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FourFourTom: Reasons behind Arsenal’s enormous fall from Invincible grace

by Paddy Power Admin | November 1, 2012

FourFourTom byline

Cast your mind back to the 2003/04 season. There was only one name on the lips of every football fan – Arsenal. Everyone admired them, everyone respected them and, perhaps most importantly, everyone feared them. Fast forward nine years and it’s a different story altogether. So where did it all go wrong? How did a once-Invincible team become so vincible?

It’s not rocket science to realise that the key to sustained success in football is consistency. Keeping hold of key players at all costs is vital and Arsenal simply haven’t done that in recent years. If a club fails to keep hold of its prized assets, quality has to be replaced with equal quality – again, Arsenal haven’t done that.

In June 2003, Roman Abramovich bought Chelsea and was reported to have offered tens of millions in exchange for Sol Campbell and Thierry Henry and, on top of that, Real Madrid were keen to land Patrick Vieira. Both clubs were simply told “no”.

In recent years it’s a different story altogether. Arsenal have let star player after star player walk out of the Emirates, replacing many of them with an upcoming prospect for a fraction of the price. You may not actually believe this, but if you pay a fraction of the price, you’re rewarded with a fraction of the talent.

Santi Cazorla Arsenal

I’m not saying they were direct replacements by any means, but were Alex Song, Samir Nasri and Robin van Persie ever going to fill the void left by Patrick Vieira, Robert Pires and Thierry Henry? No, they weren’t. Not in a million years. The former trio, even at their best, would be substitutes in the Invincibles squad. They all had the potential to be great players for Arsenal, granted, but as soon as they began to realise that potential they were auctioned off to the highest bidder. Over the past nine years the level of quality in almost every position has been slowly diluted.

I’m not saying the current Arsenal players lack talent – the likes of Santi Cazorla, Mikel Arteta and Jack Wilshere are all great players – but they’re a totally different breed of player and are playing a style of football which is far from that which the Arsenal of old found success with.

Speed, fluency and ruthless efficiency

The Invincibles played in a 4-4-2 formation, whereas the current squad play in a 4-3-3. The 4-4-2 was based around a rock-solid spine which was always pressing forward, narrow wingers cutting inside to take up goalscoring positions and marauding full-backs providing width on the overlap. It was the perfect combination of technical quality and solidity. This system redefined what a Premier League team could be. The speed, fluency and ruthless efficiency of the attacks made Arsenal an unstoppable force.

When the Invincibles trailed by a goal, or even a few goals, “are they going to score?” was never questioned. It was a matter of “when are they going to score and how many?” There was always a resounding sense of inevitability that they would win.

The current Arsenal squad doesn’t contain the personnel to use that same system, in my opinion. The 4-3-3 system fits the squad well – it’s built around a ball playing central midfield, which is an area where Arsenal currently possess a wealth of talent. Everything is based on a philosophy of keeping the ball with short passing and scoring through patient build up play.

Arsenal Invincibles

One problem with this system is that it displays a far less threatening mentality from the outset, but the myth that they try too many passes and not enough shots is totally false. If you ask most people why Arsenal fail to win trophies, they’ll say “they try to pass it in”, but that’s simply not true.

Whilst it’s true that the current squad make a lot more passes than the invincible squad, they also take far more shots on goal. Arsenal have taken 168 shots and scored 14 times in their nine Premier League games this season, meaning if they keep up the same average throughout the season they’ll take 672 shots and score 56 goals. The Invincibles took a significantly fewer 471 shots on goal, but found the net 73 times.

Statistics show Arsenal are creating more chances now

For me, the system isn’t the reason why Arsenal aren’t as good as they once were. The statistics show that more chances are being created today than in the days of the Invincibles, but they’re simply not being converted. The answer to why Arsenal aren’t converting the same amount of chances today as they were nine years ago lies in a quote from April 16th 2004, as Andy Gray watched Arsenal annihilate Leeds 5-0 at Highbury.

I’ve seen most things in this league in the last 25 years. I haven’t seen anything like him. I said he was special at the beginning of the game, but he’s more than that. He’s irreplaceable.

