Arsenal 2011 v The “Invincibles”

We’ve heard it before. Comparisons between players, although in this case, teams, of two distinct generations are futile. There are different rules; different environmental factors that make each era unique thus rendering the debate obsolete. Take the recent domination of Barcelona for example. If it weren’t for the volcanic eruption that forced Pep Guardiola’s side to travel by bus before the semi-finals to Inter last year, they may well be sitting on top of a Champions League hat-trick right now. Nevertheless, their success in the last three years is almost unparalleled and should put them close to the top of the footballing pantheon. How high up, though, is open to debate and even then, it will probably remain inconclusive.

Barcelona are not as innovative as the great Ajax side of the mid-1960’s to early-70’s of whom they are clearly inspired by. (Indeed, how much scope is there to innovate when in South America they regard the high-intensity pressing of Holland as the last, great tactical innovation). But Barcelona’s style does fly in the face on current convention. Despite the liberalisation of the offside law, they are one of the few sides who play an aggressive offside trap and have popularised the current trend of pressing from the front. Also, their emphasis on technique came at a time when the fixation on speed and power was at its greatest. It’s a style mixed with the best of old and new. So rarely can it be said that a football team wins on its own terms; that they do it by doing exactly what they want to do. Barcelona is that one team.

Of course, it’s more difficult to innovate now because football has probably reached a summit in terms of what can be achieved naturally. Ajax were able to do this because there was more scope to differentiate in the past — and as scientific rationing became more possible —   but that shouldn’t be used as an argument against them: they did it in spite of any environmental disadvantages.

If this shows the difficulties of comparing two clubs of two distinct eras, in the case of Barcelona and Ajax, separated by the best part of forty years, then what about teams only separated by a mere seven years? Indeed, that’s the situation we have now with Arsenal.

With their recent troubles to add to the trophy cabinet, fans naturally hark back to more fruitful days for inspiration and there are two eras which are most frequently revisited. The George Graham era, although delivering six trophies in nine years and emphasising on the promoting from within, was more mechanical than it is now meaning any attempts to implement key properties of the side requires a drastic change of style. (Although the organisation they displayed could help the current side on their set-piece woes). Arsenal’s most successful period is undoubtedly between 2001 and 2005, most especially the season of 2003-2004 of which they went unbeaten. That team was divine, joining those two supposedly mutually exclusive entities of art and pragmatism. The passing was rapid, the understanding was telepathic and the accuracy unerring. Couple that with a ruthlessness and doggedness to see out matches, it made for a legendary unit. Well, in the league that is because — and it remains the greatest blotch on their legacy — that that legendary group never progressed beyond the quarter-finals in Europe. Maybe it was the way the “Invincibles” played that made them too open against the brutal efficiency of the European game. Or was it a psychological thing, seemingly coasting in the group stages, especially at home, but faltering when the pressure was ramped up? Indeed, can it be purely coincidence that Arséne Wenger’s most successful foray into Europe came only in 2005-06 after switching to 4-2-3-1 for Champions League encounters?

That they dominated in the league should come as little surprise. There was no great challenge to Arsenal and Manchester United’s duopoly so the notion that they could go unbeaten was not as fanciful as it initially seemed. Also, back then, mid-to-lower table teams would dare to approach Arsenal with some semblance of ambition so as good as Arsenal were with the ball, they were as much forced to retreat to the edge of their own box as they did creating rapid triangles up the pitch. That they were so good on the counter-attack, you could argue, owed as much to the tactics of their opponents who would offer more space as opposed to the overly-cautious way they approach Arsenal now.

