Losing the invincibles, who is to blame

by Walter Broeckx

People are sometimes comparing the invincibles  with our current squad and then they mostly end up with saying that we are not as good and that they never will be as good as the invincibles. Well there is a big chance that the invincible-achievement will never be repeated ever in the EPL. So this is not a difficult statement to make.

And there are even some people who blame Wenger for letting the invincibles  go away. Some of them even have made a song about it and wrote these words in it: 

You sold away, great players then,
Well easy come and easy go,
success would end.

So is Wenger to blame? Let us try to find out and take a look at this squad and I will take the players that have played most of the games. And if we take the team we have the following players.

They were the invincibles:
                      Name                       Age             Arrival   Left                       Price
  X Lehmann 34 2003 2007 £1.5M
  X Lauren 27 2000 2005 £7.2M
  X Campbell 29 2001 2005 Free
  X Touré 23 2002 2009 £0.25M
  X Cole 23 2000 2005 Youth system
  X Ljungberg 27 1998 2006 £3M
  X Vieira (C) 27 1996 2007 £3.5M
  X Gilberto 27 2002 2006 £4.5M
  X Pires 30 2000 2007 £6M
  X Bergkamp 35 1995 2005 £7.5M
  X Henry 26 1999 2007 £10.5M
    Edu 26 2001 2004 £6M
    Parlour 31 1989 2004 Youth system
    Cygan 30 2002 2006 £2M
    Wiltord 30 2000 2004 £13.3M
    Total age 425,00     £65,25M
    Average age 26,563      

And if we take the average age of the players marked with an X,  we get the players that started most games in the invincible year  and their average age was 28 years old.

In the 2004-2005 season Edu (27 at that moment) and Wiltord (31) left us. As you can see they were not in the starting XI in the invincible year.  The average age of the starting XI was 29 years old.  We finished in 2nd place some 12 points behind Chelsea.  So that team that we had to keep at all cost was not that invincible anymore one year later. We lost 5 games in that season.

And let us move to the 2005-2006 season. At then end of that year that a lot of the invincible left us. And if we take that starting XI again they then had the average age of 30 years. And an overall average age of some 28,5 years. And to expose the fact that they grew too old: we finished in 4th place.  You know the year we beat Tottenham on the last day of the season to get the last CL place.

So people who blame Wenger for letting the invincibles go: Wenger was right. They were getting too old. They were going down the hill at a very high tempo. And if you look at their age this is very understandable.  Or should Wenger have kept them to go even further down the league table.

And at that moment in time 2006 we were covered with debt for the Emirates. So not much money to buy players and not much money to pay high wages.  So we had to build patiently. And this process is still going on for the moment.

In 2003-2004 we had our wonder year and our average age was 28 year  of our starting XI and 26,5 years of our most used players. Just notice the fact that only 2 players in there were under 26 (Cole and Touré) and most of the starting players had an average age of 26-29 (6 of them) and this is the best time for most players.  And then we had 3 older and very experienced players of +30.

And now we have in our squad that has been used most: 8 players under the age of 25, 7 between 25 and 29 and one +30 (Almunia). I tried to compare 15 to 16 and then  one could say that in the invincible year we had 13% of our team -25, 47% in the age between 25-29 and 40% in the age group +30.

Now we have 50% under the age of 25, 43% in the age of 25-29 and 6% in the age group +30.

I have put this in a table to make it a bit more clearer:

INVINCIBLES                                                                                                          CURRENT SQUAD

AGE GROUP -25 25-29 +30 total   -25 25-29 +30 total
NUMBER 2 7 6 15   8 7 1 16
% of squad 13(18) 47(55) 40(27) 100   50 44 6 100

 (is the % of the starting XI in the invincible year)

So we are nearing a situation that comes near to the invincible year when you look at the players who are in the right age category. But still we are a few % short in the best age category.

Another  big difference is that we in those days had some very wise and old players we don’t have now for the moment.

But the other side of the coin is that we now have a group of very young players ready to step in the footsteps of the players that will be too old in a few seasons. So now we are building the foundations so we will not face another situation like with the invincible when we had to drop deep and had to put on 17 and 18 year old to carry is through this period. And you might call it failure: getting in the CL each year is in my eyes a big success in this period of transition.

We didn’t had this situation in 2004 and the two young players we had in those days turned out to be money greedy at the end of the day. So another example of  the fact that we had almost  no one ready, we couldn’t compete with the likes of Chelsea, United, Madrid to buy established players and had to wait till the youth came good.

So the one who after reading this is blaming Wenger for letting the invincibles go is someone who wanted us to fail and to slide down like the invincibles started doing after their invincible year. And don’t read this as somehow telling something negative about the invincibles. After all getting is older is what we all do and there is nothing that one can do about that. It is just that we had to replace them. But please don’t tell rubbish and make it look as if Wenger wanted them out just for the sake of it.

