Wednesday, 14 May 2014

Requiem For A Team

If you remove certain parts from a machine and replace them with inferior models of the same part, then attempt to run the machine in the same way, the machine will not function as well as it did before, and the results you get won’t be as good. Sometimes, it’s better to start again, to build something completely different, using different parts.

With the new stadium on the horizon and fiscal austerity becoming a necessity, Arsène Wenger was fully aware that replacing his ageing Invincibles like-for-like would not be a viable option. He instead looked to evolve Arsenal into something different, while still adhering to his own ideals and attacking principles.

When Patrick Vieira was sold to Juventus, fans and pundits alike called for Arsenal to sign a ‘Vieira type’ to replace him. To put it simply, in the summer of 2005, there was no player in world football good enough to play the Vieira role as well as Vieira himself had done before Euro 2004. If Arsenal had attempted to play the same way as they had with Vieira, but with an inferior player doing Vieira’s job, the team would have performed at a lower level and got worse results. Vieira wasn't the only player for whom this was the case.

Wenger knew that he would also have to replace the creative spark and goal threat of Dennis Bergkamp and Robert Pirès. These were players that a club shackled by financial handcuffs would not be able to obtain ready-made replacements for. Some would argue that they were once in a generation players, who even a monied club would struggle to replace. Something had to change. Instead of emulation, Wenger sought evolution.

Rather than focusing on pace and power, like his double winning teams and The Invincibles, Wenger shifted to a style of play that placed more emphasis on guile, technique and agility; a style more conducive to quick combination play. This process featured some growing pains, but finally came to fruition in the 07/08 season.

The departure of Thierry Henry was a turning point for Arsenal, but not for the reasons the media had proclaimed. The pre-season narrative was that Arsenal would struggle to match last season’s 4th place finish, let alone better it, following the departure of their captain.

However, barring a vintage January, the 06/07 version of Henry had looked a shadow of his former self, struggling for fitness and often cutting a frustrated figure on the pitch. At his peak, what made Henry great was that he would demand the ball, and teammates would oblige, expecting him produce something special. In 06/07, when his powers had waned, Henry still had the same desire to win and would still demand for the ball, despite there being a better-placed teammate to receive the ball from midfield. If Henry didn’t receive the ball, he would sulk. In a home game against Charlton, Alexander Hleb ignored a demanding Henry, passing to a better-placed Emmanuel Adebayor, whose effort was blocked, and Hleb himself put the ball into the net. Instead of joining the celebrations, the club captain stood still and sulked, only rousing himself to castigate the Belarussian schemer.

In 2007, Henry had reached a point where his ego and influence over the squad had outgrown his utility to the collective on the pitch, as was the case with Raúl and Guti at Real Madrid in 2009, and he had to go if Arsenal were to evolve.

When Real Madrid and Barcelona came knocking at the end of the 05/06 season, Arsenal did everything in their power to keep Henry. This was because it was impossible to replace a peak Thierry Henry like-for-like, and Wenger acknowledged that the pieces required for what he envisaged his post-Henry Arsenal side to be, were not yet ready to assume the burden. Consequently, Arsenal went out of their way to hold on to their talisman. However, a year later, the situation had ripened. Henry was no longer at his peak, and the players Wenger required to take Arsenal forward had all kicked on and were all closer to theirs. It was time. 

In the same way as the foundations for the Arsenal team of 2013/14 were laid at the back end of the 2012/13 season, the foundations for 07/08 were laid in 06/07. Arsenal played their most exciting and effective football of the 06/07 season in matches where Cesc Fàbregas, new signing Tomas Rosicky, and the increasingly influential Hleb, combined with strikers Robin van Persie and Adebayor. Had they all remained fit and focused for the duration of the 07/08 season, I have no doubt that they would have carried Arsenal to a 14th League Title. 

While Arsenal’s combination play benefited from continuity, there was one key personnel change to the midfield from 06/07 to 07/08, with Mathieu Flamini usurping Gilberto Silva. Flamini was neither an invisible wall, nor a twinkle-toed juggernaut, like the midfield pairing in Arsenal’s previous title winning midfield. While not being your archetypal enforcer, Flamini covered enough ground and was well-versed enough in the dark arts to provide a foil for his three more technically gifted midfield partners. 

PFA Young Player of the Year Fàbregas had not yet completed his evolution into the cerebral assassin of 09/10, but his days of being the young pretender were over. Since breaking into the first team, Fàbregas had fleetingly demonstrated his unparalleled vision and penchant for a through ball, but the teenager’s game was still lacking goals and he was yet to consistently exercise a stranglehold on games. As he matured, he started scoring on a more consistent basis and began exercising more control over matches. Fàbregas was the crown jewel in Wenger’s new-look Arsenal. The orchestrator, the technical leader, the talisman, the brains of the operation, the player for whom Arsène Wenger had moved a waning Patrick Vieira on for, and his performances in 07/08 began to vindicate a decision that many had wrongly deemed premature.

