The Man - Arsene Wenger
September 22, 1996, was the day that Arsenal football club would change forever, for the better. Arsene Wenger, in what was a shock appointment turned out to be a match made in heaven despite a few players having slight concerns at the start. Wenger brought change. The way Arsenal ate, trained, and navigated in the transfer world all changed, and inevitably so did the style of football. In the 01/02 season, Wenger's side went unbeaten away and in the press, Wenger conceded he thought it was possible to not lose home or away in a season to which, only he could've possibly believed. In 03/04 though, dreams turned into reality and Arsenal completed the invincible season, the first time since Preston North End in the 1888/89 season. Let's dive into how “Le Proffeseur” and Arsenal managed this.
Arsene Wenger lined-up his team in his then favoured 4-4-2, which was also arguably THE formation of English Football. But he made it his own, and this 4-4-2 shape was rarely seen as Arsenal transitioned on the pitch. As the example image (above) suggests, there was plenty of movement and players operating in spaces which made this 4-4-2 formation look a lot more like a 4-2-3-1.
Players Who Made This Possible
Lehmann was an aggressive keeper, a sweeper. In possession, he would often distribute the ball quickly to start off an attack. The two wing-backs had duties of stretching the play and making forwards runs, Ashley Cole more so than Lauren whilst Lauren played with a little more caution. Toure was seen as a Ball-Playing-Defender, someone who can bring the ball out as well as find a pass whilst Sol Campbell was the more traditional central defender. The whole backline was quick, they had pace, and this allowed Arsenal's defence line to be higher. In midfield, Vieira and Gilberto Silva would operate in central midfield but with two different roles. Gilberto was seen deeper, in front of the defence whilst Vieira positioned himself slightly higher. For build-up purposes, these two players wouldn't operate on the same line giving the one on the ball (typically Gilberto Silva) a better passing angle to play the ball forward. Both Pires and Ljungberg, on the flanks liked to get forward but Pires would often cut inside, and play not too distant from Thierry Henry, this also allowed Cole to be more adventurous. Ljungberg was more of a winger, someone who could dribble at defenders, pinning them back. Up top, there was a lot of magic in Bergkamp and Henry. Bergkamp was the creator, dropping deep in between lines also offering himself as an option to then switch the ball wide and Henry liked to stay further ahead whilst slightly positioning himself to the left, this also helped link-up play with Pires.
Style Of Play
Many viewed this Arsenal side as a counter-attacking team as they displayed quick attacking transitions. From defensive situations, Arsenal could create or score within just a few passes. Down to the players' staggered positioning, they were able to break down sides as players operated in lines and spaces difficult for opponents to defend.
Playing Out From The Back: When building from the back, Kolo Toure was very comfortable on the ball and therefore, he could either play an advanced vertical pass or bring the ball out in search of a better passing angle. Gilberto Silva was also relied upon to make quick vertical passes to get the ball forward to the key creative players, the wingers, strikers, or Patrick Vieira. Many times when Arsenal were building up, they could outnumber the opponents in midfield. With Bergkamp coming deeper, meant now Arsenal could have 3 in midfield instead of the two and this could create a 3v2 situation. If Pires was also in central areas, this could be a 4v2 situation.
Going Forward: Arsenal were effective attacking centrally with Vieira making forward runs supporting the attackers, Bergkamp dropping deeper, but Arsenal were just as dangerous on the flanks, especially on the left. Robert Pires and Henry played close to each other, Henry liked to drift to the left whilst Pires liked to come inside and this meant Ashley Cole could afford to get up the flank with some freedom. When Cole did get further forward, this helps create an overload with either Henry or Pires to make a 2v1 situation on the left against the opposition full-back, and then either Henry or Pires could move into the channel. Ljungberg was an effective dribbler. When he had his chance, he could get past his defender in a 1v1 battle so Lauren didn't do much overlapping but did when the chance was there.
When the ball was with the opponent's backline, the two forwards (Henry & Bergkamp) would engage in a press to try and force the play out wide. If the ball made its way centrally, then Bergkamp would drop off to add another body in midfield but Henry would remain forward, and Arsenal With the back-line being quick, certainly quicker than most forwards, they could step up and play an offside trap. But with the midfield not engaging too high up and with the backline stepping up, this meant Arsenal were compact and had a mid-block that was very difficult to play through as opponents couldn't have space or time in midfield. And if the ball did make its way over or passed the defence line then Arsenal had Jens Lehmann, the Sweeper-Keeper to sweep things up. Gilberto Silva had the job to protect the defence and sat in front of it whilst Vieira could win the ball to set up a counter-attack where he would have forward runners to pass too or he could be one getting forward to support the attack. The two wingers had their defensive responsibilities whilst also getting forward once the ball has been won
Though we mainly touched on the players who mostly started, this was far down to just those individuals. Arsenal had a squad that made this possible, as someone like Dennis Bergkamp never had the physical profile to consistently complete 90mins. Arsenal also had Edu or Parlour who could come in Central Midfield but also Wenger had a reputation as someone who could nurture young players so you could also see Aliadiere feature.
The Invincibles were and still are considered to be one of the best Premier League teams, ever. And it's hard to argue with that. Arsene Wenger left his mark on Arsenal and the English game and he is a manager we will be speaking about decades and centuries later. That wraps up my Invincibles explanation, hope you enjoyed it and speak to you soon. RDF