Category Archives: History

Book Review: Invincible: Inside Arsenal’s Unbeaten 2003-2004 Season

By Les Crang

In a period where it seems a week is unfulfilled for some of us if another Arsenal book is not released, Amy Lawrence released Invincible: Inside Arsenal’s Unbeaten 2003-2004 Season. With Andrew Mangan and Andrew Allen‘s Together: the story of Arsenal’s unbeaten season we now have two books in as many weeks and it seems we have a run on this era.

Although both discuss this period, both approach the subject differently. The two Andrew’s go through the chronology of the games and like the excellent Arseblog, looks at the book more from a fan’s perspective (they interview Tim Stillman about being at the 5-1 win at Inter Milan in 2003 for example). Amy Lawrence (and this is not a criticism, but an observation) is able to talk to virtually the whole team (sadly, excluding Ashley Cole). Not only that but also the manager and his assistant Pat Rice. Amy’s book is very different in a approach. Only a handful of games are taken on board. These being the 5-1 win at Inter:-

The 0-0 draw at Manchester United:-

The defeat to Manchester United in the FA Cup Semi-final to Manchester United:-

The European Quarter-final defeat to Chelsea at Highbury:-


2004 (April 6) Arsenal (England) 1-Chelsea… by sp1873

The following game in the league against Liverpool at Highbury:-

The clinching of the title at White Hart Lane:-


Plus, the final game of the Invincibles against Leicester:-

Amy speaks extensively to the the Arsenal players and as a result here are some real nuggets of information in the book. Especially the stuff on Edu and how he had to return to Brazil in the early noughties, during this period his sister died. Amy discusses with Edu how Arsene Wenger looked out for him, checking everyday with him and how he and his family was and that football was secondary to Edu’s health and welfare.

In discussing the team, Amy asks about the characters of the team (the anger of Jens Lehmann, the silence and introspection of Sol Campbell, the occasionally thoughtful but eternal Arsenal legend Martin Keown). She discusses team spirit and disappointments of the season (the two  consecutive defeats in the FA Cup Semi-Final and Champion League defeat to Chelsea). The team also seems to still regard those times as Elysium days, remembering the team spirit of wanting to win.  This part I really like.

Invincibles season

The part I am not so much endeared with is with is the way she portrays Wenger. Wenger seems to come over as a convivial character. Which, most of the times he is. The way he beds the two Brazilians of Edu and Gilberto Silva seems to show a man who cares for his players. But this is misleading to a degree. The two Andrews in Together: the story of Arsenal’s unbeaten season point out that Wenger didn’t play Sylvain Wiltord once from Christmas to April in the Invincibles season. Wenger was more than willing to play Jeremie Aliadiere rather than our second most expensive player, saying Wiltord was ‘injured’. Wenger moaned most of that Invincible season about how he had a small squad but did not use a French international that often (mainly as he was leaving at the end of the season).

I am not a Wenger out or anything like that at all. But I feel Amy could have been more critical of Wenger. For example, breaking up the Invincibles team too quickly (bit like Bertie Mee with the breakup of the  double squad in 1970-1). Overall, Amy is a wonderful journalist, but I felt it is may be a case of the emperors new clothes in her conclusion to the book. She seems to think that what Wenger says is true. Mostly it might be, but not always (the Wiltord example I mentioned).

In the end, the book certainly brings back some great memories of that season, but it could have been a bit more critical of Arsene Wenger in my opinion.

49 games

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henry

Welcome home Henry

Highbury was my garden.

Whenever I get a chance to go back to London, I invariably make a trip to the old Highbury. There, I stand at the entrance, looking in through the thin sliver of space onto the garden that was once the pitch. I look in with eyes closed, looking not onto the modernist glass garden as it is now but rather remembering the lush, simple green of Highbury in its last season.

I stand there and reminisce about the one time I got to see Arsenal at Highbury. The one time I got to see Thierry Henry at Highbury. The time I got to see Henry play in his garden.