Cesc’s biggest strength was that he recognised the strengths of his teammates and he played to them. He struck up an excellent understanding with his forwards and his midfield cohorts, non moreso than Hleb.

To many, Hleb remains an enigma. A player who seemingly produced so little, but actually provided so, so much. At the time, nearly all casual observers bemoaned his lack of end product and 'wished he did more’. However, Hleb did plenty. His ball retention in the final third was unparalleled. He had a knack for drawing defenders, creating space for teammates to run in to, and while his statistics may have appeared meagre, he certainly did not have a deficient view of the game. Fàbregas would play the ball to Hleb, safe in the knowledge that the Belarussian would be able to hold on to it under pressure, manipulate the ball in tight spaces, and then return it to him once he’d got himself into a more advanced position. Fàbregas was more likely to commit to these runs now that he had the added pace of Flamini to sweep up behind, should the attack break down and the opposition counter.

While Fàbregas rightly earned plaudits and became the people’s champion for his midfield play, it was Hleb who enabled a lot of what he did. Hleb was the architect of this team, and the man who really made it tick. He was the primary reason why the 07/08 team were more consistently dazzling than the 09/10 incarnation. While the 09/10 Arsenal side had a peak Fàbregas and budding Samir Nasri, the 07/08 side had a budding Fàbregas, a peak Hleb and a peak Rosicky.

Despite being a departure from the power and pace Wenger sides of Highbury, the 07/08 team was not as ponderous and easy to organize against as the 2010/11 side. When this side felt that it was time to shift through the gears, they would pass the baton to Rosicky. The Little Mozart would inject impetus into Arsenal’s attacks, creating panic and indecision amongst the opposition’s defensive ranks, and ultimately presenting openings for Fàbregas to exploit.

This midfield unit developed an almost telepathic understanding. They would instinctively know what position the others would take up, and they would know where and when to look for one another. Arsenal’s fluid football was so easy on the eye when their three musketeers played together.  

Over the first half of the season, this midfield unit put Arsenal into a position from where they could mount an assault on the league title from January onwards. This run featured wins over Chelsea, Everton, Aston Villa, Portsmouth and City, and battling come-from-behind draws with United and Liverpool.

Unlike the two previous seasons, Arsenal were better equipped to break down stubborn defences, showing more spark and resolve. They also held their own in physical encounters against the likes of West Ham, Bolton, Wigan, Villa and the other usual suspects. Something had changed.

While the early season performances against Spurs, Sevilla, the 6-0 and 7-0 maulings of Derby and Slavia Prague, and the 2-2 comeback against United are rightly lauded, Arsenal’s most exhilarating performance of the season came in October, at Anfield. Arsenal’s fluidity and combination play was simply scintillating that afternoon. Despite being denied all three points by a goal-line clearance, some desperate goalkeeping, and the woodwork, this was the performance that truly made fans believe that this team was something special and were capable of challenging for the title.

Every unbeaten run eventually comes to an end. From late November to early December, Arsenal faced a 16 day spell, in which they would play 5 matches, against Wigan, Sevilla, Aston Villa, Middlesbrough, and Newcastle. Crucially, they would be robbed of the key personnel who had made this season's unbeaten run possible. Only in their absence was the importance of certain players truly appreciated. Of these 450 minutes of football, Fàbregas played only 56 in Seville. Hleb managed an hour at Villa Park. He was excellent that night, but the Cescless Arsenal lost control of the match as soon as his chief lieutenant and co-conspirator Hleb limped off. Mathieu Flamini missed the trips to Seville and Newcastle. Rosicky remained present, but for all the thrust and flicks he provided, he was not as adept at retaining possession or creating chances as Hleb and Fàbregas, and their replacements lacked the familiarity and technical ability to engage in quick, effective and decisive combination play with the Czech.

Without Fàbregas and Hleb, Arsenal’s play lacked ingenuity and guile and it was easier for opponents to set up against them. Lassana Diarra and Gilberto Silva, while offering a bit more solidity in midfield, were no creators. Without Hleb to hold the ball under pressure and no midfield runners committing to getting forward, Arsenal's attacking play was neutered and counter-attack never really got going. While the Gunners managed to defeat Wigan and O’Neill’s Villa, they could only muster a draw against Allardyce’s Newcastle and succumbed to defeat in Seville and away at Southgate’s Middlesbrough.

