Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Comparing the Invincibles with our current crop

The timing of this article may seem a little strange, but I've been waiting to post this article for a while. There should still be a preview for the Sp*rs game. For now, enjoy my analysis of the Invincibles compared to the current crop, and how we could bring back the glory days. As seen on twofootedtackle

In the 2003/04 Premier League season, Arsenal made history by going an entire league campaign undefeated, lifting the title with a superb record of 26 games won, 12 games drawn and exactly 0 lost.

The side was a brilliant fusion of speed and strength, attack and defence, flair and steel. Throughout the team, there were experienced players with a will to win. Lehmann, Lauren, Campbell, Touré, Cole, Ljungberg, Vieira, Gilberto, Pires, Bergkamp and of course the majestic Thierry Henry.

Fast forward seven years, and Arsenal have just seen their faltering title ambitions take another devastating blow, conceding a last-minute equaliser to Liverpool having already scored what had seemed to be a winner of their own in the dying seconds. The Invincibles seem like a completely different side to this current Arsenal team. But are they?

Obviously the tactics and formation are different, but I think with a little tweaking, Arsene Wenger could have a team that resembles that brilliant side he once had.

It’s difficult to slot Arsenal’s current set of players into the system that the Invincibles deployed without leaving out current captain Cesc Fabregas. He’s a wonderful player, but for comparison’s sake let’s just imagine he wasn’t at Arsenal.

The Invincibles played a 4-4-2 that was solid in defence but free-flowing in attack. For example, you’d often see Thierry Henry drifting out on the left flank, with Robert Pires taking up his position in the centre of attack. The players were all so versatile that swift changes of position to confuse the opposition’s defence were commonplace.

Below is a graphic of the team that the Invincibles played. Each circle represents a player, with the numbers representing the numbers worn by the players. If you hover over the image, it shows you how the players would be replaced in the same system by the current players. I picked the current players that are most similar to their Invincibles counterparts, but there would be one or two positional changes. For example, I thought Kolo Toure and Johan Djourou were most similar for their athleticism, and Thomas Vermaelen and Sol Campbell were most similar because of their defensive excellence. However, Toure played on the left side of defence, while Vermaelen is left footed, so would play in that position.

Here’s the player by player comparison:

Jens Lehmann/Wojciech Szczesny
Two self-confessed “crazy” goalkeepers, both have their strengths. They’re both excellent at commanding their box, and constantly scream orders at their players. On top of those attributes, they’re terrific shot stoppers, and love to punch the ball. The 03/04 season was Lehmann’s first at Arsenal, while next season will be Szczesny’s first full campaign as number 1; he’s expected to retain his position as Arsenal’s first choice goalkeeper.

Right back
Lauren/Bacary Sagna
These two committed full backs are powerful, athletic and skilled – three traits that are vital if you’re to become successful in this position in football. Lauren would occasionally overlap Freddie Ljungberg and cross the ball into the box; Sagna probably does this more often, sometimes to good effect. He’s a great crosser of the ball, and gets his fair share of assists. In fact, he’s just been named in the PFA Team of the Year for 2010/11. Both players share a powerful shot, and have great upper body strength as well as speed.

Centre back
Sol Campbell/Thomas Vermaelen
Campbell and Vermaelen are both tough, old fashioned centre halves who strike fear into opposing strikers, and they also have an eye for goal. They’re reliable players who are strong aerially and on the deck, who are comfortable on the ball as well. Campbell would often mop up after partner Kolo Toure when he slipped up, and the two complemented each other perfectly – Campbell’s excellent knowledge and reading of the game combined with Toure’s power and speed helped the Gunners to many a cleansheet.

Kolo Toure/Johan Djourou
As mentioned above, Campbell would often have to clear up after Toure made a mistake, and Djourou has similar errors of judgement at times. While he remains a good defender, also comfortable on the ball, his reading of the game could be better, a key characteristic also present in the game of Kolo Toure. Both players were previously uninspiring defensive midfielders who Arsene Wenger transformed into excellent central defenders.

Left back
Ashley Cole/Gael Clichy
Both of these left sided defenders are good in attack whilst remaining sound defensively, even if Clichy does have momentarily lapses of concentration every now and then. Cole was a key part of Arsenal’s left sided triumvirate of himself, Robert Pires and Thierry Henry – more on that later – who would rip teams to shreds on the attack. Like Clichy, he’s an athletic player who has the ability and stamina to work tirelessly up and down the wing.

Right midfield
Freddie Ljungberg/Andrey Arshavin
Perhaps the most difficult of the comparisons to make, these players are similar nonetheless. Both are fairly diminutive, Arshavin more so maybe, and excellent dribblers. They’re dynamic players who are extremely effective in attack, and demonstrate superb link-up play, making clever runs in behind the defence – these darts into space help them achieve impressive goal-scoring records. Arshavin maybe has more of an eye for the killer pass than Ljungberg, a theory supported by quotes from Wenger and a great number of assists. Still, they’re fairly similar.

Centre midfield
Patrick Vieira/Jack Wilshere
Another tricky resemblance to explain, I do feel these players are comparable. Both of them epitomise what the team is about – attack and defence working in sync. Vieira and Jack are the types of dynamic, box-to-box midfielders who work their socks off in midfield, helping the defence by breaking down play then charging forwards in attack to support the forwards, chipping in with a few goals themselves. They’re both leaders of their teams and wear their hearts on their sleeves, often getting into scuffles, partly explaining questionable disciplinary records (although Jack’s is still fairly good, it may get worse in the future).

