Arsène Wenger, the Invincibles and the transformation of Arsenal’s philosophy
You didn’t need to be a comedian to poke fun at what had become of Arsenal’s style at the dog end of the George Graham era. The team had evolved a strategy based on super-resilience and mostly hoicking the ball up to Ian Wright, their explosive, maverick striker, as quickly as possible. It was perfect for cup runs, and Arsenal won three different cups in 1993 and 1994, but it wasn’t always pretty. Alan Davies and his friends used to dream up silly diversions to deal with some of the tedium at Highbury. “There was a real lull,”he says, chuckling to himself. “We used to have a little wall in front of us in the West Lower – we were in the front row – and we’d put a coin on top of the wall and move it along until there was a corner or a throw in, just to amuse ourselves because the football was so unbearable. That period when George signed John Jensen and Stefan Schwarz and Eddie McGoldrick. We used to sit there and shout ‘Hayes ... Groves ... Papin!’ The idea that someone like Papin would turn up and be in that team was laughable. In the seventies or eighties Ruud Krol was supposed to be coming and he never came.”
The rebirth of Arsenal, from a stylistic point of view, began with Dennis Bergkamp. He played the orchestra’s first note. He was the oboist, whose clear, pitch-perfect A tunes every other musician around him. He starts, the rest respond. In terms of creating a new identity, he arrived, he elevated the standard, he embodied a nod to the Dutch ideal of total football – technical, inventive, collective – and he was a joy to watch. Within a year of his arrival, everything began to flourish as strong personalities came who could take this idea and effectively turn the solo into a symphony.
Wright credits Bergkamp as the most important signing in Arsenal’s history. “Dennis changed the DNA of what our game was about,” he reckons. “The player he was, our game had to change because you couldn’t bypass him. Then Arsène Wenger coming in with his total football, it was brilliant. I could only wish I was four years younger. I knew the great times were coming.” That’s quite a statement from a man who had won medals, would break goal-scoring records and had fallen in love with the club even before the great sea change.
As a supporter, Nick Hornby watched it evolve, quite unexpectedly, right in front of his eyes. He was intrigued to observe how Wenger completely redefined what Arsenal meant to people. “I can’t think of many football clubs that have a brand, actually,” he says. “An actual brand as opposed to they’re famous. Probably the only two are Barcelona and Arsenal, and Arsenal have done it through one man. At Barça they have to play football a certain way, but they also have the resources to achieve that. So it’s quite remarkable that one man has taken something that meant one thing and turned it into something that meant the opposite. Within six or seven years everyone had forgotten the old Arsenal. And now when foreign people talk about Arsenal, or they play Arsenal football, everybody knows what that means and that’s a relatively recent invention.”
Bergkamp’s arrival was serendipitous in that he was such a natural fit to instigate the change in advance of Wenger. The philosophy he absorbed at Ajax, the way he inherently thought about football, blended well with the incoming coach. The Ajax Academy, a football school renowned for the way it educates its youngsters, teaches according to what they now call the TIPS model. It stands for “technique, insight, personality and speed”. All these things resonate totally with Wenger’s footballing dogma.
Reflecting on the evolution of Arsenal’s style, Bergkamp sees these components, which were so prevalent in the squad, as keys to the way they formed their game. The interplay that became a hallmark with, say, a burst of seemingly instinctive exchanges between Bergkamp, Henry and Pirès, was based as much on insight as pure technique. “I always try to copy the words that Arsène once told me: the ball always goes through the intelligent players in the team,”Bergkamp explains. “When you name those names, they’re all very intelligent players, they saw the game, they saw the openings.
“The understanding was right. Why? Because we played to each other’s strengths. So I knew exactly what the strength of Thierry was, or Patrick or Robert. That was the power in that team, we knew exactly where you could connect on the pitch. You also knew what the weaknesses were of the players. So you’re always looking, as Arsène says, to make the right pass and put a player in his strength. With Thierry, I knew exactly what he wanted to do, he knew exactly from me what I could do for him. On the pitch we had all those connections happening. Maybe there were two or three players who weren’t on the same level as we were, but they gave something else, they gave power to the team, or defending. They had the intelligence as well – when we get the ball we give it to Patrick or Thierry or Dennis. They don’t want to do silly things. That’s what Arsène wanted.”
When a new player arrives, can you see that intelligence in them immediately?
“Yeah. You know that they always try to overachieve in the beginning, try to show themselves. But within those moves on the pitch or the way they control the ball, you would always know this is a good player, this is a player I can play with. Robert was a player who wanted to play one or two touches. Patrick the same. Thierry is different. You have to play him in or you have to put him in a position where he can play one against one. It could be behind the defenders or it could be in between them. It didn’t take long, but after a few training sessions you knew exactly what a player’s strength was, what his weakness was and how you as a team could grow.”
