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.
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.
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.