Gilberto Silva/Alex Song
The unsung heroes of their respective sides – although both received recognition from some – these combative midfielders are less reserved in attack, preferring to sit deep and protect the defence, although this is much less obvious in Song’s play. They both chip in with vital goals, and aren’t afraid to have a pop at goal. Gilberto was a tidy player who always cleared up at the back; this isn’t present as much in Song’s game, seeing as he often gives away cheap fouls, but this will change as he becomes more experienced.

Left midfield
Robert Pires/Samir Nasri
Both plucked from French side Marseille, these are players that might feel more comfortable in a central role, but find themselves shifted onto the wing by Wenger; perhaps this is a feature more present in Nasri’s profile. As well as Ljungberg, Pires was said to have revolutionised the modern winger. Often found lurking around the box instead of bombing down the wing and putting in crosses, he was a key member of the Invincibles. He, Cole and Henry had a brilliant understanding, combining superbly to tear teams apart down the left hand side. Nasri and Pires are both excellent on the ball, and are great passers, long and short. They both have great long range shots, and are deadly from inside the box as well.

Dennis Bergkamp/Robin van Persie
An easy comparison to make this time, the two Dutch no.10s demonstrate many similarities between their games. Both drop deep to receive the ball and often set players up to score – a great example of van Persie doing so was against Blackburn early in the season, coming deep to get the ball, sending right winger Theo Walcott free to score. Dennis Bergkamp also had a great understanding with his right winger, Ljungberg, and the two would often combine to assist each other. It’s not a nailed on comparison though; in recent years van Persie has played as a “false 9”, a no.10 playing as a lone striker, despite not being an out-and-out goalscorer. You can’t be sure that van Persie would excel as the support striker, but with his resemblance of Bergkamp it’s hard to imagine it not working.

Thierry Henry/Theo Walcott
A comparison made since the latter was just a youth player at former club Southampton, Walcott has never been able to shake off the Henry tag. It’s easy to see why though – he’s lightning fast, and often demonstrates the cool head in front of goal that made Henry so brilliant. As well as having added the clinical finishing, Walcott has matured a lot this season, getting a lot more goals and assists than in previous years. He’s even shown hints at being deadly from free kicks, just like his predecessor and idol. Walcott still needs to add more skill to his game to be completely like Henry, but that will come with time.

Now, onto the tactics. The basic 4-4-2 formation used by Wenger’s side back then is seen as too rigid and outdated these days, but that’s untrue. In fact, it’s more about the personnel in the side and the tactics used. While England’s version of the 4-4-2 recently has been found out as unimaginative and stiff, teams like Manchester United still use the formation to good effect, thanks to a counter-attacking blueprint not unlike that of the Invincibles.

The Gunners would allow the opposition to have their fair share of possession, and attacks. They would then nick the ball from them and unleash devastating counter attacks, going directly for goal. No slowness on the ball, no beating around the bush, just powerful, attacking play. The speed of thought and movement was brilliant.

At times, players would just be queuing up in the box to score. If a player inside the area didn’t have the angle to shoot, he could simply shift it to a team-mate in a better position who would score. The football was often one-touch, and they carved teams apart. The link-up play was just a joy to watch. A lot of the time it’s the same with this current Arsenal team.

Not only were Arsenal so feared as a team, they also had many players that opponents tried to double mark at times. Thierry Henry would often draw two or three defenders towards him, creating space for others, and it was the same with some of his team-mates; Pires, Ljungberg, Bergkamp and so on.

They would also have a lot of shots on goal – this led to many goals being scored on the rebound. It was a statistical likelihood that if they kept shooting on target, then eventually it would fall for them to score into an open goal. Perhaps Wenger needs to instil this into his own players, as they seem too afraid to shoot.

The current tactics employed by Arsenal mean that many teams set out their stall to defend, especially at the Emirates Stadium, packing many players behind the ball, meaning the Gunners have little space to use. If they changed tactics to those used by the Invincibles, perhaps they wouldn’t have those problems of being frustrated by defensive sides.

Finally, we come to the mentality of the sides. As I mentioned before, every one of the Invincibles had a will to win and knew how to do it. Many if not all of them had done it before – it was a side not too dissimilar to the team which lifted the title two years before. However, this current Arsenal side have been broken so many times. They’ve crashed out of three competitions and have threatened for a long time to drop out of the title race – yet they remain in it by the string of their teeth.

The current crop have shown signs of a winning mentality – see coming behind against Everton and Barcelona – but have fallen apart too many times. Tottenham at home, Wigan away last season, and most horrifically, Newcastle away. They were four goals to the good at half time, before self-destructing and drawing 4-4.

It’s a difficult problem to assess – the players have individually shown plenty of drive and passion. Nasri when he dragged Arsenal over the line against Fulham. Fabregas when he rescues them from defeat. Wilshere in every game that he plays. But they seem to lack something as a unit. There seems to be a strong bond between the players, but sometimes that’s not evident at all – at times the leadership completely evaporates.

However, as Arsene points out, the players are young, and what leadership they lack will come in time. If he can make a few adjustments, soon his team will be playing like the Arsenal of old.


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