The likes of Liverpool, Manchester City and Chelsea have recently accumulated never-seen-before points tallies in the Premier League ranging from 95 to 100 points, respectively. However, none of these teams can say that they went an entire league season unbeaten, but Arsène Wenger’s “Invincibles” can.
“The Invincibles” achieved their phenomenal feat 18 years ago and this is crucial to note because their style and competition cannot be analysed under the same lens as football in the modern day. There are so many differences between the sport 5 years ago compared to now, let alone now compared to 18 years ago. At that time, the revolutionary tactical characters in the league were Ranieri, Wenger and Houiller with Benitez and Mourinho following shortly after. Comparatively, in 2022, Ranieri is only newly sacked at Watford, Wenger parted ways with Arsenal due to years of underperformance and has been retired for 4 years, Mourinho was sacked at mid-table Spurs, and Benitez suffered the same fate at Everton. The tactical game has moved on.
Teams *NEVER* played out from the back in 2004, let alone introduce inverted fullbacks and zonal pressing schemes like they do nowadays. These concepts were introduced over a decade later. There has been at least 4 or 5 significant tactical evolutions within the Premier League since 2004. The game was far less complex from a tactical perspective at the time of Arsenal’s miraculous triumph. So, how was football played when Arsenal didn’t lose a *single* game in the Premier League all season?
Well, as you might have already known based on the traditional 4-4-2 English stereotype, each team, surprisingly enough, played within a 4-4-2. The most compact teams at the time were Liverpool and Chelsea who had new-kid-on-the-block coaches from foreign leagues in Ranieri and Houllier. These teams blocked space in a 4-4-2 mid-block which focused on blocking zonal areas as opposed to man-marking within a 4-4-2 mid-block (which was the typical approach of British coaches across the league). So, high pressing wasn’t a common theme.
The 4-4-2’s were conservative blocks in which the mentality of the player was to cover what was behind them and not what was in front of them i.e. the front 2 covered the passes into the midfield two, the midfield two covered the passes into the centre back’s, and the wide midfielder covered the pass into the opposition winger. Look at Parlour (right of the 4-4-2) and Viera (right central midfield) here in Arsenal’s double pivot as prime examples of that. There are several moments in which they can engage the play and be aggressive yet they are passive and concerned with protecting the space behind them (excuse the shady footage but football in HD wasn’t a thing in 2004).
Now, that isn’t to say the midfielders, for example, wouldn’t pressurise each other because of course they would – that was the highest duel area of the game. But they would do so if they received possession in midfield areas to stop the source into the forwards. However, if the midfielders dropped into the last line to influence play, the opposition midfielders typically wouldn’t follow them that high as their concern is with protecting the passes into the two forwards behind them.
Alternatively, in possession, teams also built play differently. The fullbacks weren’t high and wide ala Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson, for example. They were deep and stayed in the last defensive line alongside their central defenders. A typical pressing trigger in the modern day in a standard 4-4-2 match-up is when the outside midfielder/winger presses the fullback when they receive possession, but this wasn’t the case in 2004. The wingers would virtually *NEVER* press the opposition fullback upon receiving possession. Look at the time Lauren has on the ball here.
Hey, if the fullback took too long in possession or if they received within an optimal counterpressing situation for the opposition deep in their own half, then they would be pressed. It’s not like they were never pressed but the general ethos stands – players were more interested in defending what was behind them as opposed to what was in front of them. Nearly all of the aggressive actions took place when the ball progressed into the mid-block.
As such, when considering how modern football is played, it would be safe to assume that the games would largely consist of settled attacks vs settled attacks as a result of that due to the time each team were afforded to build play out from the back, right? With the knowledge we have as a football fan in 2022, it seems quite obvious that a clear strategy would be to play out from the back to guarantee possession in the build-up due to teams’ lack of pressure on the ball high up the pitch, right? Nope.
In the 10 full games analysed, I could count the number of short passes by goalkeepers from the back on one hand. Nearly every time the goalkeeper had the ball they hoofed it long, no matter what the circumstance.
Even when teams did, on the odd occasion, play out from the back, the fullbacks would simply do the ‘keepers job for them by hoofing it! There was time and space on the ball for the fullback to do something more calculated but they just hoofed it long, much like the goalkeepers did.
As you can imagine, with the ‘hoofing’ build-up strategy in mind, teams had a heavy emphasis on playing aggressive passes into midfield and forward areas. Campbell, Lauren, Toure, Vieira and co. constantly played direct and forward passes, whether lofted into the forwards’ feet or chest or simply fizzed on the ground. This had a number of key implications for game themes.
The long/direct ball and counterpress was EVERYTHING (although I’m unsure a single manager would’ve known what the term counterpress meant in 2004, nor did they need to). Each game was a battle in which both teams had to deal with a barrage of 2nd ball situations and duels. That was the primary theme in the game, not 70-30% possession affairs that we see in 2022.
Any time the ball progressed into the opposition’s mid-block, the block would predictably pressurise the ball intensely. As a result of each team playing within a 4-4-2 block, each team would have a designated man to mark and it was each defensive player’s job to deal with their man. The game was a constant battle within the mid-blocks.
Look at the aggression of Toure here. This is what the game was – man-to-man aggression in defensive phases after a vertical pass was played.
