Eight years ago, Arsenal fans celebrate their historical league title. Winning the title is always special, but the 2003/2004 season’s victory was the most special. It was because they won it without any single defeat thus they earned “The Invincible Arsenal” title. Although they missed other trophies such as Champions League, FA Cup, and Carling Cup, winning the EPL title without zero defeat is the memorable feat. A year after, Arsenal won FA Cup, but sadly it was the last trophy they have won until now. Up until now, Arsenal has been enduring the dark age of trophyless era for 7 consecutive years. Just too long for a club with great history like Arsenal. Every player of The Invicibles has departed. The memory of the most feared team has long gone. No more threat as contender in any competition. The Invicibles had vanished, leaving no mark at all. But actually they left the legacies which still affects football world until now. Just like the fashion world has trend setter, football has it too. And, the trend setter is always the reigning team. Now, what have the Invincibles left for us ?
1. Inverted Winger
For those who is unfamiliar with this term, inverted winger is the strategy which puts the player on the opposite side with his dominant foot. The example was Messi, Robben, Ribery, and Malouda. Robben’s strong foot is his left yet Van Gaal put him on the right side of the pitch. The player will cut inside and it brings many adventages. First, the player is more comfortable to shoot. Second, he will drag his marker inside and open the space for the fullback. Third, the player forces the defender to challenge him with his weaker foot. The left back usually is left footed and if he deals with inverted winger, he must thwart the attack with his right foot. This is only the introduction of inverted winger, but I will save the topic for another day.
The concept of inverted winger has existed since long long time ago in 1950s-1960s. The attackers drift inside and then drag the side back, giving his fullback plenty of room and time. But, it was never been a tactic. It was just a spontaneous move and it had never been popular. Then, came along Thierry Henry. Henry is right footed, but he preferred to play on left flank. With Ashley Cole in his support, they rampaged the defence like the hot knife slices through butter. To let Henry keep running is an obvious suicide, but marking him means the left full back (Ashley Cole) completely free. Actually, stopping Henry’s run alone was already the difficult task. Marked him tight and he will outpace you. Gave him a little space to anticipate the dribble and he would just shoot his trademark curling shoot to top left corner of the goal. And now the task seemed to be imposibble with Ashley Cole bombed forward to provide the width and the cross. It is highly arguable, but I believe Henry is the inventor of inverted winger. It was not spontaneous move anymore, it was already planned even before the match started.
Little sidenote here. Wenger certainly didn’t think about the inverted winger concept from the very first place, but it became the main tactic in some accidental manner. Back then, Wenger always told the forwards to run diagonally. When Henry was paired up with Wiltord, Henry was always on the left side and they would run to the opposite side, much to opponent’s bewilderment. And Wenger was so lucky to have Cole as the left back which fulfilled all the requirements to be the part of inverted winger scheme. He loved bombing forward, fast, energetic, could cross the ball well, and could return in defensive position as soon as possible. When Henry’s diagonal run matched up with Cole timing, Wenger realized the destructive potency of the play. Then, the combination of Henry-Cole became the trademark of Arsenal offensive move and it became popular with Messi-Alves, Robben-Lahm, and Malouda-Cole (again) following the lead.
2. Fluid Positioning
Before Arsenal became the king of England football, Manchester United dominated the scene and 1998/99 season was the highest peak in their history. The Red Devils sealed the treble with legendary double goals against Bayern Muenchen in injury time. As the reigning champion, MU too acts as “trend setter” and other clubs tried to emulate the success by copying the tactic they used. It was classic 4-4-2 formation with every players excel in their respective position in rigid fashion.
The defence comprised of commanding, giant yet agile goalkeeper (Schmeichel), 2 towering centerback (Stam and Berg), overlapping right back to provide cross (G. Neville), and conservative left back to balance the offensive right flank (Irwin). The midfield was even more classical. A combination of classical destroyer-creator which were very popular back then (Keane-Scholes), the crossing launchpod at right wing (Beckham), and electric mobility at left wing (Giggs). The pair of forwards was relatively the most unconventional but still upheld the rigid position-player philosophy. Usually the duet would encompass 2 different type of player consistes of supplier and finisher, but MU used 2 allrounders (Cole-Yorke). It seemed like the revolution in football tactic, but it was not. It is the same old method of supplier and finisher, but the difference was Cole and Yorke could switch their role at will. When Cole dropped deep or moved to flank, Yorke would run forward to anticipate the forward pass and vice versa. It went very well because it caused confusion among the opponents. This was the quality which any other teams could not replicate because they need allrounders with telepathic understanding and high football intelligence.
