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Friday, 27 February 2015

Saddening and maddening and utterly brilliant - Arsenal's Invincibles

We'll never see their like again

 
I'll start by congratulating Arsenal Media for their production "Invincibles" which premiered on Sky on Wednesday night. It is a brilliant film about the greatest of teams. There are notable absentees in the programme in that Ashley Cole and Patrick Vieira are not interviewed (though Vieira is paid tribute too) but I suspect there wasn't much Arsenal could do about getting them involved. Ashley Cole actually Tweeted the other day to say he hasn't involved himself in any of the Invincibles stuff as he thought the fans wouldn't want it. I believe he's mistaken there. Whatever happened afterwards Ashley Cole was one of the crucial parts of a wonderful Arsenal squad between 2000 and 2006. If you haven't yet seen the film then you've missed a treat. It's on again on Sunday after the League Cup Final.
There are a few things that struck me when I was watching the film. The first of those was a little sense of regret that maybe I didn't appreciate enough what I was watching at the time. The players, the style of play, the achievement was all lost to a certain extent because human nature is such that you think it will go on and keep getting even better. Early on in the film the new stadium is mentioned, and I feel that was Arsenal's way of trying to explain why things dried up and certain players left (or were sold) not long afterwards. Looking back now I realise that I was lucky to be watching that Arsenal team. From back to front it was stacked with top players. Straight through the middle of the side was Lehmann, Campbell, Vieira, Bergkamp and Henry. By the time you've hung Lauren, Cole, Kolo Toure, Freddie, Pires, Gilberto etc around them you have a formidable team. A bench that would regularly feature Keown, Edu, Parlou, Edu, Wiltord, Reyes, Kanu and co just underlines that those were halcyon days. And when you compare that to the team we have now it makes me sad. Sad that we've fallen so far. There is only Alexis (and possibly Ozil, because they were good enough to have carried his type of player) would get in that squad. There's maybe a shout for Koscielny as a back-up centre-half ahead of an ageing Keown or Cygan. None of the current players are better than the man who played in their position in 2003-04. That's pretty sobering. We left Highbury "to compete". It makes me sad and angry that we were duped like that.
What shines through clearly is the spirit that the players had as a team and a group of men. It's easy to understand, when you listen to these men speak, what Arsene Wenger is talking about when he bangs on about "mental strength". The Invincibles were incredibly strong mentally. There were leaders all over the pitch, all through the squad. Lehmann, Cole, Campbell, Toure, Keown, Vieira, Gilberto, Parlour, Bergkamp, Henry. They were all leaders. You can see now why Wenger probably thinks players can work things out for themselves on the pitch - all of that team could. But then they were all experienced international footballers in their own right. They'd all tasted real success. They were all top class footballers. I think about those leaders, those characters, and I wonder why Arsene ever went down the path of "project youth". Why did he bomb out Gilberto in favour of having William Gallas as Captain of Arsenal FC? Even leaving aside the stadium draining away the financial clout, there has to be questions over bringing in so many young prospects at the expense of vast experience. And let's not forget that those youngsters, the likes of Denilson, Bendtner, Senderos, Fabregas, were all put on massive wages - they were on as much as almost any top player who'd seen and done the lot.
There is no question that Old Trafford was the main thing that drew the Invincibles together. We were lucky that Van Nistelrooy missed the penalty, but the injustices of the penalty award and Vieira's red card spurred the squad on. Jens Lehmann says that it was the day he realised he was in a genuine team as they showed a willingness to fight for one another. I keep relating it back to the current team, but do you see them fighting for each other? When there's an injustice, or a bad tackle, do you see them getting around the referee or the opposition like other top teams do? Every side needs a nutcase like Keown, a genuine hard man like Lauren, a tough as teak genius like Bergkamp, and a brooding assassin like Lehmann. Lehmann also alludes to what was going on in the tunnel as they left the pitch that day and it seems that Wenger and Ferguson might have done a bit more than shake hands at the end.
I have always regarded Arsene Wenger as the key man for the Invincibles. A genius Manager who put together a great and cosmopolitan squad, and achieved something that nobody else had. Watching the documentary has dented that a bit. Clearly Wenger recognised the enormity of what they could achieve and he dragged the players over the line after the Title had been won at Spurs. What comes across elsewhere, however, is that the players (and Pat Rice) were behind many of the key moments. Having lost the two cup-ties in the six days before Easter, we were 2-1 down at home to Liverpool on Good Friday at half-time. We were playing badly and looked like everything was about to slip away. Martin Keown tells us on the film that he felt the Manager didn't know what to say. Crucially he says "even Pat" was lost. Is it the case, in fact, that Pat Rice was really managing that side in terms of motivation and tactics? Keown asked permission to speak to the players at half-time and Wenger let him do it. Aside from, once again showing the value of having experience, leadership, and born winners in the squad, I found it interesting that when it got to the lowest point Wenger was broken. Of course, Keown's words inspired his team mates and Thierry Henry decided to take it out on Jamie Carragher (who still hasn't recovered from the bitterness of serial humiliations at Henry's behest) and we won the game. Similarly at Portsmouth, after we'd won the Premier League, it was Jens Lehmann who had got them going at half-time, and then saved us two or three times in the second-half. It's interesting stuff to say the least.
As I said at the top, watching Invincibles made me sad as the realisation hit me that we were so good at that time, and we are comparatively so bad now. At the same time it renewed my appreciation of having been privileged to have watched them. I can be upset that I'll never see a side like that again in Arsenal colours, but I know I was damn lucky to be around when they were.

Invincibles

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