It’s not to be understated how much of an effect the disparity of finances between top and bottom clubs has had on the tactics in the Premier League and that perhaps remains the massive difference between the tactics of the current Arsenal side and “The Invincibles” and why fans can’t demand Arsenal play the same ways as they did then. So with that in mind, what would happen if both teams played each other? Never mind that it’s chronologically impossible to pit both sides at their peak without the use of a time machine  – and even that, we’d imagine would bring them back horribly deformed. But we have, nevertheless, set-up a hypothetical meeting between the two teams played over two legs to try and decipher what may happen. The Invincibles using the same line-up that defeated Liverpool 4-2 in that magical encounter at Highbury and the current Arsenal side, sending out the team that that defeated Barcelona 2-1 last season. The managers, of course, would be Arséne Wenger but with slight personality differences; the one in charge of the 2004 side will be more relaxed, keeping his dark side better in check. The 2011 version, on the other hand, is unafraid to show his emotions and is often seen venting his anger at the nearest water bottle.

“The Invincibles” (4-4-2):Lehmann – Lauren, Campbell, Toure, Cole – Ljungberg , Vieira(c), Gilberto, Pires – Bergkamp, Henry.
Subs: Shaaban, Keown, Clichy, Edu, Reyes, Wiltord, Kanu.

Arsenal 2010/11 (4-2-3-1): Szczesny – Sagna, Koscielny, Djourou, Clichy – Song, Wilshere – Walcott, Fábregas(c), Nasri – van Persie,.
Subs: Almunia, Rosicky, Denilson, Squillaci, Arshavin, Gibbs, Bendtner

The Rules: The first leg will be played at Highbury and the second leg at the Emirates Stadium with away goals only counting after extra time. Both sides are allowed to use only three subs and the referees ignoring the fact that there are two Gaël Clichys because it is thought unlikely that he would be sent on for the “Invincibles” side. If, in the unlikely event that the two Clichys do in fact enter the pitch at the same time, the officials have set aside a rule in which both managers can call up any well-known historical figure: Abraham Lincoln and most amazingly, Charles Babbage, were put on standby. The only slight playing rule change concerns the interpretations of the offside laws; at Highbury, the old law states that a player is only offside if he is “gaining an advantage by being in that position.” The new rule, brought in at 2005 and to be used at The Emirates, stipulates that the individual must be “interfering” with play to be deemed offside.

The Match

Rumours that Patrick Vieira tried to rile Cesc Fábregas in the tunnel but failed to get a reaction out of him are unfounded nevertheless the teams were immaculately led out. The Invincibles were sent out in a 4-4-2 with Dennis Bergkamp playing off Thierry Henry and the two wide men looking to support them as often as possible. Behind them, Vieira and Gilberto formed a solid midfield base that allowed the attacking players to get forward with assurance as their primary job was to help retain the shape of the team in and out of possession. Arsenal of 2010/11, meanwhile, had more of a 4-2-3-1 shape: Cesc Fábregas had the main creative duties in front of a double pivot of Alex Song and Jack Wilshere while Robin van Persie played as a focal point of the attack, allowing Theo Walcott in particular, to take up a forward role by drifting inside from the right.

With five minutes on the clock gone, a pattern of the game was quickly emerging. Arsenal of 2010/11 had plenty of the possession but were finding it difficult to break into the Invincibles penalty area. Neat give and go’s around the box were a frequent sight but the claustrophobic feel of Highbury meant their attacks often found a brick wall. Gilberto Silva and Vieira were making their presence felt and the latter in particular, was already looking in imperious form. With every attack the Invincibles were able to soak up, they could quickly feed the ball to Thierry Henry on the break who looked to profit from the gaps Arsenal’s full-backs left. It was from this situation that The Invincibles were able to create the first chance of the game as Henry’s pass in field saw Robert Pires dart in from the left but his shot was blocked by an alert Laurent Koscielny. The Invincbles were growing in confidence and sure enough – and not notoriously known for being quick starters for nothing – they forced a save out of Wojciech Szczesny. Dennis Bergkamp, picking the ball up from the right, picked a gap between Arsenal’s two centre-backs who were trying to play a high line and Henry, seemingly destined to score, shot straight at the goalkeeper’s legs.

It was a hectic start to the game and Arsenal of 2010/11 finally started to gain their composure again and following a crunching tackle by Alex Song on Pires, they almost scored a great goal; Bakary Sagna bursting forward and playing a one-two with van Persie before his lay-off for Fábregas was well held by Jens Lehmann. Jack Wilshere had a token effort from outside the box soon after fly over the crossbar.