If Highbury was Henry’s garden, Henry was the gardener and he sprinkled that garden with beautiful goals. Under his care the garden grew FA Cups and Premier League titles. That garden gave life to a team that would finish a whole season unbeaten, the Invincibles, a corner of Highbury with perfect rows of dahlias blooming forever in the spring sun. And that garden gave birth to a style of technically beautiful, powerful, rapier-like football which would be known as “playing football the Arsenal way”.

More than any other player, Henry’s careful tilling of the fertile soil in North London provided the bounty that is now the Emirates Stadium.

Adebayor

  Show me a great manager and I’ll show you a great goalscorer

There’s a maxim in football that a great forward and a great manager are symbiotic. A great forward carries his team through the hard times and a great manager sets up the team to get the most out of his great forward. Rodgers had Suarez, Mourinho had Drogba (and now Costa), Graham had Ian Wright, and Arsene Wenger had Thierry Henry.

I feel in love with Arsenal because of Thierry Henry. I’m not ashamed to admit it. He was simply the most beautiful footballer I had ever seen. His silky smooth touch on the ball belied his powerful and predatory nature. In a moment he could turn his man, be past him, bounce off two defenders and pass the ball around the outstretched arms of a hapless keeper as he did against Real Madrid at the Bernabeu.

Or like he did against Liverpool to lead the charge back from 2-1 down to 4-2 win. A goal of such astounding skill that it is widely hailed as the goal which saved Arsenal’s Invincible season.

Henry was powerful, precise, and pretty. Oh so pretty. If you don’t get chills watching that clip above, perhaps you should consider another sport. Whist, I hear is a real hoot.

It may be sacrilege to say this but as much credit as Wenger gets for the Arsenal side which won so much from 2000 to 2005 Henry deserves equal credit. And that goal above along with many more are credited with doing just that.

They are the club of my dreams and I would like to play there

As revealed in his book Lonely at the Top, Philippe Auclair points out that Henry was such a hot property in 1996 that Real Madrid offered him over £60,000 a week (after tax) plus a £800,000 signing on bonus to sign from Monaco. That attempt at tapping up (through Henry’s father Tony) of a 19 year old Henry failed. Henry was fined, Real Madrid was fined, and Henry signed a contract extension with ASM.

Henry fell out of favor, though, at ASM and after a few years of toiling actually made a surprise move to Juventus. It was a surprise move even for Wenger. Wenger had earmarked Henry to play with Anelka in the Arsenal attack and on 20 November 1998 Thierry Henry was quoted saying that “[Arsenal] are the club of my dreams and I would like to play there.”

But instead, Henry went to Juventus that January and spent a few agonizing months in the Serie A. Like Paul the apostle wandering the desert blind, Henry, I guess, needed time to find himself. Time to throw off the shackles of his father and find shelter from the personal and professional troubles he’d gotten into at Monaco.

Wenger, the man who handed Henry his debut at Monaco, then must be given credit for getting Henry to Highbury. People like to call Dein the architect of those transfers but it was certainly Wenger which prompted Henry’s “dream.”

Wenger deserves credit for assembling the team which would give Henry the platform for success. Without Vieira, Campbell, Toure, Lehman, Cole, Piers, Ljungberg, Edu, and Gilberto, Thierry Henry would have been just another great goal scorer on an under-performing team. Many people are harping on Alexis Sanchez’ passing rate but the Chilean is actually a better passer than Thierry Henry in his first season. The Frenchman was seen by many as a disaster because he could only complete 67% of his passes. Sanchez does give the ball away a bit but is snip better at 77% and well on his way to equaling Henry’s 17 goals in his first season at Highbury.

It took Wenger two years to get the parts right around Henry but once he did, he built a team which could rival any in world football now. Thierry Henry led the front line on that Arsenal team. His job was to score goals and win games. He did that. And as much as Wenger, Thierry Henry was the nucleus of the greatest Arsenal team of my generation.

Maybe it’s just symbolic but Henry, more than any other player, bridged the gap between the old Highbury Arsenal and the new Emirates Arsenal.