Following an injury to the hitherto excellent van Persie in October, one has to assume that Wenger’s plan was always to integrate an Adebayor-Eduardo strike partnership. However, a run of fixtures which saw Arsenal host Manchester United and visit Liverpool and Aston Villa saw Wenger opt for a 4-4-1-1, with Emmanuel Eboué coming in to play something of a functional role on the right, and Hleb floating behind a lone striker.

When Wenger eventually attempted to integrate the new partnership, it coincided with the aforementioned Cescless and Hlebless run. Integrating a new strike partnership is difficult enough at the best of times, let alone when deprived of all creativity and rhythm.

Eduardo is a striker who requires service, and his integration into the Arsenal first team for the league campaign had its growing pains and didn’t really click until Arsenal’s schemers returned. When the partnership did click, it was formidable. From the Everton match onwards, one of, if not both, Eduardo and Adebayor would score in Arsenal’s next 7 league encounters.

After The Little Mozart was lost to a mysterious muscular injury that would rob him of 18 months of his career, Arsenal’s symphony would become a bittersweet one. While the fluency of football, pace of the build-up play, and quantity of chances created suffered somewhat, Arsenal managed to negotiate their January and February fixtures just fine, riding the back of the prolific partnership between Eduardo and Adebayor, who became increasingly more efficient with their chance conversion, despite those behind them creating less.

However, this rise in efficiency between Christmas and the end of February proved to be an unsustainable boom, which had somewhat papered over the cracks that had developed in Arsenal’s midfield and approach play. In addition to the loss of Eduardo at Birmingham, Adebayor’s form dropped off a cliff. The Togolese striker, who had bagged 16 goals in his last 17 games in all competitions would not score another league goal for two months, with his only scoring contribution coming in the Champions League, with two cutback tap-ins from crosses and a free header following a corner.

Adebayor scored 30 goals in all competitions in 2007/08, but with the quantity and quality of chances the midfield laid on for him, he should have easily eclipsed 40, getting close to 50. This may sound hyperbolic, but consider his combination of pace, power, technical ability, and the most creative midfield unit in the league serving him up chances on a plate. He took 131 shots, getting 74 on target. In light of this, 30 goals seems a paltry return. 

Arsenal’s problem wasn’t that Adebayor regressed to the mean. No, Adebayor, like Olivier Giroud in 2013/14, followed his boom period with a drought, and Arsenal had to stick with him through this spell, for lack of other striking options. However, unlike 2013/14, the issue wasn’t that Adebayor was the only senior central striker at the club. He just happened to be the only fit one. It's not that Arsenal lacked depth, but that the depth was injured.

With the loss of the urgency provided by Rosicky, the fluent football stagnated somewhat and lost its potency. It was now easier for ‘spoilers’ to set up against Arsenal and stifle them. This, coupled with profligate shooting, contributed to the laboured draws against O’Neill’s Villa, Bruce’s Wigan and Southgate’s Middlesbrough. The football was no longer fluent nor potent, and the goals had dried up. When your attacking unit isn't clicking, you're always one defensive lapse, good delivery, or lucky bounce away from disaster. 

Wenger tinkered with numerous options, but was unable to find one that was particularly compelling. The most exciting was a 4-4-1-1 variant, with Eboué on the right, Diaby from the left, and Hleb free to roam. However, this only really worked against sides who attempted to play football against Arsenal, in Liverpool and Milan, and not against the spoilers.

After an hour of fruitless toil on a JJB pitch that resembled a potato field, van Persie made his long-awaited comeback. While he may have claimed to be fit, as had done before abortive comebacks against Steaua, Chelsea and Spurs, he was a long way from match sharp, and a shadow of the player who had scored 7 goals in 11 games between August and October.

As you may have noticed recently, the Dutchman takes 3 or 4 games to get up and running again after coming back from injury. The problem in March 2008 was that Arsenal didn’t have 3 or 4 games to wait for him to start firing. The title challenge sputtered along with four draws, but Arsenal were dealt a body blow at Stamford Bridge, when Chelsea came back from a goal down to win 2-1 at the death. For Arsenal themselves, coming back from 2 goals down at the Reebok, having played with 10 men for an hour, offered renewed hope. However, the manner of the defeat at Anfield in the Champions League rocked Arsenal, and the trip to Old Trafford on the following Sunday, which could have proved to be a title decider, was the final nail in the coffin. 

Arsenal's defensive unit, while wrought with imperfections, was largely adequate for the 2007/08 season. However, history has not been kind to its protagonists, on account of sins committed in previous and subsequent seasons. They were a far cry from the Laurel and Hardy outfit employed by Liverpool in 2013/14. They kept 15 clean sheets in the league, conceding once on 15 occasions, and twice in the other 8 matches. 