After the furious opening exchanges, the game now settled and after a spell of possession for the Invincibles, they tried their luck down the right with Fredrik Ljungberg but he couldn’t connect to Henry’s through-ball. Arsenal continued passing the ball around and their possession pushed the Invincbles deeper but little did they know it would became a double-edged sword. The possession killed off the influence of Vieira on the ball but he only ever needed a couple of passes and the Invincibles were away. There was ample space on the counter and after a couple of failed bursts from Ashley Cole, they soon scored. Dennis Bergkamp again picked the ball up from deep and played a superb pass to the right for Ljungberg. The Swede had Clichy backtracking before his cut back found Henry at the edge of the box. The Frenchman took one touch to his right before hitting powerfully and accurately in the bottom corner. The goal was just rewards for their superior tactical acumen, soaking up Arsenal’s attacks before hitting them devastatingly on the break.

Cesc Fábregas was becoming more desperate now for an equaliser and his link-up with van Persie looked Arsenal’s best bet for a goal. He found the Dutchman with a great pass on the edge of the box and as he swivelled and opened up his body for a left-foot shot, the ball cannoned off the post. “Just my luck,” thought van Persie and he was again involved with another chance, this time for Nasri who cut in from the left but his tame shot was straight at Lehmann. Arsenal were sensing a goal but before half-time they conceded another one instead, Vieira rising to meet a corner from the right to make it 2-0. Arséne Wenger was furious and he was motioning for his wide-men to try and get behind more but with the Highbury pitch more condensed than they are used to, Walcott was frozen out of the game. His crosses almost always found an Invincibles shirt while Nasri, tying Lauren in knots at times, failed to deliver the crucial pass. It was becoming congested and that’s how the second half continued.

Fábregas was instrumental in everything Arsenal threw forward and he should have scored himself when Walcott’s low cross was met crisply towards the far corner but Lehmann somehow tipped wide. Wenger – the one with the bottle – was ready to summon Marouanne Chamakh but was conscious that he may lose his shape as it was only the first leg so the arrival of Andrei Arshavin was imminent. But soon enough the pressure told and van Persie, looking dangerous when picking the ball from deep and testing the mobility of Gilberto, picked up a pass from Fábregas to power a shot into the top corner. Suited and calmer-looking Wenger reacted and sent on Edu and Reyes for Bergkamp and Pires and the five-man midfield finally began to exert some influence on the game. Reyes was looking potent every time he ran at Sagna and on the 89th minute, he was the one who looked to have put the tie beyond doubt when he latched on to a pass from Edu before using the run of Henry as a decoy to arrow into the bottom corner. 3-1 to the Invincibles and game over it looked but not before Arshavin wasted a couple of good chances. The handshake from both managers was firm but never quite convincing; they both knew there was still 90 minutes to play.

2nd Leg

The bigger, continental style Emirates Stadium was a little more demanding for the Invincibles and for the first thirty minutes they found it difficult to get going. Both teams were unchanged and Wenger was beginning to rue the decision not to start Reyes on the left of a 4-5-1. Arsenal monopolised possession once again and before half-time, won a penalty when Jack Wilshere was felled after neat work with Fábregas. The captain stepped up and slammed the penalty down the middle.

Ashley Cole was The Invincible’s best player in the 2nd Leg and his late runs were a constant threat. He teed up Henry for one chance before lurking in the box himself but his shot was parried by Szczesny. Arsenal sent on Chamakh for Wilshere thereby dropping Fábregas deeper alongside Song and they continued to pepper the Invincbles box with failed crosses. Sol Campbell and Kolo Toure were imperious and cleared everything that was thrown at them.

