Teams of the Decade #9: Arsenal 2001-04

February 12, 2010

Amongst the universal praise for Arsenal’s incredible unbeaten 2003/04 season, their achievements of two seasons before are often overlooked. In that season they became the first team in modern times to go the whole season unbeaten away from home (equalled, obviously, by themselves two years later), and they also became the only side in history to score in every league game that season. In addition, they won the FA Cup to achieve the double.

They probably should have won the league in 2002/03 – they were the best team that season, but showed the first signs of the lack of resolve that has troubled the side ever since. They made up for it in 2003/04, with an incredible P38 W28 D10 L0 record that seems all the more astonishing six years later, with the big Premiership clubs losing games all over the place.

It was a fairly similar side both seasons. The front four remained intact, and in its own way, this was perhaps an early example of a strikerless formation. Dennis Bergkamp dropped into space whilst Thierry Henry drifted to the left when Arsenal didn’t have possession, making Arsenal incredibly dangerous on the counter-attack. Additionally, the wingers made outside-to-inside runs, with Robert Pires and Freddie Ljungberg almost reinventing the wide midfield role with their incredible goalscoring records. Patrick Vieira was a more dynamic player than he is remembered as – with a more defensive partner in Gilberto, he often looked to join the front players and possessed too many offensive qualities to be regarded as a purely ‘defensive’ midfielder.

The most interesting thing about Arsenal’s defence is that none were defenders when Arsene Wenger first set eyes on them. Ashley Cole was a promising forward in the Arsenal youth system, Lauren was a central midfielder for Mallorca, whilst Kolo Toure was a versatile player who played most often in an advanced midfield position. But Wenger converted all of them to defenders, assuring Arsenal’s ball-playing ability was evident throughout the side.

And equally, Arsenal’s defensive work started from the front. Henry prevented the right-back advancing and always pressed high up the pitch, Bergkamp dropped into a space so deep it took one central midfielder out of the equation going forward, and both Pires and Ljungberg were genuinely excellent at covering their full-back.

Although Wenger described it as a 4-4-2, it was perhaps a lopsided 4-2-3-1 in possession, and extremely difficult to defend against because of the movement from attacking players and full-backs in advanced positions. The left side of Cole-Pires-Henry was probably the strongest ‘flank’ any side possessed all decade, and because opponents were so concerned with that, it was amazing how often Ljungberg found space by cutting in from the right, and how often the underrated Lauren had time to get crosses in.

Finally, it must be said that this side did play wonderful football. It’s become a bit of a cliche to say this about Arsenal, especially when in recent years it’s been prefixed with “Arsenal don’t win trophies but they…” but to go a season unbeaten whilst playing expansive, attacking football is incredible.

A video of a Thierry Henry blockbuster would be most people’s choice to sum up this Arsenal side, but perhaps two incredible team goals finished off by unlikely scorers demonstrates their dominance better.

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