I don’t talk about football often on this blog, but I’ve been an Arsenal supporter now for about 25 years. George Graham’s Arsenal won the league in 1990-91 when I was seven years old. David O’Leary still played for Arsenal then! Paul Merson and David Rocastle were my favourite Arsenal players, followed by Ian Wright when he signed shortly after. Ian Wright was a wonderful goalscorer and great character, and his exhuberant personality and joyful style of play appealed to me as it would to any child. Wright’s goalscoring and Arsenal’s stingy defence dragged Arsenal through to the mid-90s with a few successful cup runs. But eventually, the dour style of play and various off-field problems (particularly a culture of addiction centred around drinking and gambling) led to Graham’s exit, precipitated by a bung scandal when he signed a couple of average Scandinavian players. Arsenal had become a mediocre team; but things were soon to change.
‘Invincible’ is a celebration of Arsenal’s ‘invincible’ season, when they went unbeaten over the course of winning the 2003-2004 Premier League title. The book is careful to trace that success back to the period almost a decade earlier when David Dein first brought in Arsene Wenger as the club’s new manager. Foreign managers were practically unknown and treated with great scepticism in Britain at that time; but there was already a feeling of rebirth around Arsenal, which had started with the signing of legendary Dutch striker Dennis Bergkamp and England midfielder David Platt just a season or two before. Wenger’s first signing was a young Patrick Vieira from AC Milan, and author Amy Lawrence does a good job of capturing the impact of Vieira’s first performance in a 4-1 route of Sheffield Wednesday. Wenger also credits Vieira with establishing his own credibility. Eight years later, Vieira would go on to score the last goal in Arsenal’s invincible season, and the importance of his contribution to Arsenal and Wenger’s success over his nine years at the club cannot be overstated.
The book’s arrangement is not strictly chronological, but Lawrence does chart the development of Arsenal’s team between 1996 and 2004. Arsenal had won two ‘doubles’ (winning league and FA Cup in the same season) prior to 2003-2004, in 1998 and 2002. But those teams had been hybrids, including players Wenger had signed as well as important members of Graham’s old Arsenal defense, like Tony Adams, Steve Bould, Nigel Winterburn, Lee Dixon, and goalkeeper David Seaman. At the risk of oversimplifying, the success of those teams stemmed from a dynamic, European style of attack and possession (with most midfielders and attackers hailing from outside the UK) and George Graham’s well-drilled English defense. The book makes the point that Wenger didn’t really understand defensive work and left it to captain Tony Adams to organize the defense. But by the 2003 season, Graham’s defenders had all left and retired, with the exception of an ageing Martin Keown. As such, the 2003-2004 team was entirely Wenger’s creation–and what a team it was.
Wenger has never been a literal advocate of ‘Total Football’ but his teams have always had a lot in common with that model, and his Invincible team was the best example. In Thierry Henry and Dennis Bergkamp, Wenger had arguably the best combination of strikers in the world at the time, Henry being probably the world’s best footballer in that season. He had great attacking midfielders in Robert Pires and Freddie Ljungberg; a robust, skilled, and determinded midfield in captain Vieira and Gilberto Silva; and a powerful, pacy, and technically proficient defensive line featuring England internationals Ashley Cole and Sol Campbell and young African footballers Kolo Toure and Lauren. In goal, Wenger had signed the ‘mad German’, Jens Lehmann, to replace David Seaman. Lehmann was Germany’s second-choice goalkeeper but only because Oliver Kahn, their number one, was aruably the best goalkeeper in the world. Wenger also had a number of talented replacements at his disposal, such as hardworking and talented midfielders like Ray Parlour and Edu, experienced strikers Kanu and Sylvain Wiltord, and veteran defender Keown.
