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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Naveen’s tactical preview: Stoke v. Arsenal, freshen the Giroud

By Naveen Maliakkal

While Mark Hughes’ Stoke tend not to play like Tony Pulis’ Stoke, this Saturday, Arsenal will probably see Stoke return to their deep-defending, possession-shunning, and counter-attacking way that defined the Pulis era.

Hughes’ sides have not done anything special when they play Arsenal. When they do have the ball, they may look to play the ball long, especially if Peter Crouch starts up front. Such long balls will probably go into wide areas, looking to match up the tall center forward against a full back rather than a center back. Such reliance on aerial ability could lead to Stoke finding some joy on set-pieces, even though they have only scored one goal from set pieces this season.

(Looking at the 7amkickoff Index, I see that 4 of Arsenal’s last 9 goals conceded were from headers, off crosses, from open play. The other five were an O.G., a penalty, a fast break, a cross to feet, and a direct free kick as the result of a fast break. Arsenal also had 5 clean sheets in that time. Tim) 

However, with the dribbling ability of Bojan and the potential for Johnathan Walters to miss the match with a knee injury, Stoke could look to play more passes into the space between the defensive line and last midfield line, instead of going over the top. If they look to play Mame Biram Diouf instead of a target man up front, then it could lead to Stoke playing Charlie Adam and/or Steven Ireland to provide more players with the ability to provide the diagonal ball or incisive pass to set the quicker center forward on his way to goal. However, playing with the likes of Charlie Adam or Steven Ireland does impose a cost defensively, and could lead to Hughes keeping those two on the bench.

They will probably look to keep their defensive shape compact, limiting the amount of space between the lines. Stoke will probably set up in a compact 4-4-1-1 shape, as having four men in a defensive line seems the best way to control a particular vertical level of the pitch. Hopefully, Arsenal will do a better job breaking down their opposition than they did in last season’s defeat to The Potters.

In last season’s 1-0 defeat¹, Arsenal played Santi Cazorla, Tomas Rosicky, and Lukas Podolski behind Olivier Giroud. With Cazorla and Rosicky, Arsenal had two players who wanted to stay in more central areas, while Podolski offered little down the left. This made it easy for Stoke to mark Arsenal’s fullbacks, when they went ahead. Combine that with the fact that Arsenal had an attacking liability in Bacary Sagna at right-back (why Manchester City signed him as a back-up right back is beyond me), and Arsenal struggled to create enough in that match.

Looking at this season’s team, the fact that Arsenal will probably have a front trio including the likes of Alexis Sanchez and Danny Welbeck/Alex-Oxlade Chamberlain, along with a superior attacking option at right back in Calum Chambers, means that Arsenal will have a greater potential to stretch Stoke City’s lines. While having too much positional width in attack makes a team rather susceptible to counter attacks because the team has too much space to put pressure on the ball or to cover passing lanes if they lose possession, it could prove beneficial in attack.

However, it would be preferable to stretch Stoke’s defense with a more compact and intelligent positional set-up, along with better ball movement. A team that sits deep and compact has to work quite hard to control the spaces they want to control if they go up against a side that has control of the ball and an ability to control spaces in possession. Without control of the ball, the defending team can be at the mercy of the side with the ball. Even if they do not score in the first 70 minutes, much like a boxer spending the early rounds landing body shots, the side dominating the ball and space has done quite a bit of damage. With lowered energy levels, a team’s ability to make tackles and interceptions decreases, while their ability to control space becomes compromised.  Football is a game of 90 minutes. Keeping a clean sheet for 80 minutes does not matter, if it comes at too great of a cost for a team to close out the match.

To that point, Arsenal cannot get frustrated and needlessly force the issue. That is exactly the kind of play Stoke want. They want Arsenal to try to force the issue and attack gaps that do not exist, rather than create and exploit holes that appear in The Potters defense. That is part of the reason they will look to foul Arsenal quite a bit. In addition to winning the ball and the physical attrition it can impose on Arsenal, they hope that such a rough style of play will cause mental attrition². At some point, Arsenal need to show more faith in their superiority over the opponent, stay with the playing style, and not throw resources forward or try to force the ball through Stoke.

