Just before the 2002-03 season of the English Premier League, Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger commented’, “Nobody will finish above us in the league. It wouldn’t surprise me if we were to go unbeaten for the whole of the season”. This statement was ridiculed by all sections of media with some almost calling Wenger as cocky and overconfident.
But no one would have predicted about what happened in the 2003-04 season, as Arsene Wenger’s words had taken their form and he managed them to an iconic season that saw them go unbeaten in the league. As the final table predicted, Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal side had 26 wins, 12 draws and exactly ZERO losses. The magnitude of the feat is something which cannot be explained our put into words.
It is something eternal and immortal. Prior to the start of the season, Arsenal signed only one first team player in Jens Lehmann who had the task of replacing club legend David Seaman. Here is a tactical breakdown how Arsenal’s unmatched crowning achievement was achieved.
Arsene Wenger tactics – The Invincibles
Arsenal played a 442/4411 throughout the season. Jens Lehmann started as the goalkeeper with Lauren and Ashley Cole being the first choice full backs. Sol Campbell and Kolo Toure were the first choice centerbacks. Patrick Vieira and Gilberto Silva formed a double pivot surrounded by Robert Pires and Freddie Ljungberg on either wings. Bergkamp played as the second striker supporting the iconic Thierry Henry who started up front.
The team was a cohesive unit which attacked and defended as a unit. All the starting players were physical beasts capable of shutting down any opponent on their day but the football they played on the field was aesthetically pleasing.
The Invincibles relied on fluidic movement and lightning fast transitions. In the attacking phase, both the full backs were positioned high up the pitch with Gilberto Silva dropping deep to slot in between the central defenders. He played the role of anchor-man thereby giving Vieira the freedom to make his unmarked runs. The team brilliantly used the wings to attack (especially the left) thereby making the play more direct and quicker.
Thierry Henry drifted wide to the left and Bergkamp dropped deep to create space for Pires and Ljungberg to make runs into the box. The width of the team was maintained by the two marauding fullbacks Ashley Cole and Lauren. Patrick Vieira bombed up field while Gilberto dropped back to provide cover for the two center backs. Therefore, essentially at times, Arsenal would play without a proper striker or a marksman in the box.
Despite this, few teams maintained possession as well as Arsenal did, they would be calm and patient with the ball and draw the defenders out of their comfort zone, forcing them into errors or concentration lapses, then with a sudden acceleration of pace and an immaculate and inch perfect through ball would open up the defense like a knife through butter and they would score.
Focus down the left
The telepathic understanding among the trio of Henry, Pires and Ashley Cole on the left hand side proved too tough for most of the teams in the league. Robert Pires started on the left hand side but drifted infield to play balls through defenses where his vision and creativity were at its best. Thierry Henry used his great speed and intelligence to get in behind defenders causing havoc with his ability to score or pick out runners (Ljungberg mostly) from the right side.
Ashley Cole was a fast, attack minded fullback who more found himself in a more advanced position than Pires thereby stretching the opponent defense which gave Pires an outlet to pass into. More than 60% of the goals in the 2003-04 came from the left hand side which further is a testament to how devastating the trio was.
With Pires used on the left and drifting to the center to be a pseudo number 10, Arsenal outnumbered every other team in midfield, creating numerical and positional overloads, a 4 v 2 or 4 v 3, a ratio even more skewed during counter attacks. The presence of skillful passers like Bergkamp, the opposition was left in disarray and short of ideas to contain such attacks.
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Henry broke from between the right center back and right back, and was found by diagonal passes or though balls that were played behind the defense. The way Arsenal attacked with width on either side ensured that the opposition could not be asymmetrically shutting down the left as Lauren and Ljunberg were more than competent on the other side.
The perfect partners in attack
Thierry Henry and Dennis Bergkamp perfectly complemented themselves in the attack. While Henry moved to the left flank during the attacking phase, Dennis Bergkamp stayed in the centre, often found outside the box playing a supporting role. Dennis Bergkamp would drop deep to receive the ball to break the defensive lines and was the fulcrum in Arsenal’s build up.
Bergkamp dropping deep further created space for Pires and Ljungberg to move into. Henry’s guile and movement and Bergkamp’s through balls were a match made in heaven with the pair starring in some instrumental wins throughout the season. Robert Pires and Fredrick Ljungberg reinvented the wide midfield role due to their outward to inward runs and goal-scoring ability.
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Arsenal were equally sublime in both attacking and counter-attacking. Patrick Vieira and Gilberto Silva played major roles in both attacking and counter-attacking. Gilberto Silva dropped in to slot in between the center backs for cover. This gave more freedom to Patrick Vieira and the full backs and also allowed Arsenal more ball retention and circulation whenever necessary. Gilberto Silva’s excellent positioning and game reading allowed Patrick Vieira to join in for Arsenal attacks and his unmarked runs were truly a different dimension for the attacks.
Solid at the back
Arsenal’s defence started right from Thierry Henry. He usually pressed the right back/ right centerback while Pires and Bergkamp cut the passing lanes for the nearest central and wide player. Fredrik Ljunberg also covered for the other full back thereby forcing the opponents to back passing or blind long balls. The physical nature of the four defenders and the two central midfielders instilled fear into the opposition.
The Gunners usually played a high line making the playing field compact and restricting space for the opposition to exploit. All the four defenders had excellent defensive qualities and were brilliant in stopping the opposition attacks. Patrick Vieira and Gilberto Silva held tightly in front of the defence shielding it brilliantly. The tireless work-rate of the wingers aided the full backs sufficiently.
