A monumental achievement, unlikely ever to be replicated or beaten. Between 2003 and 2004, Arsenal left their mark on football in this country. History was made. The Invincibles were born. Yet what made this team so special? What could the Arsenal of ‘now’ take from the Arsenal of ‘then’?
Comparing teams from different eras is always a difficult task. The game changes. Tactics change. Attitudes change. What was successful in the past will not always garner success in the future. This does not mean, however, that the past is irrelevant. Looking back is often a useful step on the path forward.
Arsenal’s unbeaten season came as a direct result of bitter disappointment. Despite setting new records for scoring in consecutive games (47 in a row) and the number of away league games without defeat (22), as well as opening up a comfortable 8 point lead at the top of the table from bitter rivals Manchester United in March, the team ended the 2002/03 season 5 points adrift. A 3-2 defeat at home to Leeds United in the 36th match of the season sealed their fate. It wasn’t to be their year.
Little did we know, however, that out of this tragedy would come the greatest triumph of all.
The penultimate game of the season came just three days later. No one would have been surprised if the Gunners had found it difficult to rally themselves after such recent disappointment. The reality was the complete opposite. The team romped to a 6-1 win over Southampton. They were putting down a marker to their rivals: next season starts now. And so began the legendary run. 49 games without defeat. Important victories over fellow challengers were to follow (2-1 and 4-2 vs Liverpool, two 2-1 wins vs Chelsea, 2-1 vs Spurs, 3-2 vs Newcastle), alongside exhibition-style wins over sides further down the table (4-0 vs Sunderland, 4-0, 4-1 and 5-3 vs ‘Boro, 4-1 and 5-0 vs Leeds, 4-1 vs Everton, 4-1 vs Norwich, 4-0 vs Charlton) and vital draws in big games (0-0 and 1-1 vs Man. Utd, 2-2 away vs Spurs, 0-0 away vs Newcastle). Arsenal would score 112 goals in the Premier League in those 49 games, while only conceding 35. And they would do it playing some of the most entertaining football this country has ever seen.
Dynamism, Movement, Panic
The main difference between Arsenal 03/04 and the contemporary version is speed of play. Today’s trends look to emulate the possession-based, slow-choking, jab-throwing football of Barcelona and Spain. The (very sound) theory is that the opposition cannot hurt you if they don’t have the ball. For many years now, Arsenal have been described as a type of ‘Barcelona-lite’; they play in the same style, but lack the cutting edge (or a player such as Lionel Messi) that their Spanish brethren possess. While at times Arsenal’s play can be intricate, dazzling and mesmerisingly deadly, there are other times when it can appear flat and devoid of ideas.
Arsenal 03/04 played a completely different style of football. Although possession was still valuable, it was not their defining aspect. Instead, this record-breaking team built its foundations on speed, movement, counter-attacking and running with the ball. Dribbling at speed was one of the side’s greatest weapons. In Henry, Pirès, Ljungberg and Bergkamp, Arsenal had four attack-minded players who were capable of striking fear into any defence. There is nothing scarier for a defender than having to defend, at full speed, against an accomplished dribbler, knowing full well that his teammates are charging in behind you to offer him options.
This Arsenal side were also not afraid of the long ball. In fact, many of their goals stemmed from a long-range pass from inside their own half. Just take a look at the simplicity of this goal against Liverpool. The current Gunners side seems unwilling – sometimes unable – to play the long ball. Nowadays it is seen as a tactic used by technically-limited teams. Yet, if you had a player of Dennis Bergkamp’s vision and ability and you told him that, instead of quickly spraying that perfectly weighted long pass to Henry which would put him one-on-one with the goalkeeper, he should pass the ball sideways 5 yards so as not to lose possession, well, you’d look like a bit of an idiot wouldn’t you? The long ball, at the feet of a truly gifted footballer, is an amazing weapon. The ball is always faster than the man.
Arsenal’s speed on the counter, and willingness to use the long ball when it was the best option, meant that opposing teams often had no time to regain their shape or plug their gaps. By isolating the opposition defence in a series of one-on-ones (or two-on-ones) they gave themselves a greater chance of succeeding. Panic is an attacker’s best friend. And if the initial shot failed to find the net, the follow up most certainly would.