In this sense, not having Jack Wilshere in the side may help Arsenal in this respect. For all of Wilshere’s ability on the ball, his poor decision-making between when to pass and when to dribble can lead to him dribbling into a wall of defenders. Combine this with his worrying lack of composure/poise when things do not go his way, either arguing or throwing himself in a retaliatory action/poor tackle (It is sometimes hard to tell whether a particular tackle of his is just terrible, just retaliatory, or both), and Arsenal seem better off without him in this match.

Continuing with this theme of not panicking in possession/getting frustrated, against Stoke, with the aerial advantage they have, crosses in the air do not look like a profitable way of creating chances, at least early on. Even though the wide areas may be where the easy space is, Arsenal should not look to exploit that space to play high crosses into the box. Maybe later in the game, if they have successfully worn down Stoke with good ball movement and positional play, such crosses could become useful, particularly if Olivier Giroud plays the role of supersub again.

Giroud: Starter…Supersub…Both?  

Against Everton and against Southampton, Olivier Giroud’s introduction helped to change the match. In both matches, a fresh Giroud had his way with tired defenders as Arsenal chased the points. As the opponent tires, concedes possession, and drops deeper, a player like Giroud has a greater ability to take advantage of his size and strength. He can bully defenders; he can occupy areas, in the on-side space, closer to goal; his lack of top end speed matters less because of the lack of off-side space to exploit; his ability to hold the ball up against tired defenders allows Arsenal to better exploit more advantageous spaces. He seems like a fantastic option off the bench to chase a match.

However, if he can provide this at the end of games, would you not want this ability throughout the match? I would argue that the differential in freshness/fitness matters heavily for a player like Giroud. If he starts the match against Stoke, he does not start with that physical advantage. Instead, like the rest of Arsenal’s starters, he will physically decline as the match goes on. Therefore, it seems unwise to linearly extrapolate the production of a substitute to come up with an estimate of production over 90 minutes³.

Looking at the bigger picture, Olivier Giroud also seems like a player who has a significant drop-off in performance, when comparing fully fit and fresh and any other fitness and energy combination. Watch the first North London Derby from the 2013-14 season, and then watch the one in March of that season. The difference between a fresh Giroud in the first match and a physically worn-down Giroud in the final NLD is striking. And it makes sense given how much more he played last season compared any other season of his career.

Last season, he started 43 matches, logging 3725 minutes on the pitch, between Champions League and English Premier League games. During 2012/13, he played 41 matches between the two competitions, with only 28 starts, logging a total of 2715 minutes. In his final two seasons at Montpelier, he played 36 matches in 2011/12 and 37 matches in 2010/11, logging 3205 minutes and 2920 minutes respectively. Given the increase in minutes and matches that Giroud had last season, combined with his need to be at his best physically to play to the level Arsenal need of him, it makes sense that his performance tailed off massively as the season went along.

Therefore, to get the most out of Olivier Giroud, to have him consistently perform at the level Arsenal need, the Frenchman probably should not start a large majority of Arsenal’s matches. Instead, he should probably start occasionally, maybe 25 times a season, and have a significant proportion of his minutes come as a supersub, particularly when Arsenal chase a match. Obviously, Giroud wants to start every match. Such a playing policy could cause some discontent for the center forward. However, with the likes of Alexis Sanchez and Danny Welbeck capable of playing that role, Arsenal have a greater need for high quality performances rather than a high quantity of appearances from Giroud.

@njm1211

¹5 points dropped to United, 3 points dropped to Stoke, 2 points dropped to Swansea. For all the talk of Arsenal not winning the title because they did not perform in “big” games, those are 10 points of which Arsenal should have won at least 8. There is your title.
²To make an analogy to the NFL, last season, the Seattle Seahawks seemed to take a similar approach when it came to defending receivers. Guessing correctly that referees would not blow the whistle every time they held a receiver or contacted one illegally, Seattle took advantage of this to no end. Combine this with the talent they had and it made for one of the greatest secondaries in my lifetime. Maybe such a thought process exists in the minds of combative clubs. “They might call us for a foul or a yellow card every now and then, but no referee wants to continuous stop the game for fouls”. Therefore, the lax enforcement, in an effort to promote “flow”, provides an incentive for such tactics. This provides a different explanation to why Arsenal seem to not get calls like other teams. Opponents revealed that referees have a desire to not blow the whistle all the time, making such combative tactics more profitable. Combine this with a perceived and sometimes real tendency for Arsenal to lose their attacking discipline in the face of such adversity, forcing the play, leading to turnovers, and providing counter-attacking opportunities, and we have some significant positive reinforcement of this set of behaviors.
³The idea of sub-effects also comes up in the per90 numbers and was on full display in the 2014 World Cup, particularly with Belgium, who brought on an athletic CF, either Origi or Lukaku, to take advantage of tired defenders.