Going through the team now, it’s clear why they did so well–it had no weaknesses and featured some of the world’s best players in every part of the team. Moreover, as the book makes clear, it had some great leaders and fighters, intelligent and experienced men of strong character like Bergkamp, Henry, Vieira, Lehmann and Campbell, who were absolutely determined to win and would accept nothing less than total commitment from themselves or their teammates. This aspect of football has been lost a little in the last decade, and Arsenal have certainly suffered from lacking these sorts of characters. As much as I dislike Manchester United, for years they benefited from the same sort of strength and determination, driven on by footballers like Roy Keane and Gary Neville.
It is to be expected that a book like this will do a good job of reminding you how good the Invincibles were. However, I would have appreciated a bit more insight into why that was. David Dein features prominently in the early stages of this book, and indeed Dein was absolutely central to a number of the deals that brought players like Campbell and Gilberto to Arsenal. The book also fails to really examine why Arsenal failed to win more than the league in 2003-2004, a year when they were probably the best team in the world. Arsenal were on course for the treble (league, European and FA Cup) until a single week at the beginning of April when they were beaten in the FA Cup semi-final by Manchester United, and knocked out of the European Cup in the quarter-final by Chelsea. Both of these ties were matches Arsenal were expected to win, and it was a point of great disappointment to players and fans that Arsenal would not repeat Manchester United’s ‘treble’ season of 1999.
Lawrence doesn’t dwell on this, which is understandable given the celebratory tone of the book, but again, I feel there is more to be said on this subject than we have here. The only glimpse of insight into these defeats is Bergkamp speculating that Arsenal ‘lacked confidence’ to go through, while Wenger comments on the difficulty of competing in three competitions at once. However, even with hindsight Wenger seems to just suggest he should have sacrificed participation in the FA Cup for a better chance in Europe, which surprised me. That year Arsenal should have been able to win all three competitions, and that they didn’t weakens the legacy of that team as well as Wenger’s own legacy.
Going a whole season unbeaten is certainly a remarkable achievement and something of which all Arsenal fans and everyone associated with that team should be proud. But it is a somewhat provisional achievement at the same time, and should have been crowned with the European or at least FA Cup. I would have welcomed more comment on the achievement from outside Arsenal, from neutral observers or even critics of the club, to try and ground the achievement a bit more fully. Arsenal’s finest achievements of that period are all tainted by caveats–unbeaten in the league, but choked in Europe; a season unbeaten, but cheated out of going 50 games unbeaten by a Wayne Rooney dive at Old Trafford; two ‘double’ seasons, but never retaining the championship the following year. For all of Arsenal’s success over those years, there was and remains a sense of ‘what if’, and frustration that Arsenal never really usurped Manchester United.
The book makes a good point that the unbeaten season came just in time, before Roman Abramovich’s billions turned Chelsea from nobodies into one of the biggest clubs in world football, followed of course by the same pattern at Manchester City. There is scope for a whole book on that subject and on Arsenal’s peculiar ten-year trophyless spell from 2005-2014, while they paid for the move from 38,000 capacity Highbury to the 60,000 capacity Emirates Stadium. Author and Arsenal fan Nick Hornby makes an interesting point about how Arsenal’s dominance in 2003-2004 damaged the relationship between the club and fans, many of whom expected that dominance to continue, when in fact it dissipated soon after that notorious match at Old Trafford. For one season, Arsenal were the best team in Europe and playing football on a par with, or better than, giants like Bayern Munich, Barcelona and Real Madrid. I don’t think it’s entirely fair to say that fans like myself expected that to continue, but there is an element of truth in that subsequent teams are always going to be compared to the Invincibles, and will always come off second-best.
Overall, I enjoyed Lawrence’s book, and its weaknesses are probably down to its limited scope more than anything else. There’s not really much here for anyone who isn’t already an Arsenal fan, and I maintain that’s a missed opportunity; and I came away from reading it without having learned much of anything new. It’s nice to be re-acquainted with the class of 2003-4(Ashley Cole excepted of course), but also a depressing reminder of how much the football business has changed for the worse.