Who do they think they are?

I feel like I’ve always been saying goodbye to Henry. I only saw him once in his garden, on a cold Spring day against Charlton. It was Arsenal’s final season at Highbury and I knew this would be my last ever chance to see the club at their old haunt. The day was perfect, the sun shone, the grass glinted deep green, Arsenal won, and even Alexandr Hleb scored a goal, but despite the joy of seeing Arsenal at Highbury for the first time it was a bittersweet match.

Arsenal would never be the same after that season, relocating the whole stadium a block away and modernizing their money-making capabilities in order to compete with the nouveau riche of Chelsea. Arsenal left her heart at Highbury.

Henry would also never be the same after that season. Failing at the final hurdle, losing 2-1 to Barcelona in the Champions League final in Paris, blocks from his boyhood home, changed the man. He stayed one more season at Arsenal as a symbolic link between Highbury and the Emirates. He had tilled the garden of Highbury and reaped the bounty of the Emirates and he needed to stay just one season to say hello and good bye.

I also saw Henry this Summer at the New York Red Bulls friendly against Arsenal in New Jersey. Henry was still Henry. He still had that swagger and silky smooth touch of his Highbury years but without his trademark speed, played more like a cagey old lion then the apex predator I remembered from when I first fell in love with Arsenal.

That match this summer had all the trappings of a testimonial. Fans came from all over the world to see Henry and Arsenal play one last time. There was even a discussion about having Henry play for Arsenal at half-time, which was apparently against some rule set down by history’s greatest monster. And as Henry left the field he received a two-minute standing ovation. He even took the field after the match and made sure to applaud every section of fans who had made the trip out to see him.

henryIt was as close to a testimonial as many of us Yanks will ever get for Thierry Henry. Giving as he always has been, Henry gave once more of himself. He gave us one final chance to say good bye.

Henry has always been like this with us Arsenal fans. He’s always loved us, loved Arsenal, and we have always loved him. In the final scene of Lonely at the Top, Henry had returned to Arsenal on loan and played a few minutes against Aston Villa in the FA Cup. He hadn’t scored or even played a significant part in the match but  Auclair describes how a bearded Thierry Henry sat in the locker room, still dripping with sweat, boots still full of grass, trying to savor the very last drop of his Arsenal career.

“Who do they think they are?” asks Emmanuel Petit. Speaking of Theirry’s teammates who all left long ago.

There has never been any doubt who Thierry Henry thinks he is. He is Arsenal’s all-time leading goalscorer. He is the man who helped to build Arsenal into the club it is today. He is part of Arsenal and Arsenal are part of him. And on the eve of his retirement from playing football, amid rumor that he might want to return to Arsenal as a coach or in some other capacity, let me be the first to say

“Welcome home Henry”

Qq

 

yorke

Anatomy of the Arsenal: Manchester United 6 Arsenal 1. Wenger’s defensive meltdown…A recurring theme?

They are all good players, but we had no leaders. At times, we were very naive and gave too much freedom to United. No one communicated. The first and second goals were jokes, like watching a youth team. Arsene Wenger after the 6-1 defeat to Manchester United

How relevant is the above statement after our recent draw with Anderlecht, defeat to Swansea, and loss to United, thirteen years on? It seems Arsenal fans seem to think heavy defeats are a new thing, but even two and half years before the 6-1 defeat at Old Trafford in 2001, we had lost 5-0 in the League Cup, at home to Chelsea.

Many had said that it was a weak team, but check below:-

Arsenal: Manninger; Grondin, Vivas, Grimandi, Upson; Garde, Hughes,
Ljungberg, Boa Morte; Bergkamp, Wreh
Subs: Mendez (Garde h-t), Caballero (Bergkamp 60),
Cole, Vernazza, Lukic

That is eight internationals or future internationals. Hardly a weak team.

