September 22, 1996. The date Arsene Wenger was unveiled as the new manager of Arsenal Football Club following a two year spell in Japan. As exciting as it seems, it turned out to be one to most important days in the Gunners’ history.
The 22 October 1949 born Alsace would write his own golden pages in the English football history becoming the longest serving and most successful manager of the North London based club, being one of the most influential individuals in the last 30 years along with Sir Alex Ferguson, and certainly a rejuvenator of the game approach in the United Kingdom.
His approach involved substantial changes to player’s training, scouting, and even diet regimes to get the most out of every young athlete, and to be able to assemble teams which would cooperate perfectly at the pitch. The above combined with his superb tactical ideas and his ability to transform young promising players into world class superstars over the years earned him the nickname “Le Proffeseur” which means “The Professor” or “The Teacher”.
Most importantly though, Arsene earned Arsenal, as for April 20, 2018, the day he announced his retirement, three Premier League titles, seven FA Cups, and seven Community Shields. Arsenal were also one little step away from becoming European Champions in 2006 when they reached the UEFA Champions League final but were beaten to Barcelona.
The most important accomplishment of the Frenchman though, was the 2003-04 unbeaten Premier League campaign (26 wins, 12 draws) which ended with title glory for Arsenal and the nickname “The Invincibles” for Wenger’s side.
What were the qualities needed and how exactly Arsenal managed to be the only club to achieve that since Preston North End did in the 1880s? Well, the 2003-04 Gunners side’s strength was the tactical excellence along with the ability of Wenger to bring certain players to the squad who were exactly fit for the tactical role that they were to be assigned, but also versatile enough to be sufficient for the limited squad rotation Arsene used that season.
The raw material aka the squad
Arsenal squad was already very strong, with key players well established in their respective roles. Players such as Thierry Henry, Dennis Bergkamp, Sol Campbell, Ashley Cole and Gilberto Silva were on contracts, Captain Patrick Vieira and his compatriot Robert Pirès renewed their contract the summer before that season, and the only major addition to the squad was that of goalkeeper Jens Lehmann who took David Seaman’s place between the posts. Wenger also signed young defenders Philippe Senderos, Gael Clichy and Johan Djourou to participate in the rotation. In the mid-season transfer window, Spanish winger and striker Jose Antonio Reyes was bought from Sevilla.
The formation Arsene Wenger used in most of his Arsenal career and especially in the first and most successful years was the 4-4-2, basically the epitome of English Football. Having made his own adjustments over the years, he developed a structured, though well transitioned version of the 4-4-2, which also helped Arsenal win the double in the 2001-02 season, with a strong squad which was complemented by the aforementioned summer transfer window additions.
The season started with Arsenal fielding a back line of four with Lauren, Kolo Toure, Sol Campbell and Ashley Cole being the usual starters in front of Jens Lehmann.
In what was presented as flat-four midfield, but turned out to be everything but flat (more below), Fredrik Ljungberg, Gilberto Silva, Patrick Vieira and Robert Pirès regularly started from right to left.
Up front the main attacking duo was Thierry Henry and Dennis Bergkamp.
The typical player positions and movements are shown in the scheme above as this would be the starting eleven for Arsenal in most league games that season.
Attacking buildup plans
The truth is that when turned to life, the formation actively reshaped to a 4-2-3-1 when attacking, with this transitional change happening so fast that tore the opponents’ defense apart time after time, and despite the fact that the initial objective of the tactic was not counter-attacking, its dynamical reformation made reaching the other side of the pitch with no than 3 or 4 passes possible.
This was achieved mainly through certain players’ movements with or without the ball during the attacking buildup.
Those movements, as depicted in the scheme beside, disrupted normality by providing passing options between the lines, which in turn caused opponents to get out of position and consequently leave fatal gaps in their defense.
Usually this ended up with Arsenal attacking players outnumbering defenders in the box or with quick through balls played in the gaps where Gunners footballers would make timely movements to get into dangerous positions.
To be more precise there were two main attacking plans Arsene Wenger used combined in any match that season with exceptional results.
Playing out of defense
One of the key aspects of the Arsenal Invincibles’ game was the pace of their attacking transition. They would play their set game out of defense as quick as other teams counterattacked.
This was possible due to the ability on one central defender (usually Kolo Toure) and one defensive midfielder (Gilberto Silva in most cases) to play quick accurate passes vertically across the field to the wingers or forwards who would make movements to the box along with box to box captain Patrick Vieira who would move into channels.
The ability of Thierry Henry to drift to the left unnoticed and start his runs from there, supplemented by the inside forward runs from Robert Pirès were equally important in this kind of play.
Playing quickly to the wings
Another main attacking asset to Arsenal’s attacking repertoire was the ability of the Gunners’ wing players to cross the ball effectively into the box while the continuous movements of midfielders and strikers between the lines would make sure that the box was always full with Wenger’s lads waiting for the ball to finish.
The ball would go the one wing where the most space was available while Dennis Bergkamp’s technical ability was enough to drag opponents around him as he dropped deeper to leave space for the ball to be played over the defense and to the wings. Fredrik Ljungberg would be on the right side ready to cross, and as Pirès, would usually cut inside to provide with one more attacking option in the box, with Henry, Vieira, and finally Bergkamp, Ashley Cole would serve the same purpose on the left playing as a wing back.
When it came to defending Arsenal prove to be equally effective. They wouldn’t press in the final third as intensely as many successful sides do nowadays, as only the attacking pair would close down on the opposition defenders. That was until the ball reached the center of the pitch, when Henry would again drift out to the left and Bergkamp or any player playing in his position (which was the case in many games due to his old age) would drop deeper between the lines to defend with the midfielders.
Those in turn would usually defend as a compact unit rather than stretching in wide places, though always keeping the line of four. Their main aim was to steal the ball in one on one encounters or press individually limiting the opposition’s short options and leading them to long ball forward.
This is where the defensive bank of four kept their shape and usually left no space for the strikers to move between them or played the offside trap effectively.
The ball would end in sweeper-keeper Jens Lehmann’s legs. He, having been brought mainly for this exact quality, had the ability to clear quickly or play long balls in a counter attacking fashion.
Game plan summary and specific features
As shown above there were very specific elements in the Gunners’ game plan, including team instructions and positioning as well as personal player traits which Arsene Wenger managed to use to full effect by assigning them the right roles.
This is one of the reasons that he kept the rotation limited as much as possible in league in games. The only position that seemed to be claimable by the players sitting on the bench was the one of Dennis Bergkamp as he was not physically able to play 90 minutes every game on a full campaign. Though, despite players as Wiltord, Aliadiere and later Jose Antonio Reyes where chosen to replace the Dutch, none of the seemed to fit in the role as perfectly.
The Brazilian Edu had a fair share of participations in the midfield, but he never actually threatened the positions of the starters.
That being said, one can easily understand how difficult is for a manager to build a side so perfectly following his tactical ideas while simultaneously being skillful enough to provide moments of exciting football as well as being unpredictable for the opponent side.
The Invincibles were one of the most beautiful football stories of the recent years and a team achieving a milestone that seemed impossible. Surely it was difficult to continue playing on the same level for too long, but Arsenal supporters will remember Arsene Wenger for years to come thanking him for the most enjoyable campaign a team in England had in a century or so.