Eight years ago, Arsenal fans celebrated their historic league title. Winning the title is always special, but the 2003/2004 season’s victory was particularly special. It was because they won it without a single defeat thus they earned “The Invincibles” tag. Although they missed other trophies such as Champions League, FA Cup, and Carling Cup, winning the EPL title with zero defeat is a memorable feat. A year after, Arsenal won FA Cup, but sadly it was the last trophy they have won until now. Up until now, Arsenal has been enduring the dark age of a trophyless era for 7 consecutive years. Just too long for a club with great history like Arsenal. Every player of The Invicibles has departed. The memory of the most feared team has long gone. No more threat as a contender in any competition. The Invicibles have vanished, leaving no mark at all.
But actually they left a legacy which still affects football world until now. Just like the fashion world has trend setters, football has it too. So what lecgacy have the Invincibles left with us?
Source: Graeme Bandeira
1. Inverted Winger
For those who are unfamiliar with this term, the inverted winger is a strategy which puts the player on the opposite side with his dominant foot. The current examples include Messi, Robben, Ribery, and Malouda. Robben’s strong foot is his left yet Van Gaal put him on the right side of the pitch. The player cuts inside which brings many advantages. First, the player is more comfortable to shoot. Second, he will drag his marker inside and open the space for the fullback. Third, the player forces the defender to challenge him with his weaker foot. The left back usually is left footed and if he deals with inverted winger, he must thwart the attack with his right foot.
The concept of inverted winger has existed for a long, long time, as back as the 1950s-1960s. The attackers drift inside and then drag the side back, giving his fullback plenty of room and time. But, it was never been a tactic. It was just a spontaneous move and it had never been popular. Enter Thierry Henry.
Henry is right footed, but he preferred to play on the left flank. With Ashley Cole providing support, they rampaged defences like hot knife slices through butter. To allow Henry space to run is obvious suicide, but marking him meant that the left full back (Ashley Cole) was completely free. Actually, stopping Henry’s run alone was already a difficult task in itself. Mark him tight and he will outpace you. Give him a little space to anticipate his dribble and he would just shoot his trademark curling shoot to top left corner. And now, the task seemed almost imposibble with Ashley Cole bombing forward to provide the width and the cross. It is highly arguable, but I believe Henry is the inventor of rreal inverted winger. It was not a spontaneous move anymore, it was a well planned tactic before the game began.
Small sidenote here - Wenger certainly didn’t think about the inverted winger concept to start with, but perhaps it accidently became the main tactic. Back then, Wenger always told the forwards to run diagonally. When Henry was paired up with Wiltord, Henry was always on the left side and they would run to the opposite side, much to opponent’s bewilderment. And Wenger was so lucky to have Cole as the left back which fulfilled all the requirements to be the ideal foil to make the inverted winger scheme work. He loved bombing forward, he was fast, energetic, could cross the ball well, and could return in defensive position very quickly. When Henry’s diagonal runs started matching well with Cole's timing, Wenger realized the destructive potency of the play. Then, the combination of Henry-Cole became the trademark of Arsenal offense and it has become ever more popular since with Messi-Alves, Robben-Lahm, and Malouda-Cole (again) following the lead.
2. Fluid Positioning
Before Arsenal became the kings of English football, Manchester United dominated the scene and the 1998/99 season was the peak in their recent history. The Red Devils sealed the treble with those legendary double goals against Bayern at injury time in the final. As the reigning champion, Man Utd too acted as “trend setters” and other clubs tried to emulate the success by copying some of their tactics. It was a classic 4-4-2 formation, with every players excelling in his respective position in a very rigid fashion.
The defence comprised of the commanding giant yet agile goalkeeper (Schemeichel), 2 towering centerbacks (Stam and Berg), overlapping right back to provide crosses (G. Neville), and conservative left back to balance the offensive right flank (Irwin). The midfield was even more classical. A combination of classical destroyer-creator which were very popular back then (Keane-Scholes), the crossing launchpad on the right wing (Beckham), and electric mobility at the left wing (Giggs). The pair of forwards were relatively the most unconventional, but still upheld the rigid position-player philosophy. Usually the duet would encompass 2 different types of players, consisting of the creator and the finisher, but Man Utd used 2 allrounders (Cole-Yorke). It seemed like a revolution in football tactics, but it was not. It is the same old method of the creator and the finisher, but the difference was that Cole and Yorke could switch their roles at will. When Cole dropped deep or moved to flank, Yorke would run forward to anticipate the forward pass and vice versa. It worked very well because it caused confusion among the opponents. This was a quality which many teams could not replicate, because they needed allrounders with almost telepathic understanding and high football intelligence, which was rare to find.