Bacary Sagna was exempt from the derision endured by his teammates, after his stellar debut season saw him recognized as the best RB in the league, a mantle he would retain until breaking his leg in 2011. Manuel Almunia had an adequate season, free of the workplace incidents that would plague his later career. William Gallas thrived in his role of captain for the first 7 months of the season, and while his on-pitch tantrum at St Andrew's and shambolic pre-match soliloquy at Stamford Bridge will live long in the memory, his defending cannot really be faulted, bar the handball at Old Trafford. Until his brainless lunge in Birmingham, Gael Clichy was having a promising first full season, and would go error-free for the rest of the year. Unfortunately, that one error was enough to de-rail Arsenal’s title challenge. Kolo Touré, who had had a poor 06/07 in an unsettled back four, was having something of a renaissance in 07/08, until he contracted Malaria at the African Cup of Nations.  When he returned, injuries to Sagna, the need for the functional Eboue on the right side of midfield, and the stellar form of Philippe Senderos, Man of the Match against AC Milan, caused Wenger to shunt Touré to RB, where the portly oaf struggled, most notably in the two Champions League games against Liverpool. 

Although the Arsenal teams of the Fàbregas era had a reputation for being vulnerable against the long ball, it was only Middlesbrough and Chelsea who managed to catch out the 07/08 side in this way. This is all the more surprising, given how comically susceptible Arsenal were to this tactic in 06/07 and 08/09. 

While Arsenal’s defence held form, a combination of injuries and a loss of form to key attacking personnel, who had grown battle weary in March, hit Arsenal hard. Given the club’s financial constraints, it would have been impossible to sign backups worthy of stepping in for Fàbregas and Hleb. Abou Diaby could have worked as an internal replacement for Rosicky, had Arsenal been able to persist with 4-4-2. However, this would have required a fit, adult striker to partner Adebayor. Many point to Nicolas Anelka, who joined Chelsea from Bolton in January for £15m, but would he have wanted to come to Arsenal, for less money, to sit behind Adebayor and Eduardo, and then compete with the fit-again van Persie for a place on the bench? While Eduardo’s injury and Adebayor’s chronic loss of form could not be predicted, they certainly could have been safeguarded against. Perhaps Wenger put too much faith in Arsenal’s most gifted striker recovering from his ‘troublesome thigh injury’ according to the medical team’s prognosis.

Moreover, Wenger had a group of promising youngsters in reserve, who he had been giving first team minutes to throughout the season, so as to bed them in at the club and prime them for the 2008/09 campaign, players like Denílson, Diarra, Diaby, Theo Walcott, and Nicklas Bendtner . Perhaps Wenger believed that signing proven adults in January, when level on points with United and 4 clear of Chelsea, would have impeded their development, just as retaining the fading Vieira beyond 2005 would have stunted Cesc’s growth.

While Anelka himself may have been an impractical option, given Wenger’s ambition for the future and the player's own ambitions, Arsenal would have been well advised to sign a forward capable of also playing wide. Someone like a José Antonio Reyes, but with bottle, would have been most welcome. The Reyes signing in January 2004 proved to be a massive boon for The Invincibles. This fresh player coming in and re-igniting the fires when the squad started to grow weary, both physically and mentally, gives the whole club a massive boost. 

The mental impact of witnessing Eduardo's injury and the manner in which that Birmingham game ended are often cited as a turning point for this team. I'm not in a position to definitively say how much of a factor that was, but I often think the role is overhyped by observers looking for an easy narrative. While the mental impact of that day at St Andrew's is certainly a contributing factor to the team's sputtering title-tilt, so was an imbalanced midfield and misfiring attacking unit against a collection of bus-parkers, in Villa, Wigan and Middlesbrough, the same clubs that Arsenal had struggled against only four months previously, when their starting XI was lacking both alchemy and form.

The 07/08 Arsenal side produced the best football I’ve seen under Arsène Wenger. Until March, this talented crop of players performed greater than the sum of its parts and were able to mask some of their structural flaws. Failing to win the title in 07/08, in itself, was not that tragic; The fans thought this young, talented group of players would get the chance to go again, but it wasn't to be. The real tragedy of this particular incarnation of Arsenal was that it turned out to be their only shot at winning the league. In an era in which Arsenal’s only weapon against the financial prowess of Chelsea and the global commercial empire of Ferguson’s United was continuity, it was essential that the squad be kept together. But Hleb and Flamini departed for pastures new, and Rosicky would not play again until August 2009. Ultimately, Arsène Wenger had to rip it up and start again.


  1. Got here from Michael's article..
    Glad I didn't miss this top notch piece Amrit.

  2. This season I watched Arsenal play and fell in love. Won't forget the joy and the heartbreak. thank you