The speed of the team – speed of thinking as well as movement – seemed sharper than anyone else in that era. “We were on a different level, I felt,” says Bergkamp. “As an athlete or as a football player going out somewhere doing your thing but knowing already that you will be successful on that day is amazing. You’re so confident and so full of quality and talent that you know you can make a difference. We had the same feeling as a team. I remember some goals, the timing, how quick it was from one side to the other side. It was not like we were a counter-attack team. In those moments, for the front four or five players, we knew exactly what was going to happen in the next 10 to 12 seconds and that’s a fantastic feeling. And then it’s all at the highest pace, with the highest quality. Let’s go.”
Fredrik Ljungberg felt that collective speed of thought evolved from the fact the group spent a lot of time analysing the game. “We all liked to think football,” he says. “That I agree with. When people ask me about how we played, step-overs take a lot of technique, for example, but the speed of the pass, how it got smashed around to each other, that was the hard thing. Top teams do it, when the field is really wet and it gets smashed around, one touch. Before you get the ball, you need to think, where’s the ball going after this? Because the ball is coming at real speed. With the speed of the ball we could still control it. It’s not that we ran faster than everyone else, but the ball moved faster. Everybody thought how to get it faster to catch the opponents out.”
Jens Lehmann agrees that the speed was critical. “What is the fastest thing on a football pitch?” he asks. It feels like a trick question. “It’s not the ball,” he says, grinning knowingly. “Nobody is faster on the pitch than a thought. And then the ball comes. And then the players come. So quick thinking was vital. I’m still convinced that we played a much faster football than the team today. We were playing one-touch, two-touch. When you look at the team today, it’s three or four touches. Normally you say football is progressing so fast now. But I can honestly say between 2003 and 2006 we played such a fast football. Everything was faster. The opening, the finishing.”
There were times during the Invincible season when the goalkeeper was in a very privileged position as Arsenal were zooming forward at full throttle, slicing through opponents, in his direct eyeline. “Plenty of games I was standing at the back just watching, because we had so much possession, we were playing so fast, we were playing tic-tak-tic-tak-tic. One touch. It was amazing to see. I said to myself, ‘What an amazing group.’”
It was universally understood that work at London Colney translated directly into performances come match day. The message comes across loud and clear. “You play how you train. If you train well, generally you’re good in a match,” says Pirès. “If you think training is training and game is game, you lose the game,’ adds Gilberto. ‘We had to be careful not to injure each other but we had to train seriously. This for Arsène was really important.”
Ray Parlour recalls being uncertain about what to expect when he first started training under Wenger. “But I remember David Dein said, ‘This man will take us forward.’ From day one, the training regime was great,” he says. “The lads started to put the ball down. I loved George Graham, I thought he was great, but there was a lot of focus on defending, win 1–0, not great football. Suddenly we had freedom.”
Was training fun?
“Oh yeah. I loved it. You had to concentrate, but it was always very enjoyable. No disrespect to other managers, but it was a little bit same old thing, forty-five minutes of that. And you think, Oh, I’ve had enough now. Your concentration goes after probably about 15, 20 minutes working on one thing. Wenger knew that, so then he goes on to something else, totally different. Then your mind is still working. That’s why everything was always on the clock. He always knew the time span of people’s top concentration.”
For Pat Rice, the most striking aspect was how precise everything was. “The actual training system and the way that we trained was completely different to how we’d done it before,” he says. “Whenever I used to referee the games – and we would play a game for fifteen minutes at the end of the session – I can remember Arsène shouting out to me, ‘Pat, look at your watch, seven and a half minutes.’ He would come up to me and say, ‘When I say it’s fifteen minutes, that means seven and a half minutes each way, that doesn’t mean seven minutes or eight minutes, it means seven and a half minutes.’ And everything was done to the clock.” At first Rice was slightly bemused. He felt it wasn’t necessarily enough to allow players to get into the flow. But he was soon convinced it had great merit, encouraging players to focus on something specific to work on during the mini-game. Sometimes Wenger would stop the game and send the players on sprints, then straight back into the second half. “It was just to see if you could switch on and off,” explains Rice.
Sometimes Wenger would move the goals into the corner of the pitch, to create a situation where angled, cross-field passes were the focus. Other times if you completed 10 passes in the opposition half you would be awarded a goal to drum home the beauty of possession and attacking the ball. There were drills where the ball could not leave the floor. Lots of tricks, lots of detail, lots of precision. It all came together to produce this swifter, slicker approach. “You would have sessions like that, then all of a sudden you would bring that into the games that you actually play on a Saturday,” says Rice. “They would be dragging the opponents all over the place.”
For Bergkamp, the essence of training was in the enhancement of patterns. “Keep practising the patterns,” he says. “Keep practising the passing. We did the sprints, we did tactical games, positional games. But when you’ve got a team who already know all the patterns, who already know the strength of each other, and you are doing that at the highest pace, then you make other teams look silly, to be fair. It’s like you’re on a different level.”
This is an edited extract from Invincible: Inside Arsenal’s Unbeaten 2003-2004 Season, which is published by Viking, Penguin and is available now in hardback priced £16.99 or in ebook