Arsenal's Invincibles tactics explained
Arsenal went unbeaten in the 2003-04 English Premier League season, equalling Preston North end's record. The squad was insanely strong and to add even more depth, Arsene Wenger signed Kolo Toure and Gilberto Silva in 2002, and Jens Lehmann in 2003.
The addition of these players resulted in a squad which has the best claim on being the best squad in Premier League history.
This squad achieved a remarkable feat by winning the league without even losing a single match in the entire season. Out of 38 league matches that they played throughout the season, they won 26 and drew 12, making them only the second team to do so in English top-tier football, after Preston North End.
Thierry Henry, with his 30 goals tally in 37 games, was named the Premier League player of the year.
To commemorate this remarkable feat, the league association awarded them a golden Premier League trophy.
(Fact: Arsenal's run of going unbeaten came very close to ending with just 6 games into the campaign, against Manchester United, but striker Ruud van Nistelrooy missed the penalty in the dying minutes of the game & the game ended 0-0).
Arsenal's Invincibles Squad
The squad is the most important factor in winning trophies, and Arsenal had one of the most versatile squads at that time. With players bought and drilled by Arsene Wenger himself, he created a magnificent system on the back of a talented squad.
In Arsenal's Invincibles squad had amazing options in every position, and the players were so versatile that they could be adjusted to play in different positions.
When we hear the 'Invincible' word, only an image of 11 players emerge in our mind, but a team can't be invincible without an amazing depth in the squad.
Although they had some players fixed for a particular position, the feat was achieved by phenomenal performances from players, and fantastic rotation of players by the manager.
If we talk about between the sticks, Goalkeeper Jens Lehmann played every league game in the whole season. In defence, Ashley Cole, Kolo Toure, Lauren and Sol Campbell were the first choice for Arsene Wenger, with Gael Clichy, Pascal Cygan & Martin Keown serving as backup.
Arsenal used more of a rotating approach in the midfield but the likes of Patrick Vieira, Robert Pires, Freddie Ljungberg and Silva were first-team midfielders.
Edu Gaspar was Wenger's first choice substitute in midfield, with Ray Parlour being an option too. The fact that only these 6 players were used in midfield shows the versatility of these players & how efficient they were in any role they played in the team.
Thierry Henry was undoubtedly the first choice as a striker, playing 37 games of the season and scoring 30 goals.
The rotation was in second strikers position where Wiltord got more chances firstly as, In the first 10 games, he started 5 times and played 3 times as a substitute. He wasn't in Wenger's first team plan so Wenger used Bergkamp in that position but because of his age, he didn't play many games continuously.
Wenger used Kanu, Aliadiere and Wiltord as the backup. The rotation situation changed immediately after January’s transfer window.
Reyes joined the team and got into the first team immediately. The total number of games Reyes played in half the season (13), was more than Wiltord (11), Kanu (10) and Aliadiere (9) played in the whole season.
The team lined up usually in a normal 4-4-2 formation, but with Denis Bergkamp dropping deep into space and Ljungberg and Pires pushing high, the shape resembled of a 4-2-3-1 formation.
Without the ball, Arsenal pressed though not as aggressively as many sides do now with both Thierry Henry and Denis Bergkamp pressurising the opposition defence.
When the ball got into the Arsenal midfield, Bergkamp dropped between the lines & Henry drifted to the left, preparing for an almost inevitable counter attack.
Behind these two, Arsenal defended with two banks of four with Vieira and Silva dropping deep to shield the back four. The wide midfielders would press if the opportunity arose but the back 4 usually tended to retain their shape more.
The intention was to win the ball on one-on-one opportunity or forcing the opposition to play long balls with Lehmann sweeping off the balls played way too long on which Arsenal sprung to the counter-attack.
They were not an all-out and out counter-attacking side, and certainly did not play counter pressing football but their pace and movement was devastating.
While attacking, Campbell stayed behind and Toure pushed forward acting as a midfielder most of the times.
With Bergkamp dropping deep, Silva acting as a pivot, it created a link up play which gave Henry the opportunity to charge into the box straight in between the two opposition CB or drift left and make runs into the box or divert the opposition CB's creating space for his other team-mates.
During the attack, Arsenal full backs also pressed higher sometimes with Silva dropping deep and Vieira helping the front line. Both full backs playing in advance positions allowed the wingers to cut inside and make use of the crosses provided by the full backs.
Arsenal had a clear tactical identity with a devastating pace, ability to make key passes from every position, the use of inside runs from wide, use of overlapping runs from full backs and drifting position of forwards.
They also had players who had a full understanding of their roles with and without the ball, they were players of natural true brilliance which made them truly difficult to beat anyway.
It was a tactical setup which required excellence in every position and Wenger drilled players in his own image and even bought a few and nurtured them the way he wanted, to create a truly brilliant system.
Can Something like this happen again?
When Wenger had the strong start to the 2003-04 season, he was asked that if he believes his team can win the English Premier League title, without losing a single match, he replied
"It's not impossible as A.C Milan once did it but I can't see why it's so shocking to say it. Do you think Manchester United, Liverpool or Chelsea don't dream that as well? They're exactly the same. They just don't say it because they're scared to look ridiculous, but nobody is ridiculous in this job as we know anything can happen."
If he can believe and make it happen so can other managers too. The world is filled with brilliant managers and players, and it's just a matter of time before a team repeats the Invincibles triumph.
As when Sir Alex Ferguson was asked about it he said "It's really hard but not impossible"