The problem for the Invicibles was that their 4-4-2 was outnumbered by Arsenal’s three-man midfield and that meant they struggled to get an out-ball to Henry. Wenger eventually altered things and brought on Reyes to run at Sagna down the left and it so nearly worked. His understanding with Henry offered a tantalising vision of what could be achieved in the future and he seemed to thrive off the confidence he gave him. Henry dropped deeper for the ball and he kept on finding Reyes with his superbly timed diagonals and soon the same men combined to put the game beyond doubt. Reyes laid off Henry after good work from Pires to slot home. Arsenal scored straight after through van Persie but their dependence on him and Fábregas was becoming more and more apparent over both encounters. Nasri and Walcott were more involved than they were in the first leg but without taking some of the burden off their two main men, it is evident that Arsenal will struggle to make the final hurdle. Chamakh had one final chance to take the game into extra-time but he headed wide. When the final whistle sounded, Arsenal reluctantly accepted that they were beaten by the more canny side.

While they held most of the possession, Arsenal of 2010/11 became unstuck against old-fashioned resilience and organisation and their lack of experience told in the end. However, there are some positives they can take out of the encounter and it’s that they dominated a very good side over both legs. Their style is more suited to Europe but if they can add a couple more robust individuals they can be a force in the league for the next coming years. The Invincibles showed again why they are a great side as their football bordered on the impossibly quick at times and defended astutely. However, there is room for improvements despite their 4-3 aggregate win; they can learn better, how to counter-act possession hungry teams and their formation was found out to be too outdated. They do, nevertheless, possess plenty of talented back up such as Reyes and Clichy and if they can let them mature in the presence of experienced individuals, the future is definitely bright. The move to a new stadium in the next three years certainly signals exciting times for the Gunners but Wenger must handle the transition delicately and there’s no better manager for it.

The last word of the game was left to Man-of-the-Match, Patrick Vieira who had wise words for his conquers: “There is a big difference between the Arsenal team now and the one I played in,’ he said (in an actually interview with the Daily Mail). “It was a big, physical team. We could play as well but I honestly believe that the Arsenal team now are playing better then we ever did. The difference is we put silverware on the sideboard. That is what people remember, not how you play. Only Barcelona play (like that) and win silverware….Maybe now Arsenal lack the physical aspect. You need a balance to win trophies.”

Arsenal’s team of 2000-2010

–         Firstly, as you may have noticed, the decade ended at the start of last year (although some dispute otherwise). So that’s why we’ve aptly renamed the Arsenal XI of the Decade to Arsenal XI from 2000-2010. That’s technically eleven years. We’ve published our matches of the decade last season if you want to take a look.

–         Secondly, we all realise when creating such a list, there will always be a natural bias to the “Invincibles” side of 2003-04. After all, they are the best Arsenal team. Ever. But trophies are not the only measure of success. The clever clogs amongst yourselves will probably say that you wish you knew that before you signed up to Arsene Wenger’s post-Highbury “project” but let’s not be facetious. This XI consists of players who have performed consistently to the Arsenal cause. So no one season wonders – Matheiu Flamini may be the first to enter your mind although he did have two good seasons; the other being an impressive run at the left-back position in the season The Gunners made the Champions League final.

–         In true Arsene Wenger fashion, the players are slotted into a 4-4-2. As ever the wide players are not “prisoners of their position” and that is particularly appropriate once you see who we have at right-midfield. And yes, he has played there for Arsenal.

GK: Jens Lehmann
2003-2008 (147 appearances)

For a while, Lehmann looked like he wouldn’t be considered an Arsenal great. He was part of the unbeaten Arsenal side but was often regarded as the weak link in their success. His frequent calamities were appropriate of a time after David Seaman’s retirement when nothing seemed to be going right between the sticks. But he gradually grew more serene and that, seemingly, was enough to hide his faults. In his defence, Lehmann’s initial troubles in adapting to the league may have been due to European style which encouraged goalkeepers to come off the line as opposed to England, where ‘keepers are chiefly stoppers. But he still made more mistakes than he should have.

