman guessed correctly and palmed it away one handed to send the Gunners to the final of the Cup Winners’ Cup. With three penalties saved, it was little surprise that he was lifted upon the shoulders of his fellow players and why Seaman was England’s No.1 goalkeeper throughout the mid to late 1990s.


The sheer drama of that semi-final meant it was little surprise Arsenal drew their next two league games, both London derbies at home to Tottenham (1-1) on the 29th April and Wimbledon (0-0) five days later. Six days after that goalless draw, Arsenal faced Real Zaragoza at the Parc des Princes in Paris and a chance to become the first team to win the Cup Winners’ Cup back to back. Real Zaragoza, winners of the Copa Del Rey the previous season, were a very good side that had finished third behind Real Madrid and Barcelona in La Liga the previous season and would finish seventh this season. On their way to the final, the Spanish club had impressively defeated Feyenoord in the quarter-finals and Chelsea in the semi-final.


It was a hard-fought game, as the first half ended goalless and the second half began with both sides eager not to make a mistake. However, the deadlock was broken by Real Zaragoza on 67 minutes with a fantastic long-range volley by Juan Esnáider that nestled into the top scorer and left Seaman rooted where he stood. That woke Arsenal up, clicking themselves into gear and soon equalised on 75 minutes through John Hartson. Neither side could find the winning goal in 90 minutes, as the final went to extra time. Real Zaragoza would go close in the first half of extra time, Seaman terrifically palming a header onto the post. But as the clock neared to the end of extra time it seemed the Cup Winners Cup final would be decided on penalties.


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That was until the 120th minute as Nayim received the ball from a headed clearance roughly 40 yards out from goal. The Real Zaragoza midfielder noticed Seaman off his line. Striking the ball less than 10 yards from the touchline, the ball veered towards goal as Seaman scrambled back and watched helplessly as the ball went into the net despite his efforts. The winning goal, from a ex-Spurs player nonetheless, would clinch a historic victory for Real Zaragoza that is still fondly remembered to this day. As for Seaman it was a moment that haunted him – seven years before he suffered a similar fate for England. 


As for Arsenal, their defeat was a microcosm of their underwhelming season, compounded by losing their final league game of the season 2-1 at Chelsea just four days after their heartbreak in Paris. Defeat resulted in Arsenal ending up in 12th, just six points above the relegation zone. The only real highlight was Ian Wright scoring 30 goals that season – 18 in the league and remarkably 12 in the cup competitions. 


To counter such a wretched season, Bruce Rioch was appointed manager, as well as Arsenal making two notable signings in Dennis Bergkamp from Inter and David Platt from Sampdoria. Coupled with the resurgence of the Arsenal defence once formidable under George Graham, Arsenal significantly improved to finish 5th in the 1995-96 season to qualify for the UEFA Cup, though Rioch would be sacked early into the 1996-97 season that led to the arrival of Arsene Wenger. 


Fast forward to the present day and though Arsenal recovered in the latter end of this season to finish eighth, the key question is will Arsenal under Arteta be able to learn lessons by making smart signings in the transfer market like Rioch did? Either way, history had a remarkable way of repeating itself and Arteta will do well to learn the setbacks of this season alongside the 1994-95 campaign. If not he may be sacked before the end of the year. 


By: Yousef Teclab

Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Mark Leech – Offside