It’s why players with their back to goal were so important i.e. Teddy Sheringham at United or Bergkamp within this team. Again, they also had to have the physicality to deal with those ultra aggressive CB’s whilst having the mentality to know they were going to be in a massive physical battle every week.
Players would hope that their target man gained a flick on to their strike partner running beyond the last line:
or hold it up:
or pass it out wide to a player to get a cross in to the strikers or a midfielder running from deep.
There was nobody better than Bergkamp at linking play. His style created space for others to exploit but he was also world class on the ball himself. See, Bergkamp was never criticised by fans and pundits at the time despite only scoring 5 goals in 38 appearances in all competitions – he was instead revered for his obvious quality which highlights the spark contrast in comparison to the daily microanalysis we see on footballers on social media in the modern day (i.e. Firmino’s lack of goals as a starter for a Premier League and Champions League winning Liverpool).
This is largely why Arsenal were so good. They had the best “to feet” player in the game along with the best runner in the game in Henry. The balance in their strike partnership was perfect. Bergkamp was the dream partner for Henry, and there is no surprise Henry said the player he enjoyed playing with most was The Dutchman as opposed to the obvious candidate, Leo Messi.
Behind them was another ideal profile in Patrick Vieira. Passing wise, Vieira focused on punching or chipping passes between the lines as opposed to switches of play and Hollywood-type passes. He was a very efficient player who maybe lacked the ball-striking of other midfield greats but it didn’t matter when considering that the way he played suited the era he was in to a tee.
The game was very much so about man-marking and playing around that i.e. midfielders receiving and bursting past players. Vieira was so good because he dominated duels and could carry the ball past players against that man-marking. His combative style was exactly what the league required.
Vieira wasn’t necessarily a special technician ala Paul Scholes or Steven Gerrard or an ultra clean passer ala Roy Keane but he was more so of a physical specimen who suited the style of football at that moment and time to a tee. The Frenchmen also made runs from deep to score goals which is also a top method of exploiting man-marking, particularly with someone like Bergkamp in the team.
Alongside the Frenchman was Gilberto Silva who Wenger described as the most underrated player he has ever managed. Gilverto Silva epitomises that team and that era of football – a no nonsense defensive midfielder who excelled in duels from a physical perspective but also thrived in the mental chaos of the games. He loved nothing more than crunching into duels and protecting his back four. The phrase defensive midfielder is one that I typically don’t use in my analysis in the modern day because I feel that it is overly simplistic when describing the demands of a modern day player which can often centre around pressing as high as deep into the opposition’s half. However, that wasn’t the case in 2004. Gilberto Silva could simply focus on letting Vieira make late runs into the box and guard the midfield in his absence. He was a true defensive midfielder. The pairing were absolutely perfect for the Premier League at that time.
So, in summary, the sport consisted of A) vertical balls into the forwards, B) midfield battles, and C) manipulating man-marking with runs into space and ball carrying/dribbling. So, as you can imagine, games were frantic physical affairs. What made Arsenal so good was their physicality. The likes of Lauren, Ashley Cole, Sol Campbell, Kolo Toure, Gilberto Silva, Patrick Vieira and Thierry Henry were physical specimens. Jens Lehmenn, Keown, Parlour, Bergkamp, Ljundberg and co. were no slouches either. They all excelled in duels from a mental and physical perspective which is exactly what the game required.
Arsenal were the most dominant physical team in an era where the most important trait for any team was physicality. Again, to boot, they also had the perfect combination and balance of players who would run beyond the last line to offer penetration, players who could carry the ball, *AND* technical quality to manipulate and exploit man-marking. The likes of Robert Pires and Freddie Ljungberg had the quality to dribble past players and beat their respective man in 1v1 situations before releasing someone like Henry who would make the necessary penetrative runs.
Henry in particular was the dream attacker profile wise. He excelled physically, mentally and technically. He was lightning quick but tall and broad and willing to battle with any player. Titi’s profile enabled Arsenal to exploit the oppositions man-marking to a higher standard than any other team in the league. Henry’s label of “the best Premier League player to ever do it” is warranted. His profile changed the game as we know it with his never-seen-before style of playing like a wide attacker with the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and Mo Salah going on to replicate his style in later years. This high and wide outlet-type profile enabled Arsenal to counter-attack teams with regularity and success.
Paul Robinson had a long goal kick here, and 20 seconds later Arsenal scored on the counter.
Arsenal won the duel, the fullback received possession under no pressure, Leeds had a high line with little pressure on the ball, Henry made a modern day run aaaaaaand *BANG*. Goal.
This type of play epitomised what Arsenal were all about – dangerous in every single facet of play thanks to their physicality, balance, and technical quality.
Overall, in terms of judging teams, it only makes sense to do so in relation to the era they were in, and Arsène Wenger’s “Invincibles” were a special and revolutionary team. The majority of teams in the Premier League played with English-based players but Arsène Wenger’s scouting knowledge of markets outside of England enabled him to find gems that weren’t even on the radar of the likes of Manchester United, Chelsea, and Liverpool. Wenger assembled the most physical team in a time where that was exactly what the league demanded, and it led to Arsenal becoming invincible.