That saying, his eccentricities was part of his charm and in a strange way, gave his defence a sense of assurance because they knew he would take responsibility. In particular, he was very assertive at coming out from corner-kicks as this was considered to be Arsenal’s main weakness, the whole in the Death Star if you’d like. His penalty save against Villarreal in the Champions League semi-final stands out as his greatest individual moment but he just as quickly ruined it all in the final. With 18 minutes played, Lehmann, all too predictably rushed out at the feet of Samuel Eto’o to earn himself a red-card and leave Arsenal having to fend off Barcelona with ten-man: Mission impossible almost. Still, despite the attendant rashness, he was a class goalkeeper and during Arsenal’s 2006 Champions League run, he was Europe’s best goalkeeper at that point, going 853 minutes without conceding a goal. A record that still stands today.

RB: Bakary Sagna
2007-present (118 appearances)

He’s not even Arsenal most successful right-back; Emmanuel Eboue is ahead of him if finals and trophies are a measure of success. That honour goes to Lauren. But he IS Arsenal’s best right-back and for that reason, Bakary Sagna deserves his place in the eleven.

Sagna was a relative unknown when he signed in 2007 and there were doubts about whether the side needed him. Eboue was there. But he soon dispelled such reservations with a rapid transition as the league’s best right-back in his debut season. Defensively, he is at his best but despite his forward limitations, Sagna keeps going. And going. And going. To be fair to him, he has improved in his delivery, making five assists last season but his value is that he remains as reliable at the back as ever.

CB: Sol Campbell
2001-2006 (135 appearances), 2009-2010 (11 appearances)

Crossed the short North London divide amid much controversy and found immediate success with a League and Cup double in his first season. Sol Campbell was just the powerhouse defender Arsenal since Tony Adams and Martin Keown were already queueing up to pick up their pensions. Luckily for The Gunners, Campbell had let his contract at Tottenham run out and as the rules of the Bosman Transfer state, he was free to leave for any club he desired. He chose Arsenal and never looked back. A goal in the Champions League final was scored in a losing cause but ultimately got what he craved for with the move: trophies and European football. He was a rock and Arsenal evidently looked weaker without him, effectively conceding the 2002-03 title due to his absence through injury. But he was there when Arsenal won the championship in 2004 and at what better place to seal the glory than at Tottenham’s ground. The metaphorical middle finger was well and truly up.

Campbell returned to the club for one more season in October 2009 and was never once exposed by the high-line they played, even at the age of 35. We are, however, going to overlook him absconding like a baby from Highbury at half-time after a horror show against West Ham which sandwiched between his two times at the club. Probably a trait he learnt at Spurs.

CB: Kolo Toure
2002-2009 (226 appearances)

In his first season at Arsenal, Kolo Toure looked like an excitable puppy and sure enough, Wenger let him play in such a way. He was frequently let off the leash as a substitute, usually on the right of midfield but sometimes at right-back and he just kept running and running. Somehow, Wenger was able to channel that energy and Toure established himself as a defender of great maturity. He developed a solid partnership with Sol Campbell, helping Arsenal to that fabled unbeaten season as a ball-playing, adventurous centre-back.

LB: Ashley Cole
1998-2006 (156 appearances)

Left the club in acrimonious circumstances but he did so, unlike many, as the world’s best in his position. However, Ashley Cole almost never made it Arsenal. Having been sent out on loan to Crystal Palace as a youngster, he was called back after Sylvinho was unable to get his work-permit renewed and forcibly, was elevated to the first-team. Cole snatched at the opportunity like a tramp on a loose bag of chips and made the role his own. Marauding up-and-down the left flank, he was Arsenal’s answer to Roberto Carlos and ensured the left-back role wasn’t just a secondary position. His goal against Aston Villa remains one the club’s best team goals highlighting just how deadly the full-back can be in the modern game. Defensively, he was just as good and Arsenal fans perhaps, still take pride in the fact that he is one of the few that can stop Cristiano Ronaldo and we just as much cheered whenTheo Walcott tore him a new one in the recent 3-1 win. Cole may have been a problem child and a naughty boy but he was our problem child and naughty boy.