Then came Arsenal, destroying the very idea of such a rigid system. The defence is rather hard to modify, but the offence is not. There was not so much difference in goalkeeper and backline except that the offensive flank of Man Utd was on the right, while for Arsenal was on the left. But the midfield and the attack contrasted by some distance, and it would change football forever. The core of Man Utd midfield was the creative fulcrum (Scholes) and the attack breaker (Keane), but Arsenal used 2 anchors (Vieira – G. Silva). To be more precise, actually neither of them played the defensive midfielder role, they were anchors in a central midfielder role. Back then, no team used the central midfielder role to such an extent as Arsenal did. The popular strategy was destroyer-creator combination. And if any team used 2 allrounders in the midfield, it was because they lacked the quality to be offensive or defensive. Back then, using the central midfielder was the last resort, but Arsenal used it as a primary tactic. Throughout their career, they always played as anchors, breaking every opponent’s attack before it reaches the backline. But at Arsenal, they played the offensive duties too. They used the principle of the pulley, when Vieira runs forward, Silva would stay back providing cover. When Silva positioned himself at the center of midfield, Vieira would position himself at Silva’s side.
Six years later, the same concept was used by Bayern when they advanced to the CL Final with Schweinsteiger and Van Bommel as the core. Different type of players but the same basic concept. And funnily enough, the current Man Utd also used this dual core before Scholes came back. Now, the concept is modified a little. Teams do not always use the dual central midfielders, but they instead use 1 or even 3 central midfielders. The recent examples are Busquets for Barca and the Inter trio of Cambiasso-Motta-Zanetti.
The winger also didn’t follow the mainstream at Arsenal. I will explain what kind of revolution they brought later, but the concept of fluid positioning came into play. Pires and Ljungberg didn’t stick to their position at their respective spot, but instead they would roam freely around the pitch. They would swap positions with other players like Vieira, Silva, Henry, or Bergkamp, but the primary pattern was that Ljungberg and Pires would swap position with each other. And then, this swapping of wingers became a trend among the football world. An example was Euro 2004, where Portugal advanced to final with Figo and Ronaldo at both flanks swapping their positions numerous times. Now the wingers don’t swap with each other simply because the current teams usually do not use the traditional wingers in midfield anymore. Instead, the width is usually provided by 1 man in midfield and/or by the fullbacks. But the concept of fluid positioning still influences football. Now, you just don’t see any player who stays static on a certain position.
And the forward line was also completely different from the tactic used by most other teams. Usually, the finisher would stay high up the pitch in a central position and his partner would drop deep. Another common scenario was that the pair consisted of a targetman and a finisher. Both of them stayed high up the pitch, waiting for the long ball to then launch quick counter attacks. Arsenal did neither. Both Henry and Bergkamp preferred to drop deep with the former usually stationing himself slightly higher, but on the LEFT instead of the central position. Also, Henry didn’t possess the usual requirements of EPL strikers. Back then, the striker was a battering ram. They had a strong foot and possessed control of the aerial battle. The best example was Shearer, followed by Ian Wright, Hasselbaink etc. But not Henry. His shot wasn’t powerful, instead it was artistic with his trademark curve. And despite his tall frame, heading was actually Henry’s weakest point. He loved to dribble, something the EPL forward couldn't dream of (except Zola). In short, Henry was an unique striker in the Premier League, which made Arsenal's attack quite unconventional.
3. Wide Midfielder
All 4 Arsenal midfielders brought something new to the fooball scene. Vieira-Silva introduced the central midfielder duet and Pires-Ljungberg introduced the interchanging wide midfielder. Their positions were at both flanks, and yet they were not wingers. Traditional wingers work down the flank, bringing the ball to byline to cross. The important parameters are speed, dribbling, and crossing. But neither Pires nor Ljungberg fulfilled these requirements.
