How could you not miss him, and the rest of the Invincibles? (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)
The Invincibles were arguably the best ever team in England. Although they lacked the European success that earlier versions of Liverpool, Manchester United and Nottingham Forrest could claim, they broke all sorts of records in the 2003/04 season, when they became the first team since Preston North End in 1889 to go through an entire league season unbeaten. Not only did they go unbeaten, but they did it in fantastic style, with pace and precision passing. Just two years later, however, Arsenal slumped to 4th, and while they did get to the final of the Champions League, the era of the Invincibles was over. A new team would be created, and while the new Arsenal would still play passing possession football, it would be different, and, one could argue, less devastating. Why, though, has there been a change in the way Arsenal play?
When one thinks of the creative players of the 2003-04 team, they think of Thierry Henry, Dennis Bergkamp, Robert Pires, Freddie Ljungberg and Jose Antonio Reyes. Patrick Vieira, although a wonderful and important player, was not the playmaker. Because of his partnership with Gilberto, Arsenal's creative players were up front and wide, especially when Theirry Henry would drop off to the left when Arsenal weren't in possession. Thus most of Arsenal's attacking play would come from wide areas, and as a result, it was quicker and more direct than the play today. They weren't, though, crossing the ball into the box. Often, after quick build-up play through the wings, they'd pass the ball from the width, or Bergkamp would drop deeper, recieve, and then play in Freddie Ljungberg or Robert Pires, who, as Zonal Marking said in his review of the Invincibles, "reinvented the wide midfield role." On the counter attack, with Theirry Henry dropping to the left, with Ashley Cole and Robert Pires with him, they were devastating. Often, commentators that year would say "in the blink of an eye", and it was that quick.
Defensively, they were more solid due to the nature of the two midfielders. Tony Adams famously asked Patrick Vieira and Emmanuel Petit to cover the centre backs, and Vieira was still doing this role alongside Gilberto. That didn't mean they just sat and held; both Vieira and Gilberto made contributions going forward, and if there had to be a role on today's Arsenal team that was similar to Vieira's, it would be Jack Wilshere's box to box midfield role.
The physicality of that Arsenal side also contributed to the way they played. Most of the team were powerful, and quick, and could outpace many defences in the league. Thus, playing quick passing moves at a high tempo meshed with their physical and technical qualities. With that, however, comes a problem: These sorts of players become more and more expensive, and with the Emirates Stadium being built Arsene Wenger had to find a new market for players. He settled on players who were more technically proficient, but less of a dominating physical force. The first of the new group was Cesc Fabregas, and as he began to exert his influence on Arsenal, the way Arsenal played began to change. While Arsenal's passing remained quick, and is still more direct than the likes of Barcelona, the build up is slower and narrower than that of the Invincibles. Fabregas directs the game from the centre of the midfield, rather than Henry directing from the left.
Perhaps the biggest difference between the two sides is not one that Arsene Wenger had any control of. The sheer quality of Arsenal forced teams to abandon the high line that had been employed before, in order to press and squeeze the space that Arsenal had to play in. The problem with that defensive tactic was that it left huge amounts of space for Henry, Pires and Ljungberg to run into, and it only took a quick exchange of passes to put someone through. Defending deeper, first adapted by Sam Allardyce's Bolton, meant that Arsenal couldn't hit on the break or quickly pass through. Thus, they'd be forced to cross, or get the midfielders involved, and play would either become bogged down through the middle, or, when Arsenal did get crosses into the box, they were usually easily dealt with. This approach saw Arsenal lose plenty of games to Sam Allardyce's Bolton, and, with more teams adapting this defensive tactic, it saw Arsenal very nearly lose their Champions League status in 2005/06. Teams defending deep and narrow is still a problem for Arsenal, as we've seen over the last 3 weeks against West Brom, United and Sunderland. If teams had continued to play a high line against Arsenal, it's likely that the league or cup would've been won more times, as Arsenal can still rip teams apart who play a high line.
Lack of Width
Alex Hleb, Tomas Rosicky, Samir Nasri, Andrey Arshavin. All of the previous four are playmakers, and all played in a central role at their previous club. All play, or played, a wide midfield role for Arsenal. Because of that, they often cut inside, making Arsenal's play narrower, and dependent on the full backs for width. On a bad day, Arsenal can be hit on the counter attack because of the forward positions of the full backs, and then struggle to break down teams that play a compact defensive minded game. On a good day, someone like Samir Nasri can time his outside to inside runs to perfection, and, on most occasions, Arsenal do break teams down. The problem, however, is that when Arsenal lose points it's often because they don't score, and thus concede on the counter attack. When Arsenal went unbeaten in 2003/04, and when the won the league in 1997/98, width was often a major part of Arsenal's build up play. However, the shift to a shorter team meant that crossing, already a low percentage play, became even less effective, which is why players like Hleb and Nasri were pushed out wide. They're not supposed to get crosses into the box, they are supposed to play one-twos with the midfield and cut into the box and get into scoring positions.
Robert Pires and Freddie Ljungberg were not hug the touchline wingers, but they did have more of a presence out wide, thereby stretching play, and making it harder to defend against. Defensive strategies have changed, but when Arsenal set out to play with width and stretch play, they usually do well. For example, against Manchester City in October, they stretched the width, creating more space and forcing City defend more with 10 men. Eventually, Arsenal found a way through, and ended up winning comfortably. Too often though, the Arsenal of today do not stretch the width, and that is perhaps the biggest change from the 2001-2004 side that Arsene Wenger has control over.