“The Invincibles” Arsenal 2003-04 Analysis (1) – Squad and formation
Arsenal 2003/04 unbeaten title-winning team have been voted as the Best Team in the Premier League’s 20 seasons awards. It is the first team to win the Premier League title having not lost a game. The last team to achieve it was over a hundred years ago. It was a big achievement that earned the nickname “The Invincibles”. Therefore, it is worthy to analyse this team to see what we can learn. How did they play? What were the characteristics of the players? It may not have the best players in every position but the chemistry they formed was the best at that time. I am trying to find it out through analysing the 38 league games.
Arsene Wenger used 22 players in the whole season. However, Justin Hoyte and David Bentley had only made 1 appearance, comparing with the rest of the team making at least 9 appearances (more than 20% of the 38 games). Therefore, it is reasonable to exclude these two players and focus on how Wenger used those 20 players in the whole season. This was the first team line up:
Goalkeeper Jens Lehmann played every league game in the whole season.
The above chart clearly shows that Cole, Lauren, Campbell and Toure were the first team players of the back four. Keown had more substitute appearances (7) than starting appearances (3); especially four of them were in the last four games after Arsenal had won the title on 25/4/2004. Therefore, Cygan was the first choice back up in the centre back position. On the other hand, Clichy was the back up of Cole in left back position. Who was the back up of Lauren in right back position? Wenger used a different approach. Instead of putting a right back player as the backup of Lauren, Wenger used the versatile Toure wisely. The following diagram shows Wenger’s approach about the backup of right back. When Lauren was not available, Wenger moved Toure to the right back and let Cygan played as centre back:
Even Toure moved from a centre back to a right back, he was more than a defensive right back. His speed and strength made him playing well as an attacking right back also. The following video is an example.
In short, the versatility of Toure gave the consistency in Arsenal’s defence, letting Wenger used 6 players mainly throughout the season.
The chart of midfielders is not as obvious as that of defenders. It shows that more rotation was happened in midfielders. However, it still shows that Vieira, Pires, Ljungberg and Silva were the first team midfielders. Edu shouldn’t be ignored because he was Wenger’s first choice substitute in midfield, having 16 substitute appearances. In fact, if total appearances were considered, Edu had 29 (13+16) which is the same as Vieira.
Only 6 midfielders were mainly used in the whole season showed the versatility of these players, especially the two backup players Parlour and Edu who played as both central and wide midfielders. Moreover, Pires and Ljungberg were able to play at both flanks. The combination of these 6 players gave the flexibility and consistency of a solid Arsenal midfield.
When Ljungberg was not available, Parlour was the first choice of Wenger to replace the right winger role:
When these two players were not available, Pires played as a right winger as Edu played as a left winger:
It happened 4 times during the season. However, Wenger used a different approach in the late second half of the season, keeping Pires as left winger and put Wiltord or Reyes as the right winger.
When Pires was not available, Wenger moved Ljungberg to the left and played Parlour as the right winger:
If both Pires and Ljungberg were not available, Edu could play as a left winger also.
The rotation in central midfield was simple. Parlour and Edu were the backup of Vieira and Silva. However, the interesting point is that even Edu was the first choice substitute in Wenger’s mind; Parlour was the primary backup central midfielder when either Vieira or Silva was unavailable. There were 18 games when one of them was unavailable, Parlour started 11 of them and Edu started only 7 of them.
The appearances and rotation in midfield could be linked to the analysis of formation. In 4-4-2, the central midfielder substitutes were still able to cover the wide position as wide midfielder or winger (e.g. Parlour in right flank, Edu in left flank). It is because the two strikers playing upfront are the main goal scoring power. The substitutes could act as a supporting role in wide position even though they are not good at attacking. Comparing with the 4-3-3, 4-5-1 or 4-2-3-1 nowadays, it is rarely to see a central midfielder to take over the winger position because the winger position in these formations requires more attacking attributes due to the lone striker system.
Henry was definitely a first team member starting all 38 league games. Therefore, what Wenger had to decide is using whom as Henry’s partner. Wiltord got more chances firstly. In the first 10 games, he started 5 times and played 3 times as substitute. However, he was not in Wenger’s first team plan since then. Bergkamp, having 21 starting appearance, was the partner of Henry in most of the season. However, may be because of Bergkamp’s age, he didn’t play many games continuously. Wenger used Kanu, Aliadiere and Wiltord as the backup. The situation changed after January’s transfer window. Reyes joined the team and got the chances immediately. The total number of games Reyes played in half season (13) was more than Wiltord (11), Kanu (10) and Aliadiere (9) playing in the whole season. Note that in some exceptional cases, Wenger used Reyes and Wiltord as left and right wingers.
For further analysis of Arsenal invincibles squad, please go to the links below:
Part 2 – Were Arsenal a one-man team?
Part 3 – Henry-Bergkamp Partnership