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Matchday Photo of the Month: Robin nose

By Jonathan Blaustein

It’s Monday morning, just after the Thanksgiving holiday. Here in America, that means most people have woken up in a fog. Not the heavy, moist kind you get in London, driven by water in the air.

No.

This fog is propelled by a combination of turkey, pie, turkey-leftovers, pie-leftovers, wine, beer, stuffing, gravy, mashed potatoes, and an extra dose of family drama.

Every year, same cycle.

Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

The drama was mild this year, thankfully. The worst moment, and only close call, came when my brother kicked an oversized-yoga-ball into the back of my legs as I chased his son in the other direction. He knocked my slippers clean off my feet, and nearly sent me crashing to the concrete floor head first.

Luckily, it didn’t come to that. Crisis averted. But that doesn’t make my brother any less of an asshole. Only that the circumstances could have been much worse. So I’m “thankful” that they weren’t.

Such was the case in that horrible loss to Manchester United the other week. Also known as the only team I’ve not seen Arsenal beat yet. This, in my fourth year of addiction to the Gunners. I’ve heard it is at least theoretically possible, to beat those wankers from ManU, but I’m dubious.

That loss was terrible, sure. But it could have been much worse. What if Van Persie had gotten a goal? Or a brace? Or, God forbid, a hat trick? Can you imagine? Arsenal fans the world over would have pulled their eyebrows out, one hair at a time.

O. U. C. H.

I’ve got to say, I hate that guy now as much as I loved him my first year watching the team. His Dutch legs were classier than a big joint of Royal Cream blonde hash from the Cafe Oude Kerk in Amsterdam.

Oh, the thrills.

Now, he’s dead to me.

Asshole.

But believe it or not, living as I do in a horse pasture in the Great American Wild West, I do have a bit of gossip about the whole departure. Turns out, I had dinner at a friend’s house right off Holloway Road in early March of 2013. It was just after the Tottenham capitulation, just before the Bayern Resurrection.

At the dinner, coincidentally, was a Spurs fan, and his blonde-haired-sports-agent girlfriend. (Who roots for Southampton.) Her agency was massive, her client list even more so. She dropped Cristiano Ronaldo’s name as casually as if she were ordering a Bellini in Venice. Then she told me they also represented RVP, and that the truth was that Arsenal made him NO OFFER WHATSOEVER.

He was told, so I was told, that the time had come to be sold. Because, sadly, he was getting old. And Big Stan needed to be bold, and cash in before his… value disappeared. They didn’t want to be left out in the cold. (Sorry, I told you I was foggy this morning. Couldn’t help the impromptu poem.)

Now, this info came to me well-before I was a part-time Arsenal blogger. But she never said “off the record,” so I’m free to share it here.

I swear, this was someone who would know what she was talking about. How might that change the narrative we’ve all come to know? Not much. Because I’ve known that for almost 2 years now, and I still hate the son-of-a-bitch. Entrenched narratives are tough to break. (Just ask Arsene Wenger. He practically invented them.)

Given my enmity, and juvenile sense of humor, how could I not take this picture of RVP picking his nose during that game. And how could it not be the Match Day Photo of the Month? Yes, it was inevitable. No one said I couldn’t enter my own contest…

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What’s that, you say? That’s not RVP’s finger?

It’s mine?

Oh. Right. I did it. You got me. But he deserves it, the slimy bastard.

I did it because I had the idea to do it. Make a silly, creative photo for no other reason than to be ridiculous. That’s the point of this column?

Get it?

Next month, you try.*

I didn’t have much choice, though, as the only submission this month was from Jeff, who’s a Gooner just outside of Washington, DC. His picture was worth showing as a runner up, so here it is. He watches the Champions League matches on his Ipad at work. But it wasn’t good enough to win. (Sorry, Jeff.)

IMG_3421

Frankly, I got another email from Jeff, and hoped it would contain a killer picture, to spare you the vision of me picking Robin’s nose. But instead, it appears Jeff’s email was hacked, so it was only a link to an advert from Russia. And I’m way too smart to click on something like that.

Da?

*Send submissions to matchdayphotoofthemonth@gmail.com. Russian spam translation service available on a fee basis.