After winning the double in 1997-8, Arsenal had seen Manchester United win the league the following two season (it would be three by season 2000-1). In 1998-9, Arsenal were on the verge of an unprecedented back to back double, narrowly losing by 1 point to Manchester United after losing to Leeds United in the penultimate game of the season.

We also lost the semi-final to Manchester United at Villa Park:-

Obviously, United went on to win the treble that season. It was said (but I can’t remember by whom) that Arsenal had the best team but United the best squad). To me, this is something that has rarely changed 15 years on except perhaps between 2002-5 period. But more of that later.

Unfortunately, by season 1999-2000 Arsenal again came second to Manchester United. This time by 18 points. The season of 2000-1 saw us lose Marc Overmars and Emmanuel Petit to Barcelona for £30,000.000 combined fee, plus Davor Suker and Nigel Winterburn to West Ham on free transfers. We had replaced Overmars with Robert Pires whilst Edu and Grimandi were seen as adequate replacements for the departing Emmanuel Petit. Again, a repeated feature of Arsene Wengers tenure is he is too slow replace areas everyone else seems to see, like a defensive midfielder.

Also, Arsenal had been suffering at the back as usual. Wenger had been fortunate to inherit the famous back four. By 2001, Winterburn and Steve Bould had left, with Lee Dixon regularly on the bench as Silvinho and then Ashley Cole took his place. In central defence, Tony Adams from 1999-2002, out of a possible 114 games  played 57 (exactly half). The fulcrum at centre of the defence was Martin Keown, who was already in his mid 30’s. Here again is the problem. Wenger spending money on defenders. The defenders he had bought up to Old Trafford in 2001? Nelson Vivas? An Argentine full-back remembered for losing us the title at Leeds in 1999, when he lost Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink at the back post:-

Centre of defence? Oleg Luzhny was bought from Dynamo Kiev and known as ‘the horse’. A trier, but more a Boxer from Animal Farm rather than a Red Rum. Our other centre half was Igor Stepanovs, a £1,300,000 signing from Latvia. Tall and gangly, my first game I saw of Arsenal was his debut against Ipswich Town (which I only  just realised was a couple days after Geordie Armstrong passed away at London Colney). On his debut in the League Cup match against Ipswich in November 2000, Stepanov scored with a thumping header. We still lost 2-1 and you could see he was not fast of feet or mind. But with Keown and Adams, when would we ever need these two in the defence? All too soon, unfortunately.

As ever, since Arsenal had last won the League in 1998, Wenger seems to like spending his money on on attacking players most of all. Although we had lost Nicolas Anelka, Davor Suker and Marc Overmars. But look who he had signed? Fredrik Ljungberg, Robert Pires, Thierry Henry, Nwankwo Kanu, Sylvain Wiltord and a young Jermaine Pennant. We had also retained the services of Dennis Bergkamp. A superb attacking outfit.

It almost felt that Wenger just wanted to sign attacking players. Well. Nothing unusual there then.

The season had some real highlights, no more so than Thierry Henry’s most famous goal which came in our 1-0 win over United at Highbury:-

Layth Yousif said of the game:-

The North Londoners owed their triumph to the traditionally labelled virtues of snatching a goal against the run of play and defending stoutly for the remainder of the game. It was the ethos that brought silverware under George Graham, yet 1-0 to Arsenal seems like a galaxy away when contrasted with the sublime football they invariably play under their French alchemist Wenger.

There was also the 5-0 win over Newcastle that season, in which Ray Parlour scored a hat trick:-

Unfortunately, by the time we played Manchester United, Arsenal were 13 points behind them. The team had also suffered a major defeat at Anfield prior to Christmas. We did not look good.

The team for the Manchester United game for Arsenal was :-

Arsenal: Seaman, Luzhny, Cole, Grimandi, Stepanovs, Pires, Vieira, Parlour, Silvinho, Wiltord, Henry. Subs: Ljungberg, Bergkamp, Manninger, Vivas, Kanu.