Then came Arsenal destroying such rigid pattern. The defence system is rather hard to modify, but the offence scheme is not.
There were not so much difference in goalkeeper and backline except the offensive flank of MU were on right while Arsenal were on left. But, the midfield and forward contrasted by some distance and it would change the football forever. The core of MU midfield were the creative fulcrum (Scholes) and attack breaker (Keane), but Arsenal used 2 anchors (Vieira – G. Silva). To be more precise, actually both of them didn’t play defensive midfielder role, they are anchors in central midfielder role. Back then, no team used central midfielder role to such extent like Arsenal did. The popular strategy is destroyer-creator combination. And, if any team used 2 allrounder midfield, it was because they lacked the quality to be offensive or defensive. Back then, central midfielder was the last resort, but Arsenal used it as primary tactic. Throughout their career, they always played as anchors, breaking every opponent’s attack before it reachs the backline. But, in Arsenal they did offensive task too. They used the principle of the pulley, when Vieira run forward, Silva would stay at back providing cover. When Silva positioned himself at the center of midfield, Vieira would position himself at Silva’s side. Six years later, the same concept was used by Bayern Muenchen when they advanced to UCL Final with Schweinsteiger and Van Bommel as the core. Different type of players but same concept. And funnily, the current MU also use the dual core before Scholes comeback. Now, the concept is modified a little. Teams do not always use dual central midfielder, but they could use 1 or even 3 central midfielders. The example were Busquet and trio Cambiasso-Motta-Zanetti.
The winger also didn’t follow the mainstream. I will explain what kind of revolution they brought later, at next point, but the concept of fluid positioning will be told now. Pires and Ljungberg didn’t tuck their position at their respective spot, but instead they roam around the pitch. They would swap position with other players like Vieira, Silva, Henry, or Bergkamp, but the primary pattern is Ljungberg and Pires would swap position with each other. And then, swapped wingers became a trend among football world. The example was Euro 2004, Portugal advanced to final with Figo and Ronaldo at both flanks swapped position numerous time. Now, the wingers don’t swap with each other simply because the current teams do not use traditional winger in midfield anymore. Instead, the width will be provide by 1 man in midfield and/or by the fullbacks. But the concept of fluid positioning still influences football until now. Now, you won’t see any player stays static on certain position.
And the forward line was also completely different with the scheme used by any other teams. Usually, the finisher would stay high up the pitch in central position and his partner would drop deep. Another scenario was, the pair consisted of targetman and finisher. Both of them would stayed high up the pitch, waiting the long ball then launched the quick counter attack. Arsenal did neither. Both Henry and Bergkamp preferred to drop deep with the former stationed himself slightly higher, on the LEFT, not at central position. Also, Henry didn’t possess the requirement of EPL strikers. Back then, the striker was a battering ram. They had strong foot and possessed complete control of aerial battle. The best example is Shearer, then followed by Ian Wright, Hasselbaink etc. But not Henry. His shot wasn’t powerful instead it was artistic with his trademark curve. And despite his tall frame, heading is Henry’s weakest point. He loved to dribble, something the EPL forward would dream of (except Zola). In short, Henry was a completely different striker in England Premier League and he became one of the best strikers ever played in history of EPL.
3. Wide Midfielder
All 4 Arsenal midfielders brought something new to fooball scene. Vieira-Silva introduced central midfielder role and Pires-Ljungberg introduced wide midfielder. Their position was at both flank yet they were not wingers. Traditional winger is someone who works down the flank, bringing the ball to byline and cross them. The important parameters are speed, dribbling, and crossing. But neither Pires nor Ljungberg fulfilled the requirements.