The Follow Up, and the Importance of Gambling
Arsenal were the kings of the follow up. Go back and watch just how many goals came as a result of pouncing on a spilled shot or a rebound. While Freddie Ljungberg was highly effective in this role, the undoubted master was Robert Pirès. Pirès would score stunners and follow ups in equal measure. Ghosting in from the left flank, he knew that if Henry’s/Bergkamp’s/Ljungberg’s shot needed a touch he would be there to provide it. 14 goals from midfield in the 03/04 season (as well as 14 the season before) is evidence of the importance of gambling on the rebound. It is an art that the current Arsenal squad doesn’t practice, perhaps because they lack the fluidity of their predecessors.
Fluidity of Formation
Depending on what you read, or how you view the game, one can either describe Arsenal 03/04’s formation as an attacking 4-4-2 or a 4-2-3-1. The truth is, it was neither. The reason we talk about formations and styles is because, as humans, we like to categorise things. It makes them easier for us to compare and analyse. Without such order life would be incredibly complicated. Yet it is this categorisation which makes Arsenal’s formation so hard to describe, because it was so fluid. Players didn’t stay in their ‘defined’ areas of play. In many ways, the front four were interchangeable, and they often would swap positions during games. If you took an aerial snapshot during a match, it could look something like this:
Bergkamp, nominally a support striker, liked to drift back towards centre-midfield, so as to have the game in front of him. Pirès would cut inside from the left, occupying an attacking-midfield position, or would sometimes swap sides entirely with Ljungberg. Ljungberg played on the right-hand side but would often take up the position originally ‘intended’ for Bergkamp. And then we all know about Henry and his habit for hugging the left touchline. Any opposition manager who sent his team out with instructions to man-mark was asking to be ripped apart; those who told their team to mark more zonally would leave their side too flat and vulnerable to runners in behind.
The well-documented tactic to stop modern-day Arsenal is to defend in numbers behind the ball, restricting the space, because the players stick to their defined roles. There was no such tactic to defend against Arsenal 03/04, because the players were so spontaneous in their movement and decision-making that it was impossible to predict how they would line themselves up. And even if you managed to contain the counter-attacking, the runners in behind, the long balls over the top, this team had players capable of moments of absolute, individual, brilliance.
Moments of Magic
The truth is that the Arsenal side of 2003/2004 had something the current side doesn’t: the greatest striker the club has ever seen. At his peak, Thierry Henry was unstoppable, unplayable. A talent like his doesn’t come along often. Many clubs will never have a player of his calibre. Arsenal, even at their worst, always had a chance because Thierry was always capable of the sublime – whether it be a long-range shot or a dribble past 6 men before a side-footed finish. Goals like this (from that earlier Liverpool match again) or this one against Manchester United, or the backheel against Southampton. And if Thierry had an off day? Well then the team could look to the likes of Pirès or Bergkamp. Some of you will know that Dennis Bergkamp continues to be my favourite player of all time. His delicate creativity perfectly complimented the ferocious pace of Henry.
The current team do not have this at the moment. Theo Walcott has explosive speed, but his dribbling ability is moderate at best, which often means he lets himself down before he’s had a chance to put the defender under true pressure. Santi Cazorla is a wonderful player, one who isn’t afraid to shoot and around whom the side could be built, but he is let down by constant slow-paced build-up play. Jack Wilshere represents a great hope for the club, especially alongside Cazorla’s talents, yet his injury problems don’t look to be subsiding any time soon. And however well Giroud or Podolski play, they will never be able to replicate the form of Henry in his prime.
It would not be possible for the current side to emulate the success of the 03/04 side simply by copying them. Teams have moved on tactically these days and the amount of space afforded to the Invincibles is not something you tend to see anymore. That being said, there are many positives that could be employed in today’s game. Attacking your opponent at speed was, is, and always will be, a successful way to attack. Couple this with quick transitions, long-range shooting when appropriate and a real emphasis on the follow up, and you’d be a danger to any defence. While the Arsenal 03/04 side didn’t ship many goals, they weren’t obsessed by defensive stability. Instead, they went by the old ‘we’ll score more than you’ philosophy.
And isn’t that when football’s at its most enjoyable?
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