RM (sort of): Cesc Fabregas
2003-present (201 appearances)

Cesc Fabregas seemingly encapsulates what Arsenal is about since the “Invincibles” team broke up. Skilful, spontaneous and confident in possession – the type of player that makes Arsenal a joy to watch – but letting him mature without the presence of such big name players left a bit of fragility in him that can occasionally frustrate. Indeed, that is the argument some have made against Wenger’s handling of the transition. That the youth, fluidity, intelligence, pace and swagger in possession – have effectively taken over the team. And the other qualities that made them great – ruthlessness, power, organisation and experience – have been seen as an after-thought.

But that also displays the delicacy of the project the team has embarked upon and this season, we are finally starting to see it bear fruit. Cesc Fabregas has been influential, even when he is absent through injury, and in past seasons, has almost single-handedly carried the team forward. Fabregas sees things that others don’t and plays the through pass as if it was his first step as a baby. Last season, he made 13 assists, a fantastic feat which is made the more amazing considering he scored 15 goals also. He is more robust now and direct – as shown by his impact in the 2010 World Cup finals and Euro 2008, regularly coming off the bench to change his country’s flow from the lateral to the dynamic. We have done a whole analysis of his time at Arsenal so head over and read it there, because frankly, we can write so much more about the talismanic midfielder.

In this list, Fabregas comes in right midfield, a position he has not played since his first full season in the senior side. It’s probably fair to say we can all agree he deserves his spot in this XI but where to put him considering the rest of the players to come? Right-midfield adds balance to the side and because he is such a genius, you can bet on him to make a great impact from the position.

CM: Gilberto Silva
2002-2008 (170 appearances)

Gilberto Silva’s brilliance was his simplicity. Initially he couldn’t stop scoring which, rather prematurely, because of his late runs, drew comparisons with Fredrik Ljungberg but that just underlined his underrated all-round ability. He soon settled, however, and became the wise head in midfield who kept the side ticking with his get and give efficiency.

The fact that Gilberto came into a winning side on the back of a World Cup triumph helped him settle and he was a key component in the “Invincibles” side. His altruistic style was needed most when Patrick Vieira departed and the midfield needed a composed figure to guide them forward. Gilberto rose to the occasion and was the glue that held the structure together as Arsenal agonisingly lost to Barcelona 2-1 in the Champions League final. Wenger summed up his value to the team best when he said: “what I like was the fact that he kept things simple. He can play all across the midfield but the holding role just in front of the defence is what he does best.”

CM: Patrick Vieira (Captain)
1996-2005 (279 appearances)

Put simply, Patrick Vieira was a monster of a specimen when he first set foot in the Premiership. He was a player of great physical presence but one who could also match that with an unerring technique and lung bursting stamina. Such traits allowed him to dominate the league for the remaining years and he was the driving force of the Arsenal team from the heart of midfield. Vieira’s success lent itself to a spate of imitators looking to recreate a similar profile of the player, some successful, others not so, such as Manchester United’s Eric Djamba-Djemba.

Injuries and speculation about his future perhaps limited his influence in the later years but was still impressive when he did play. He captained The Gunners to their historic unbeaten triumph, scoring the goal that sealed the title.

LM: Robert Pires
2000-2006 (189 appearances)

It may be difficult to fathom now that Thierry Henry had ever taken a backseat to any such attacking player during his eight years at the club but in the 2001-02 season, he did. To Robert Pires. Pires looked uncomfortable in the way he ran with the ball but there was something poetic about the way he moved. His hair swishing up and down against the wind; his arms almost stiff when running as if to ensure the maximum balance and he took ever so timid steps with the ball at his feet. For that one season, Pires was perhaps the best player in the world but that season was also prematurely hacked down to size in March against Newcastle. That didn’t stop him, however, scooping the PFA player of the year award and the way his team-mates acknowledged his contribution to the title win by smiling gleefully at the player on the podium, spoke louder than words ever could. Pires scored an amazing 62 league goals from left midfield, a thought unthinkable to some at that time and reinvented, on the face of it, the simple position of the winger.