I’ve always remembered those words from Gray, which he said in utter astonishment as Thierry Henry slotted home his fourth goal. A dictionary full of superlatives couldn’t offer enough words to describe Henry, but “irreplaceable” is as close as you can get.

What we witnessed in 2003/04 will never happen again

Whether it was through Arsene Wenger’s genius, sheer luck, cosmic alignment or whatever other theories you can come up with is unclear. If you ask me, Arsenal were just incredibly fortunate to bring together a group of phenomenal footballers who all simultaneously hit their peak and shared an almost telepathic cohesion. What we witnessed Arsenal accomplish in 2003/04 will probably never happen again in our lifetime.

Realistically, the best Arsenal can hope for this season is a top three or top four finish, a quarter or semi-final in the Champions League and success in one of, or both of, the domestic cups. The more deluded fans will say “we’ll win the Champions League” or “we’re still title contenders”, but the reality is that a domestic cup and a place in next seasons Champions League would be a great season.

It hurts me to write this as a fan, because it’s an enormous fall from grace for a team who were once the most dreaded match on any team’s calendar.

FourFourTom is a football writer (and Arsenal fan). Follow him on Twitter here.

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  1. Jay said on November 1, 2012 @ 11:39 am

    good read, agree completely with the likes of RVP, Song and Nasri only making the bench. The quality just isn’t there like it used to be.

  2. Keith Ryan (@eacstais) said on November 1, 2012 @ 12:01 pm

    Hard to disagree with any of that. Are Arsenal still caught in transition because of the stadium move or are the fans being hoodwinked? The latest is that we’ll be able to compete in two years time, time will tell.
    I kind of feel sorry for Arsene, his time in France was hindered by an era of a club bribing their way along and then he arrives in England and he’s met by Club’s who spend ludicrous amounts of money and he just can’t compete.

  3. elflaco said on November 1, 2012 @ 12:24 pm

    They should have never allowed Tony Adams to leave. Or at least they could have explored the possibility of human cloning. Had they acted in time they could have obtained DNA samples when he was at his peak and would currently be introducing his doppelganger into first-team affairs.
    Things change. Teams change. Nottingham Forest won the European cup and have since hit the skids big time. Sometimes, beyond the multi-zillion pound purchasing power there is just a footballing alchemy brought about through tactics, charisma and team spirit – like the great Hungarian team or Porto and that vile Greek squad in the same ‘invincible’ year. Or maybe it was just a freak year of cosmic curiosity?
    The invincible team contained a lot of players that would have had comparable reputations to many of the current team when they inked their deals. Vieira, Pires, Ljungberg, Wiltord, Lauren, Edu, Gilberto and Touré weren’t exactly stellar names prior their arrival.
    In spite of their invincibility the didn’t advance beyond the quarter finals of the Champions league that season though, or beyond the 1st knockout round the following season. The one time they did reach the Champions League superbowl they didn’t even finish in the top 3 domestically – with a large chunk of the 2003/04 team still in place. A domestic achievement equivalent to that of the modern side….

  4. Leo said on November 1, 2012 @ 12:41 pm

    Agree completely, but is there any centre forward in the world at the moment, let alone in Arsenal’s price bracket, who is on a par with Henry circa 2003-04?

  5. Parker said on November 1, 2012 @ 1:32 pm

    I think if Arsenal would have kept Fabergas, Nasri, RVP, and Song and then still bought Cazorla…they would have been the best team in the league.

  6. b0sher said on November 1, 2012 @ 2:45 pm

    Interesting but the changes in the football landscape are barely discussed. Chelsea entering the market was an enormous change, as was Man City. They could say no because the wages on offer were not vastly different, pay structures were still in place. Teams also became far smarter with their scouting after see’ing the success Arsenal had with it. You cant pick up an Anelka for £500,000 any more or a Toure for £150,000. Football is a food chain and Chelsea & City were pumped full of steroids making it all but impossible to escape them.

  7. Haukur Hinrikson said on November 1, 2012 @ 3:25 pm

    Absolutely agree with you, it bothers me when people say otherwise. But a big reason for Arsenal’s lack of solidity last years, is our back four and goalkeeper, haven’t seen a solid arsenal back four since Ashley Cole left, Campbell got old, and Keown quit and finally when Lehman left. Also we’ve missed a good finisher upfront. I thought we finally found him when Eduardo came to us, but unfortunately everyone know what sadly happened to him.