26 Replies to “Losing the invincibles, who is to blame”

  1. A lot of what you guys call the AAA blame Wenger for not replacing that crop like for like, as if anyone could just buy in players like that lot.How do you replace the likes of Vieira over night?
    The fact is, they were by definition exceptional 9except maybe in Europe). Then, we were suddenly up against sugar daddies, free spenders while we were paying off a stadium.
    Yet we stayed in the Top 4.
    Soon the debts will be paid off – and as Wenger says, we have waves of talented players coming through our youth system.
    There are too many negative myths about this club / Wenger / the Invincibles but thanks for setting a few things straight as thankfully, this site has a habit of doing.

  2. I sometimes wonder if there is somewhere a market place where you can buy ‘invincible’ players. And at what prices they are sold over there.

  3. i think a lot of people (right or wrong) are unhappy that not only did all thee players leave within a few years (no sensible transition but an exodus leaving no-one to help the youngsters come through) but also the complete change in football philosophy, out with the powerfull players in the engine room to dimunitive (albeit very skillfull) players . It seems like such a massive change (especially when you throw in a new stadium to boot!) and as yet we have no proof it will yield any real success (yes CL is good but you cannot really claim to be happy watch us lose every year).

    I do believe we are set up fantically for future…but there is the devils advocate in many of us after so many years of being so cloase, but generally seeing the exact same problems.

  4. I have always heard that Wenger came to the conclusion that Vieira and Cesc did not work well together, so he chose the latter, especially as PV, ironically as it now turns out did nothing to stop himself being linked with a Spanish club and the rest is history, Wenger built a team around Cesc.
    I have no idea if this is true. As much as we all love Paddy, seeing what Cesc did to him when they were pitched against each other in the CL went some way to vindicate that decision.
    Arsenal fans just need a little bit more patience – 5 years is not an eternity and far less than some of our rivals without something to show at the end of the season.
    This team are not there yet, but a few less injuries to key players, a bit more confidence, a bit more luck, a few less basic mistakes and less of the Fergie refs, things will look even better.
    All comes to those that wait

  5. I think it’s much more likely that the talent hasn’t gotten any worse since the Invincibles. It’s probably gotten a bit better, and I’ll show you why.

    I was thinking of how the invincibles would fare against the current Arsenal, or 2007 Arsenal, or 2005 Arsenal, for that matter…and it got me thinking.

    Everyone fails to mention when comparing Arsenal to Arsenal that it’s not apples to apples. The invincibles didn’t have big spending Chelsea, wastefully big spending Liverpool, or even now the ridiculously big spending Man City to compete with. It was Man U, and that’s it. Let’s face it, the old Arsenal sides only had to top Manchester United and would win the league. But those sides from 97, 2001, and even the mighty 2003 Arsenal were not in the current premiership.

    The facts are that the best talent to ever play in the premiership is what we have seen for the last 5 years or so. Arguably, 4 of the best 6 or so teams in all of Europe, every year were England’s big 4, until last season. Just look at the champions league results from 03-08.

    English sides progression in the Champions League:

    2008 3 of the final 4, and 4 of final 8. Liverpool lost to Chelsea, Arsenal lost to Man U.
    2007 both finalists, 3 of final 4, 4 of final 8. Liverpool lost to Chelsea, Arsenal lost to Liverpool.
    2006, 3 of the final 4, chelsea lost to liverpool in final 4
    2005, Arsenal in the final, only english side in the final 8.
    2004, 2 of the final 4, liverpool beat chelsea in final 4.
    2003, 2 of the final 8, where Chelsea knocked out Arsenal.

    Look at that. Seriously. That run is incredible. Most years if an English side went out, it was to another English side! No one in Europe, except for maybe 1 or 2 sides each year could claim to be better than any of the Big 4. And before 2003, you never saw English sides dominate in Europe.

    Around the time the invincibles won in 03, England was changing. Chelsea were buying the best players from all over the world, Man U were reloading with some talent that would see them one of the best sides in Europe for years to come, and Liverpool put together a 5 or 6 year run where they could claim to be a top 5 European side year and year out.

    Isn’t it possible that Arsenal has remained the same, or even gotten slightly BETTER since 2003 when you look at who they’ve had to compete with in the league each year? Those old Arsenal sides that won titles may have had the trophy, but they were not nearly as good in Europe as Arsenal has been for the last 5 years during this supposed “drought”. Surely that counts for something, right?

