Last Thursday evening, I had the pleasure of attending a Q & A with Amy Lawrence on her recent book ‘The Invincibles.’ Ten years after one of English football’s most resonant achievements, Amy had been granted access to every member of that immortal squad (bar Ashley Cole, who declined to take part), as well as Arsene Wenger. Back in 2004, it was difficult to make sense of the achievement or how history would view it.
Amy recounted how Thierry Henry admitted to finding it ‘weird’ because there is no official trophy dished out for not losing a league game. Indeed, it’s conceivable (if unlikely) that a team could finish a league season unbeaten and not win the league at all. It always felt as though distance would be required the properly assess the magnitude of that season. Its value is nebulous and difficult to pin down. A decade on seems like distance enough to start trying to frame it, especially whilst the participants’ faculties are still in good fettle.
I was privileged enough to have attended each one of the 49 matches that Arsenal went undefeated (beware my unborn!) An evening reliving that season with somebody that has had recent and direct access to all of its participants seemed a good a use of time as any. Yet one of my bugbears when discussing that season emerged quite quickly that evening. The speed with which the conversation becomes, not so much wistful, as downright angry never fails to catch me by surprise. Within a couple of exchanges, any discussion on the Invincibles will pupate into a dismissal of the current squad by comparison.
It’s the Arsenal fans’ answer to Godwin’s Law. Progressively, questions focused on how much better that side were compared to today’s useless shower. “Wasn’t everything brilliant then and isn’t it terrible now?” seemed to be the general aphorism of the evening. I find this happens often. Whilst even the most deluded wouldn’t suggest the current team are of the 2004 vintage, you would genuinely have thought Arsenal were staring down the barrel of successive relegations given the morbid fury of some of the ‘questions.’ (Many audience interventions weren’t questions at all, but general rants).
I think it will take a little more distance yet before the achievement is considered in the isolation that it deserves. Personally I think the players’ party to that achievement also deserve for their memories to be preserved in a more meaningfully than to be forged into a stick with which to beat their current equivalents. I’ve no doubt that will happen given enough distance and perspective and it probably won’t happen in a substantial way until the manager that oversaw it has left. The subject of Arsene Wenger is irreversibly emotive now, I think.
Comparisons are of course natural and sometimes even useful. They can certainly be enjoyable. I wanted to try and map across from that achievement in a modern context without lapsing into “wasn’t it great then, isn’t it shit now” rhetoric. I wanted to try and look at how things have changed since then in a sober manner and without being too elegiac. I even wanted to consider some of the flaws in that great team and wonder whether they were ever exposed during that historic campaign.
The most obvious alteration in the mise-en-scène of the Premier League is the economic landscape, which I don’t think requires too much rehashing. Arsenal were consistently 1st or 2nd in the league, then two billionaires arrived and now we’re consistently 3rd or 4th. Without wishing to revisit the minutiae of mistakes made by Arsenal in that period, that’s an unchallengeable truth broadly speaking. But there have been tactical changes in the game since 2004, both in football more widely, and at Arsenal.
One of the most oft cited (and I think justifiable) complaints when comparing these two eras revolves around the physical make up of the Arsenal side. That Invincibles side had a distinct height and weight advantage over subsequent Arsenal squads. The departure from this has, I believe, been informed by several discrete factors. Firstly, the economic necessity of moving to a more youthful side in the early stadium years shaved some pounds and inches from the Gunners side. Pep Guardiola and Barcelona sped up the evolution of footballing tactics with their technical style, which I think influenced Wenger too.
In around 2006, Wenger handed “the keys” of the team from Vieira / Henry to Fabregas and Arsenal became a smaller, more technical team. Arsenal also have a much bigger home pitch at the Emirates compared to Highbury. At Highbury, Arsenal were able to suffocate teams with a fast, transitional style based on pace and power. The Emirates pitch is wider, more spacious and requires a more patient style. (Of course, the pitch was designed to Wenger’s specification). The Invincibles also found their style didn’t work quite as well in the Champions League.
It could be argued that having a more physical side also informed Arsenal’s superior medical record during that era. If I asked you, dear reader, to name the first XI of that 2003-04 side I bet you wouldn’t miss a beat. What was remarkable about that season is how often we were able to field it. Giroud, Koscielny and Mertesacker, physically, wouldn’t look out of place standing shoulder to shoulder with that team and it’s probably no coincidence that, generally speaking, their injury records are pretty good.
My friend @timbo_slice1991 also has a theory that Arsenal were able to win a good portion of their games inside the first 45 minutes during that season, which contributed to their superior fitness. The majority of our games now are physically and emotionally strenuous until the last second, which can aid and abet the accrual of knocks and bruises. It’s actually just as well that the Gunners did have a relatively clean bill of health during that season; because the squad was smaller than you probably recall.
Kolo Toure was both first choice centre half and back up right back. Pascal Cygan was our 3rd choice centre half. A significant injury to either Lauren or Toure during that season would have seen a prolonged dose of Cygan. Philippe Senderos was injured for the entire season. Two long term injuries in the defence and we were looking quite precarious back there. Etsathios Tavlaridis, a centre half, was our Carling Cup right back, so injuries to Lauren and Toure would presumably have seen him deployed there. In terms of numbers, Arsenal’s defensive roster was not much more replenished then than it is now.
There was an outstanding core of 16 or so players, but glancing the squad list now, not a lot beyond that. Fortunately Wenger rarely had cause to reach outside of that cadre. The team was a few years in the making and many of them were bonded by chastening cup final defeats to Galatasaray and Liverpool earlier in the decade. That and the familiarity the team were able to cultivate during the season partially explain why they were able to find the balance that has been lacking since.
Constantly losing top players to more monied clubs hasn’t helped in that respect. One wonders whether the Invincibles team would have stayed together had Abramovic and Mansour arrived on the scene a few seasons earlier. You could argue that it was a tactically less sophisticated era too. Arsenal often played a nominal 4-4-2 and most weeks, they knew they would either face the same or a 4-5-1 formation. Nowadays, teams seem to have comprised more complex ways of simultaneously shutting you out and offering threat on the break.
The explosion of TV money also means nearly every team has at least one player that can hurt you. It’s been delicate for Arsenal fans to come to terms with the transition from such an all conquering team to taking a relative back seat into 3rd and 4th place. But this article about the alarming fall of Inter Milan from a similar pedestal serves as a reminder that it could all have been much worse.
Constantly finishing where your resources dictate, whilst not wild over achievement worthy of an open top bus parade, really isn’t a catastrophe either. Especially since, in Arsenal’s case, finishing about where we should brings more benefits than it does to say, Newcastle finishing in the upper reaches of mid-table. Hopefully history will help us place that a little better and hopefully history will help us all to consider the season 2003-04 as a treasured memory and achievement in its own right. LD.
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