  8. Amir P. said on November 1, 2012 @ 5:17 pm

    For days Tom, has been researching and taking notes about Arsenal’s “Invincibles”. While doing so he came upon his great memories of Arsenal which made the article more beautiful than it already was. A truly great article and reason why I admire his work!

  9. helloes said on November 1, 2012 @ 6:50 pm

    Fourfourtom forced me to comment

  10. Paul said on November 1, 2012 @ 8:44 pm

    Thanks for the comment Jay

  11. Paul said on November 1, 2012 @ 8:45 pm

    But by some reports Keith, Arsenal have about £70m to spend — why haven’t they done so?

  12. Paul said on November 1, 2012 @ 8:45 pm

    Elflaco sir, you need a column

  13. Paul said on November 1, 2012 @ 8:46 pm

    Simple answer is: no

  14. Paul said on November 1, 2012 @ 8:47 pm

    Good points B0sher – well made

  15. Paul said on November 1, 2012 @ 8:48 pm

    Compare United now — Alex Ferguson thinks he can outscore his defensive problems. That’s unlikely I think.

  16. Maddy said on November 1, 2012 @ 11:20 pm

    Great article. Problem with Arsenal is that they don’t keep their star players long enough to creat a team capable of winning the PL… I miss the days when Arsenal used to be our main rivals not $ity and Chel$ki !!! PS. You play 4-2-3-1 not 4-3-3 ;)

  17. elflaco said on November 2, 2012 @ 10:25 am

    Maybe I’ll start my own newspaper and give myself a job. I can pad out the rest of the publication with made up stories. It will be just like a real newspaper. All I need now is an industrial printing press and millions of Euro Dollars.

  18. Paul said on November 2, 2012 @ 10:59 am

    Business empires have been built on flimsier plans.

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    […] FourFourTom on how Arsenal’s Invincibles became so vincible […]

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    […] @FourFourTom on Arsenal’s amazing decline + Piers Morgan picks his dream #6aSide team from the Wenger […]

  21. minny said on November 4, 2012 @ 8:12 pm

    but but the financial fair play rules should see us challenge again right? or is plantini a shit hawking frog

  22. Dano said on November 12, 2012 @ 5:23 am

    The fundamental problem lies with the money. Players want higher wages, arsenal can’t pay. I say can’t, because it is truly unrealistic to pay any player in excess of 200k a week and expect to break even unless ur winning trophies every year – that’s the only reason united have stuck around. Chelsea and city have billionaires to bail them out…arsenal board is conservative because while they could splash millions on a top class team…the consequences of that team failing would destroy the club – look at liverpool. Holding out for the financial fairplay farce is also delusional – it doesn’t and will never exist. That being said…8 years is long enough, time for change

  23. Dano said on November 12, 2012 @ 5:55 am

    A major issue with wenger and gazidis is contractual power – they don’t understand it. U don’t have to play fifa 13 to realise that allowing any talented player to even come within 2 yrs of contract is idiotic. Allowing nasri, rvp, clichy etc to run down their contracts gave them all the power to demand higher wages…wages wenger wasn’t prepared to pay.. Now we have walcott and sagna doing the same thing…walcott can basically demand anything now, he’s has all the negotiating power…and sagna is not far off. In fact, I am 80% sure sagna will b in a city or psg shirt by next year. Wenger will think “I can sell sagna for around 15 mil and use jenkinson at RB, then I can pay 1mil for another unknown RB and use the 14 mil to award gazidis and myself a bonus for being oh so shrewd). But it gets better…not only does wenger allow players to run down their contracts…he allows players with lengthy contracts to simply leave because they “feel like playing somewhere else” – fabregas and song. This is atrocious. Ferguson and mancini would never allow it with their prized assets. “Sit on the bench for 6 months and we’ll see if that changes ur mind” is something wenger should have said. Allowing fabregas to go was idiotic – 3 years left on his contract…we could have used him for 2 and sold him for the same 30 mil with a year left. Shambolic

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