Pires was actually a central midfielder. He couldn’t skip past the defence like Giggs or Vicente did. He had good ball distribution, but it was passing, not crossing and they are a completely different skill. And for Ljungberg, he had amazing speed, but the problem was that he could not bring the ball in the same speed that he managed without the ball. And his crossing was just average. So what kind of qualities did they possess? It was footballing intelligence and teamwork which set them apart from most others. Pires knew the correct timing to move, or to pass, or to swap with Ljungberg, or to form a fatal triangle alongside Cole and Henry. And when Henry wasn't at the left flank, Pires would be there to play the inverted winger like Henry. No wonder Wenger branded him as the best left midfielder that ever played for him.
If Pires was not ideal winger material, then Ljungberg was worse. His greatest asset was his ninja-like off the ball movement, sneaking and surprising into the defence line. Frankly, if it is not because of Wenger and his system, Ljungberg wouldn't be as famous. His passing, crossing, dribbling, and shooting were just decent. With his electric speed, one could recommend him to play winger, but he lacked the dribbling and crossing skills needed for that role. If he played as a traditional winger, he would have probably ended up playing for a mid-table team. But Wenger spotted Ljungberg’s exceptional game sense and turned him into one of the finest midfielders around.
Nowadays, the wide midfielder is the common tactic. Wenger still uses this tactic and he always puts his most creative player on the flank (Nasri and Rosicky for example). Ranieri also used the wide midfielder. He used his most creative players like Alvarez and Sneijder on the left flank for Inter. Wenger provided this new trend in football tactics - there now is another place for the technically gifted player and it is on the flank which was previously dominated by fast wingers.
4. Extra dimension in fast English football
England were always known for their physical football. It is all about stamina, speed and power. It just made common sense that “Kick and Rush” was born from such a football ethos. The defender's and midfielder's task was to pass the ball long to the forwards. The ball would always fly in the air, to be fought by the forward and the defenders in an aerial duel. The emergence of players like Gazza awoke English football to the presence of another kind of football which could be played in England. Then came Scholes, whose playmaking ability stunned the nation. But as much as they introduced the importance of the playmaker in the midfield, the English teams still mostly relied on the high ball from the back, and Man utd were no exception. They relied on Neville and Beckham to provide that high cross. What separated Man Utd from most other teams was that the high ball was very accurate and they didn’t solely rely on the long ball. They still had alternative routes either from Giggs’ surging runs or Scholes’ through passes. For The Invincibles’ case, they actually didn’t rely on high ball at all. Both Cole and Lauren prefered the drilled low cross because they knew Henry and Bergkamp were not a dangerous aerial threat. They only used high balls in set pieces, when Campbell and Toure advanced forward.
Just like any other English team, Arsenal’s football relies on speed and so did The Invincibles. Thierry Henry is the first name that pops in anyone's mind when we talk about speed and Arsenal. And they still had other adept sprinters like Cole, Lauren, Ljungberg, Wiltord, and Bergkamp (surprisingly, Bergkamp was the 2nd fastest player at Arsenal after Henry those days). So what distinguished The Invincibles from other teams? Other EPL clubs too had the players with tremendous speed. It was because Arsenal not only relied on player speed, but also ball speed. Since their game relied on the short pass, the ball circulated among them very swiftly. Long passes may shorten the time the ball requires to travel from the backline to the opponent’s defence, but the ball itself moves slower than it does in case of short passes. The slower the ball, the more time a defender has to anticipate and disrupt the move.
Player speed is important, ball speed is important too, but speed is useless without accuracy. Another problem with long ball is that because the passer and the target are separated by such a distance, it is harder to place the ball onto an exact position. Unless you have great long passers like Beckham or Veron, the passer would usually misplace the ball by a few meters, much to the risk of being intercepted by the defenders. By playing the short pass, Arsenal reduced the risk of inaccuracy. And of course they had more ball possession. With more ball possession, the opponents had shorter time to attack. If you have the ball, the opponent can’t score. That was their philosophy.
The passing game now has become a key tactic for English football teams. Except Stoke, Liverpool (when Suarez is unavailable and Carroll becomes the spearhead), and few other teams, most clubs in England already emphasize on the short passing game. Even though they cannot do it as well as the continental teams. City has Silva to control the pass flow, Scholes had to return from his retirement because Man Utd desperately need a passer, Arsenal bought Arteta to help them retain the ball, Spurs have Modric, and Chelsea have Mata. All Big 5 teams have the playmaker and it tells us how important the passing game is. Something that England wouldn’t think of 20 years ago (although in 1953, Hungary had already taught the passing game to England in the historic match which ended 6-3 in favour of the Magic Magyars).