  6. Lancer, my hat goes out to you. It certainly does make sense that the league is tougher now more than ever.

  7. Before my post, let me explain how much I support Arsene Wenger and the current crop of players. But I do understand that the management and Wenger are not putting in the effort they once did to recruit the invincibles. Of course you can say today, Wow Henry 10 million only Vieira 3.5 million only and all but now we are spending 10 million to get a player, so the board is ambitious. I will say no, you should be considering the inflation rate and spending power that has changed over these years. The world record transfer fee around that period was Zidane with 45 million pounds. But we spent 10 million on Henry and 13 million on Wiltord and 6 million on Pires. Which is 22%, 28% and 13% respectively compared to record fees. The current record fee is Ronaldo 80 million. In that case if the board is ambitious enough, we should be looking at strikers worth 27.5m and 35m, and a midfielder worth 16m. Do you see our board spending or considering to spend that amount? The board although rich are not putting in enough effort to make us the force we once were. We are shopping at the free section and recruiting players of the caliber to play at Villa or Everton and trying to make them kings.

  8. When you take everything into consideration, what Wenger has achieved in the last five years is astonishing.

    Put together all the factors.

    1. The huge outside investment into our competitors; not only did they make things far more difficult on the pitch with all the talent they snapped up, but also hiked up wages and transfer fees for the rest of us.

    2. The enormous debt that Arsenal took on to build the stadium, a huge financial handicap when it came to the transfer market, made much worse by the inflationary actions of sugar-daddy clubs (above)

    3. Then combine those with the fact that our Invincibles side was beginning to grow old and needed much investment in fresh, young talent. Except factor 1 and 2 meant there wasn’t anywhere near enough money to buy in the ready-made replacements required for us to stay at the same level.

    Those huge financial inequalities would be bad enough… but wait, there’s more!

    4. You then add in the shocking injury crises we’ve had to contend with over the years. Our team nurtured and built on a budget has not had a chance to go up against our expensively assembled adversaries on an even footing. And many of these injuries could have been avoided if not for…

    5. …the referees. They who have consistently allowed our players to get kicked up in the air and brutally hacked out of matches. While their dubious decisions have without doubt cost us much more than any of our big name opponents.

    And last but not least –

    6. The Press. They love nothing more than a good ol’ Arsenal and Wenger bashing. Any other club would receive enormous praise for their great football, their nurture of young talent and responsible financial model, for taking the right yet difficult path to success. But not Arsenal – we’re tight arses, our play is too ‘fancy’ and not winning trophies makes us a disgrace.

    Wenger hasn’t just swam against the stream, he’s done it with both arms behind his back and concrete galoshes. And we will probably never see his genius again.

    Oh, but I forgot. He didn’t cough up the £4mill for Schwarzer. HE’S LOST THE PLOT!!!!11!

  9. Nice work Walter..nice comments Lancer & Wrenny: 100% agree with you guys…

    Walter I believe that your analysis would have benefited from a statistic that compared how long the teams had played together (Invincibles vs present day) because in addition to your conclusion that the present team is close to maturation age-wise we would clearly see that this team is also close “playing-together” wise – if you get my drift..

    Arsene must be sick to death explaining himself to blooming idiots who can’t see the sophistication of the man’s thinking…In many ways the invincible team was an accident! Cast your minds back. Wenger had to replace the aging squad he inherited – he had no youth set-up to call on. So he bought young talent…but he’s has said many times that when a player comes to the Arsenal at 18 – 20 its nigh on impossible to teach that player the Arsene Way (my emphasis) …I agree with Lancer – player for player this team is actually better than the Invincibles technically – but they are behind them in strength & strategy…but not THAT far! I defy anyone to tell me that the first half against Spurs & Villa or the 5-0 against the Ukrainians were not as good as anything the Invincibles ever produced..all this team needs is a bit of belief. Winning the Carling Cup will make an enormous difference to these young boys…you mark my words..

  10. Good points all. Whilst it is true that on several occasions,if there was hair to pull, much of mine would have gone (again), the balance of power is leaning our way. Over the past 5 years we’ve gone further in the CL than in the days of Paddy and Bergie, and stayed there; virtually paid off the stadium, kept within budget, and are the side that Fergie fears more than Chel$ki. Can’t be all that wrong?

  11. Fans do not give a damn about the club having no money to buy players or to build our players patiently. Fans just hated losing matched to Chelsea, Mn Utd, Spurs and Liverpool. These are big games and should not lost too often.

    The fact is our present players just slack behind and do not have the desire to win. All these excuses about premier league teams getting better an pying off stadium is not an excuse. I knew a lot of fans will just be contented with 4th place and qualify for CL but you are wrong to think that way.