CF: Dennis Bergkamp
1995-2006 (316 appearances)

You’d have to be Groundskeeper Willie to conclusively prove Dennis Bergkamp’s intention in video form when scoring Arsenal’s greatest goal ever, but at 5 seconds in in video clip, we can attest the only space he could have exploited was to the left of him. His finish in the 2-0 win against Newcastle was labelled a fluke by some but only a genius could have produced a goal when there looked like there was nothing on. Somehow he manufactured the space to turn past Nikos Dabizas with a balletic pirouette before slotting past Shay Given.

It was this type of operational mastery that set the Dutchman apart and his spacial awareness ensured he was at the hub of most of Arsenal attacks in their most successful era. His contribution to Arsenal’s 7-0 win over Everton once again highlights that vision and particularly the third goal. As we pick it up, we see Bergkamp running into the space in front of the box but as the ball reaches him, he is instantly surrounded by four defenders. However, with one flick of the boot, he cuts open the defence and frees Patrick Vieira to chip home. His ability to squeeze and double the size of the pitch set him apart in a generation.

No player in the Premier League era has given as much visceral joy as Dennis Bergkamp. Here was a player who always seemed a step ahead of his opponents and perhaps the only player in the world whose brain was conjoined to his right boot.

CF: Thierry Henry
1999-2007 (254 appearances)

2000-01: 17 goals, 7 assists. 2001-02: 24 goals, five assists. 2002-03: 24 goals, 23 assists. 2003-04: 30 goals, 8 assists. 2004:05: 25 goals, 14 assists. 2005-06: 27 goals, 6 assists. 2006-07: 10 goals, 4 assists.

Thierry Henry may have been Arsenal’s greatest individual player but the statistics paint him as one of the best team players also. Amazingly, he never quite got the European recognition he deserved despite scoring a hat-trick against both Inter and Roma in 5-1 and 3-1 wins respectively, and both in away matches. And let’s not forget the way he tore apart Real Madrid at the Santiago Bernabeu with a terrific solo goal on the run to the final. [EDIT] Henry has actually been named in UEFA.com’s team of the year a five times but a podium finish is perhaps scant consolation for a brilliant goalscorer – yes – but also a supreme team player.

In his pomp, he was a stallion of a striker. Gracefully fast and explosive in front of goal, Henry terrified defenders with the ball at his feet. He ended as Arsenal’s highest ever goalscorer with 226 goals in 380 appearances. A phenomenal feat from a phenomenal player.

Honourable mentions: Lauren (2000-2007 – 159 appearances), Fredrik Ljungberg (1998–2007 – 216 appearances), Silvain Wiltord (2000-2004 – 104 appearances).

And finally, a wholly irrelevant XI but one that reserves a special place in your memory. (Romantic XI): Lehmann; Luzhny, Campbell, Gallas, Cole; Hleb, Fabregas, Edu, Pires; Bergkamp, Henry

Wenger transplants a more direct approach after losing creative brains

Wenger has recast his Arsenal team to a more direct and quicker side this season after the loss of key creative midfielders.
_______________________________________________________________________________
andrei-arshavin-002

Arsenal received the bad news this week of another set-back to perennial sick note Tomas Rosicky or it would have been even worse had their not been another little figure orchestrating proceedings. The ‘Andrey Arshavin factor’ is in full flow with the Russian displaying the right amount of creativity and dynamism that has so been missing for the last couple of months and indeed maybe even the whole season.

With Arshavin and Walcott operating out wide against Blackburn and Hull City, it is quite a marked difference from the wide men of Hleb and Rosicky of last season, who making up for their lack of directness interplayed with quick, one touch passes. The creative abilities of the wide men often accused Arsenal of being over-elaborate but the movement caused much uncertainty among opposition defences.

“I like to have one behind the striker, and one or two on the flanks who come inside,” said Arsene Wenger. “I always feel that if you have players who can deliver the decisive ball in all areas of the pitch, you have many more chances of being creative. If it’s only focused on one central part, where it’s usually more concentrated, you have more space on the flanks to create.”