Pires was central midfielder. He couldn’t skip past the defence like Giggs or Vicente did. He had good ball distribution, but it was passing, not crossing and they are completely different skill. And for Ljungberg, he had amazing speed, but the problem was he could not bring the ball in the same speed like he did without ball. And, his crossing was just so-so. So, what kinds of qualities did they possess ? It was the football intelligent and teamwork. Pires knew the correct timing to move, or to pass, or to swap with Ljungberg, or to form fatal triangle among Cole and Henry. And, when Henry didn’t start from left flank like he did, Pires would be there to be inverted winger like Henry did. No wonder Wenger branded him as the best left midfielder ever played for him.
If Pires was not an ideal cut for winger, then Ljungberg was worse. His greates asset was his ninja-like off the ball movement, sneaking and surprising into defence line with his sudden presence. Frankly, if it is not because of Wenger and his system, Ljungberg would be unknown player. His passing, crossing, dribbling, and shooting were just standard. With his electric speed, one would recommend him to play at winger, but he lacks the dribbling and crossing skill. If he played as traditional winger, he would play at mid-table or lower team. But thanks to Wenger, he spotted Ljungberg’s exceptional game sense and turned him into one of the finest midfield.
Now, wide midfielder is the common tactic. Wenger still uses the tactic until now and he always puts his most creative player on the flank (Nasri and Rosicky for the example). Ranieri also used wide midfielder. He used his most creative players like Alvarez and Sneijer on the left flank. Wenger provided the extra option in football tactic. There is another place for the technically-gifted player and it is on the flank which was dominated by fast winger.
4. Extra Dimension In English Football
From the very first time football was invented, England was known for its physical football. It is all about stamina, speed, and power. It just made the common sense that “Kick and Rush” born from such football ethos. The defender and midfield task were to pass the long ball to forward. The ball would always fly in the air, much to be fought by forward and defender in aerial duel. The emergence of Gazza awoke England football that there was other kind of football to be played in England. Then came Scholes whose playmaking ability stunned the nation. But as much as they introduced the importance of playmaker in midfield, England team still always relied on high ball from the back and MU was not exception. They relied on Neville and Beckham high cross. What distinct MU from any other teams was, the high ball was very accurate and they didn’t rely solely on the long ball. They still had alternative route either from Giggs’ surging run or Scholes’ through pass. For The Invincibles’ case, they really didn’t rely on high ball at all. Both Cole and Lauren prefered the drilled low cross because they knew Henry and Bergkamp were not dangerous aerial threat. They only used high ball in set piece, when Campbell and Toure advanced forward.
Just like any other England team, Arsenal’s football relies on speed and so did The Invincibles. Thierry Henry will be the first name popping in our mind when we are talking about speed and Arsenal. And they still had other adept sprinters like Cole, Lauren, Ljungberg, Wiltord, and Bergkamp (to everyone’s surprise, Bergkamp was the 2nd fastest player in Arsenal under Henry). But what did distinguished The Invincibles from any other teams ? Other EPL clubs too had the players with tremendous speed. It was because Arsenal not only relied on player speed, but also ball speed. Since their game was relied on short pass, the ball circulated among them swiftly. Long pass shortens the time the ball required to travel from backline to opponent’s defence, but the ball itself moved slower than short pass. The slower the ball, the more time defender has to anticipate and disrupt the pass target.
Player speed is important, ball speed is important too, but speed is useless without accuracy. Another problem with long ball is, because the passer and the target are separated by far distance, it is harder to place the ball onto exact position. Unless you have great long passers like Beckham or Veron, the passer would misplace the ball by several meters, much to the risk of being intercepted by the defenders. By playing the short pass, Arsenal reduced the risk of being robbed. And of course they had longer ball possession. With longer ball possession, the opponents had shorter time to attack. If you have the ball, enemy can’t score. That’s the philosophy.
The passing game now becomes the main pattern of England football teams. Except Stoke, Liverpool (when Suarez is unavailable and Carroll becomes the spearhead), and other minority teams, most of the teams in England already emphazises on short passing game although they can’t do it as fine as other continental teams. City has D. Silva to control the pass flow, Scholes must return from his retirement because MU desperately need passer, Arsenal bought Arteta to help them retent the ball, Hotspur have Modric, and Chelsea have Mata. Every Big 5 team has the playmaker and it tells us how important the passing game is. As if the fact implies to be the top team nowadays, you must be able to perform short passing game. Something that England wouldn’t think of 30-40 years ago (although in 1953 Hungary had already taught passing game to England in historic match which ended in 6-3 for Magic Magyar’s victory).