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Dennis Bergkamp and Thierry Henry cut the nearest passing lanes. The physical and brutal nature of Arsenal defenders coupled with their more than sufficient technical skills saw them concede just 26 goals across the season. The most preferred back four was Lauren, Sol Campbell, Kolo Toure and Ashley Cole. One thing to be noted here is all the four first choice defenders weren’t your natural defenders. Ashley Cole and Sol Campbell started out as forwards while Kolo Toure and Lauren were central midfielder and winger in the early parts of their career. Gilberto Silva was the invisible shield in front of the defence and his contributions to the team were often unnoticed.
The Thierry Henry factor
Arsenal ended the season as the highest goal scorers and also conceding the least in the league. They scored 73 and conceded just 26 from the 28 games. Thierry Henry struck 30 times in the league while Robert Pires scored a further 14. None of the other players had scored more than 4 goals. For Arsenal, the charismatic and brilliant Thierry Henry was a symbol of the team’s success, scoring 30 league goals and putting forward his case for being amongst the best in the world at that time.
He possessed pace, deft skill and clinical finishing, yet as well as this his off the pitch personality was a major reason for how he elevated to ‘superstar’ status. He was partnered often by the mercurial Dennis Bergkamp. The Dutch forward is one of the greatest players ever to have come to England, and his technical ability, combining smart movement between the defensive lines and creative technical play perfectly complemented his live-wire partner. Thierry Henry also ended with a league high 18 assists, with Robert Pires and Dennis Bergkamp also reaching the 10 goal mark.
The influence of Arsene Wenger and team selections
Arsene Wenger set out his team to play expansive dynamic and breath-taking attacking football with focus on attacking through the wings. One would think that playing through the wings with 2 strikers means flooding the balls with crosses, but in reality Arsenal ranked among the lowest for headed goals. This team was the team Arsene Wenger had dreamt off, a team not only winning the title without losing a game but also in the right beautiful way he professes. The Invincibles very much is to his line of thought which portrays Football as a fine art and playing football in an attacking way to be a fundamental duty for all big teams.
Apart from it, Arsene Wenger was also spot-on with the team selections and tactics. In midfield Vieira, Pires, Ljungberg and Silva were the first team midfielders. Edu shouldn’t be ignored because he was Wenger’s first choice substitute in midfield, having 16 substitute appearances. In fact, if total appearances were considered, Edu had 29 appearances, which is the same as Vieira.
Over the course of the season, as few as only 6 midfielders were mainly used which showed the versatility of these players, especially the two backup players Parlour and Edu who played as both central and wide midfielders. Moreover, Pires and Ljungberg were adept to play at both flanks. The combination of the aforementioned 6 players gave the flexibility and consistency of a solid and dominant Arsenal midfield.
When Ljungberg was absent, Parlour was the first choice for the right winger role. When these two players were absent, Pires played as a right winger and Edu played as a left winger. Cole, Lauren, Campbell and Toure were the first choice back four. Keown had more substitute appearances (7) than starting appearances (3) and Pascal Cygan was the first choice back up in the centre back position. On the other hand, Clichy deputized for Ashley Cole in left back position.
When Lauren was unavailable, Wenger shifted Toure to right back and let Cygan played as the left centre back. Even when Toure shifted from a centre back to a right back, he was more than a defensive right back, his speed and strength made him playing well as an attacking right back also. He made the best use of the players suited to the system which paid huge dividends at the end of the season
Arsene Wenger’s tactical influence and man management on the squad allowed this Arsenal squad to be molded into a seamless unit that could played some of the most attractive and attacking soccer the English Premier League had ever been seen in the Premier League. Furthermore the team had immense mental strength and a large number of leaders within the squad which made them remain focused and not lose hope when the team was trailing
ARSENAL 4-2 LIVERPOOL (April 9, 2004)
Perhaps the game which epitomized the Invincibles, Arsenal being 2-1 down at half time put in a blitzkrieg second half performance to thrash Liverpool 4-2 on course for a historic season.
The Gunners had their hopes of a historic treble crash down to earth after being knocked out of the FA Cup at the semi-final stage by Manchester United, before an extra-time defeat by Chelsea in the Champions League quarter-final. But a brilliant Thierry Henry hat-trick in this clash kept them on track in the Premier League, lifting them seven points clear at the top.
Sami Hyypia struck first for Liverpool before Henry’s equaliser. Michael Owen restored Liverpool’s lead from Steven Gerrard’s through-ball just before the break, but after Robert Pires levelled again, Henry turned on one of the greatest individual performances to hand Arsenal a 4-2 win.
The Frenchman scored twice to complete a memorable treble, the first of which was a wondrous solo effort, and the win helped lift the pressure on Arsenal’s shoulders as what would be a historic season came to a close.
Arsene Wenger managed to achieve a remarkable feat no other manager in English football has done yet. Furthermore, the Invincibles reached the pinnacle of success playing eye catching football considered by many to be the most attractive in the English league history. The laurels of the Invincibles side and their unheralded supremacy are surely one of the greatest achievements in sporting history.
Dennis Bergkamp, Robert Pires, Patrick Vieira and the rest of the team etched their names into the Arsenal folklore for being instrumental over the due course of the season. Rightly so, Arsenal were awarded the Golden English Premier League trophy for this great achievement. The Invincibles team was also adjudged as the best team during the 20 Seasons award marking 20 years of EPL in 2012. This illustrious feat will be the greatest achievement etched in the annals of the club.