With Hleb and Rosicky both preferring to cut inside it resulted into the more pass-focused play and while the ‘Invincibles’ were the original pass masters, with Ljungberg and Pires wide, had greater dynamism and penetration to go with it. For most of this season Arsenal have had to use Nasri and Eboue but as both prefer to come inside, to play such a passing game requires players to play around them and that is where Fabregas has been missed.

“When he’s there, everything goes through him but when he’s not it can take a while to adapt because the game goes through different ways – it’s plural,” said Wenger. “When it’s Fabregas it is more one-way traffic at the start of the build-up.” As a result their has been an over-reliance on the front four recently which requires quicker build up play and more directness from the wings. The possession keeping when teams have taken the initiative to the Gunners is as of yet not as strong as it can be; a lower percentage of possession to both Fulham and Aston Villa would have been blasphemous last season. The shield of Denilson and Song/Diaby have improved immensely but as of yet not as expansive as the Spaniard however they are slowing gaining in confidence  and the signs are good.

The partnership raises an interesting point; Arsenal have always had a midfield shield in front of their defence but who also had the creative potency but with Fabregas it is always him plus one, maybe leaving the team open at times. He has created plenty of goals and has been the heartbeat of the side but ultimately the club’s trophy haul during his  years at the club suggests he wasn’t success. Of course it is an absurd statement given his talismanic status but if Fabregas pushes up could put a lot of strain on the defence hence Flamini’s impact last season. However both Denilson and Diaby have shown they can match the Frenchman for industry both clocking up 15,000 metres against Roma and are still under the age of 24 (when Flamini made his breakthrough). Fabregas has shown, upon given the captain armband that he can undertake a more dictating role to achieve a greater balance while his tackling has always been understated.

The more direct play have grown naturally but given Wenger’s statement on how Arsenal have had to adapt without the Spaniard, it seems more manufactured. After the match against Hull, Arshavin stated Wenger wanted the team to play more quicker in his half time team-talk. “He told us that while we were doing the right things, we needed to speed up a bit to get the result.” The late Renus Michels, who was former Holland manager during the ‘Total Football’ era feels such a counter attacking style has shown to be most efficient when ‘short term success is desired.’ In his book ‘Teambuiding: The Road to Success’ a team in phase two will usually implement this style as their main style while those in phase three master what he call ‘ball circulation’ something not many teams can do.

The team must master the ‘ball circulation’ component to be able to determine the correct moment to start the attack. However, ball circulation is a means, not a goal in itself! To carry the play on the opponents half of the field places high demands of the build-up. There is not much time and space to work in and you have to deal with high defensive pressure. Fast combinations and excellent positional play are a must. Circulation football!

To lose possession close to the middle line when building-up is almost ‘suicidal’ in this risky style of football. One touch passing is also a must in the building-up team function of this strategy. This demands additional tactical insight from the players as situations quickly have to be surveyed. Each player has to anticipate even more.

To carry the play means that one time you choose to play in a high tempo and the next time you use delaying tactics to slow the play down. A play-making team must take full advantage of the space and must have defenders who can quickly change the point of attack, wing forwards who remain on the outside, etc.

The transition from defence to build-up must be executed very quickly. The team tactical manpower in the centre of the field(central defenders, midfielders and striker) is of great importance.

During the build up, the tactical coherence between the central defenders who must be thinking of playing the ball forward, the attacking midfielders and the central striker is very precise work. When possession is lost, it starts in the opposite direction. Good ball circulation puts high demands on the quality of the positional play, the mastering of the tempo and the speed of action.

In terms of style Arsenal can be classed to be in the middle of the two as they rebuild but with the players Wenger has at his disposal they can offer the correct blend of circulation football and dynamism that the ‘Invincibles’ perfected. Arshavin has only to adapt to English football and the teams understanding, Samir Nasri is still developing his dribbling to be a more effective winger but has the capability to deputise for Fabregas in the near future. Defensively the team is as strong as ever, maybe due in part to the more cautious approach and as the team are young, can get even better.

Arsenal should continue to develop momentum and with a good end to the season and pre-season to adapt to each other, the team has the variety, interchangeability to be potentially beautiful to watch and explosive at the same time.