Therefore, the team back four was lacking Tony Adams, Martin Keown and Lee Dixon. Ashley Cole and Oleg Luzhny played full-back, with Gilles Grimandi and Igor Stepanovs in the middle of the defence. Therefore, Arsenal were playing an international defender out of position. Bit like Nacho Monreal then?

As for the midfield? Well, Patrick Vieira and Ray Parlour played in the middle with Silvinho (a full-back) on the wing. It was a team that had never played together. Edu had problems with his passport and was unavailable to play. It was a team that looked ready for a thrashing. If you have defenders in the wrong position, either centre halves as full-backs and fullbacks as wingers you are looking for trouble.

I watched the first half of the game, I couldn’t watch the second half. In the first two minutes Arsenal were one down and Stepanovs didn’t follow or watch his man, with Dwight Yorke ghosting in at the back post.

Henry quickly equalised but by 17 minutes Yorke has run on to a thirty yard ball. He was played onside by a slow Grimandi. On the 26 minute a long 40 yard ball was picked up by Yorke, as Stepanovs gazed upwards  as the ball sailed over her head. Yorke had a hat-trick in 24 minutes. Then Arsenal went on the attack, it was broken down outside the box, A break to the wing and Yorke goes up the wing. Roy Keane bursts in the middle between Luzhny and Grimandi and rammed the ball in. 4-1. Just before half time Giggs down the wing, with an ever ineffectual Grimandi falling over Giggs feet. Giggs pulls it back for Ole Gunnar Solskjær to make it 5-1.

In the second half Arsenal kept it down to one. With a long ball again over the top, again. The man on the end of the ball was Teddy Sheringham, who turned Grimandi inside out. 6-1. It just had to be Teddy.

Of the display, what can be said? Well, only Ashley Cole was any good there. The other three were too slow and never worked as a unit. At least 3 of the goals were balls pinged over the top, to take advantage of Stepanovs and Luzhny’s slowness. Totally basic errors that Sir Alex Ferguson used to his advantage.

Also, the cover from the midfield was poor. Vieira, without Petit, was ineffectual. In the double season of 1997, after a 3-1 home defeat to Blackburn, the back four had said they needed more cover from Vieira and Petit. After this, both played more defensive (especially Petit) and went on a 12 match unbeaten run. This was certainly lacking in this game. Vieira is too often called a defensive midfielder and regarded as the pinnacle of it. To me that is untrue. Petit was the the defensive midfielder (of which I have never seen bettered at Arsenal). His loss in 2000 was perhaps one of the worst players we would lose to a competitor.

Arsenal gave up the ghost on the league by February (better than November then?). So what did Wenger do after the game? He redoubled his efforts to win the F.A Cup and looked to the next season to sort out his problems. Arsenal made it to the final against Liverpool, where after leading the game Michael Owen scored two late goals. Defeated again. But Arsenal were also robbed early on, when Thierry Henry goal bound effort was stopped by Stephane Henchoz hand on the line. Red card and penalty. But the referee missed it.

Martin Keown said of the game afterwards:-

I remember standing on that pitch in 2001 and saying this ain’t gonna happen again, because Ltiverpool were so lucky that day.

Wenger, after such a heavy defeat, losing the title by 10 points and F.A Cup Final did what he should have done previously. He spent in the areas he needed cover. He famously bought in Sol Campbell from Spurs for an aging Tony Adams (who would play a mere 10 league games in 2001-2 season). He bought in a defensive midfielder in Gio Van Bronckhorst from Rangers, as well as utilising the often under rated Edu. He also brought in cover for an aging David Seaman in goal, by signing Richard Wright from Ipswich Town. Wenger had gone out and bought in areas we needed improving and not on the cheap.

So, to me, my point is that often Wenger is a reactive manager, rather than a pro-active manager. At present he has bought players that can attack but not a defensive midfielder or centre half. Just like in season 2000-1. Could he change? Well, he did in the pre season of 2001-2 by signing big. He could do it in January or the close season by signing Mats Hummel and/or William Carvalho. But, as ever with Wenger, it seems a season too late. Also, who is to guarantee he will even go for these players?