  12. I think the question is whether we are improving or not??

    For last 6 years, we’re ending either 3rd or 4th and reaching to the knock out rounds of the CL. But are we going any where forward?? We’re lost only 4 games last season by december end, this season we’re already lost 5 games. We won against United 2yrs ago with a younger squad but now we’re not even doin that. But our players are getting better.

    We reached the semifinals of CL 2yrs ago and then last year reached d quarters and this year we might only reach till d round of 16.

    I really dont see how the players are not able to capitalise on their experience till now. On some grounds we’re improving and then on some other grounds we’re losing out.

  13. Walter, look at the eleven you listed there and how much they were sold for (just the money in)

    Lehmann Free
    Lauren £0.5M
    Campbell Free
    Touré £16M
    Cole £5M
    Ljungberg £3M
    Vieira (C) £13.7M
    Gilberto £1M
    Pires Free
    Bergkamp Retired
    Henry £16.1M

    Total £55.3M

    I think most would agree that the players were sold at the right time for us. We definitely wouldn’t have received the transfer fees we did if Arsene had waited a season or two and maybe some more players would have left on free transfers.

    Now look at the eleven for this season

    Fabianski £2M
    Sagna £7M
    Vermaelen £10M
    Koscielny £8M
    Clichy £0.25M
    Song £1M
    Fabregas Free
    Wilshere Youth System
    Nasri £11M
    Arshavin £15M
    Chamakh Free

    Total £54.25M

    Yes, we’ve also sold and bought other players in this time but if we’d held onto those invincibles players longer and maybe let them go on a free transfer, that’s a whole team to replace and use money the club cannot really afford.

  14. The man u team was around the time of the invincible s and it could be argued that they have managed their players better they let players go but it had less impact on their success because they never went all out youth, AW never went allout youth until he decided that when chelsea one their first title and we finished second with something like 86 points the team needed to be broken up, he should have kept a blend of youth and experience Im sorry disagree with me if you like but 5 maybe 6 years without trophies speaks for itself

    on another note we have barca which i think is a good draw which means we either beat them and get confidence or we lose and concentrate on the league and cups and should win something

  15. gr8 comments guys…xcept for dark prince as usual…can any1 knock some sense into him…
    Here walter and others are trying to show d achievements of wenger over d years 2 counter some ppl comments n views dat wenger has been useless n shud be sacked.

    Yes, we r losing to che n utd…bt do u remember d last tym when we had d liberty 2 choose from a full strength side vs dos teams? Last tym when we had, we beat both utd n che.

  16. I dont know Dark if we are improving or NOT. But I think we are however the problem to me is we never field a full strength 11 against ManU or Cheslea it NEVER happens.

    Same with Barcelona last year the team was so depleted it was a joke expecting them to win even when leading at the NouCamp

    When you are unluckly and the injuries happen so that we are missing players against ManU and Chelsea its a 6 point swing against direct rivals and I think thats whats costing us dearly.

    I would love to see a fit cesc and robin for the chelsea game comming up its the nearest we will have had to a first team for the past 5 seasons playing our rivals.

  17. Red Gooner- i agree. But that brings out another question, if Cesc and Van Persie are going to keep getting injured every year and miss out all the big matches, then what is the solution?? Its like a never ending cycle…

  18. It’s nostalgic to remember the “Invincibles” but it’s emotionally freakish not to get over them… It’s like saying “Hey, keep abusing Wenger and Arsenal because there’s gotta be another dumb-ass AAA like me in 5 years time.”

  19. Good article, but while a few of the players were clearly getting too old for regular football, I think it’s worth looking at Man Utd’s use of Scholes, Giggs and Neville. The truth is, players like Vieira, Pires and Campbell could still be here now without playing as regularly, but the benefit of having those experienced heads around could be tremendous. The likes of Adams, Dixon and Keown stuck around for a long time, and I’m sure they were of great benefit for players like Henry, Lauren, Cole, Ljungberg etc. Chelsea won the double last year with a pretty old team. The list goes on.

  20. Mark- Spot on. Some experience wud hav been great for the team. I think the shift into the youth policy should had been gradual rather than so suddenly.

  21. I said about man u earlier in the comments the greatest team arsenal ever produced experienced an exodus similar to biblical proportions.

    some of our young players like theo needed more time with the likes of henry, veira. just imagine how much song could have learned from veira and theo a like

    the money we got for some of our players wasnt big money and i believe the cost would have been worth the development of our younger players. our youth team has looked like a rabbit caught in the head lights at times, they are so young and it doesnt matter how talented you are, the mentality can not be there completely at that age and evidence of this is shown by how much of a confidence team arsenal are, everyone needs someone to look up to.

    the fact is players like bergkamp henry veira, pires, were exceptional and will go down in premiership history and the current team is mostly potential still, with hardly any players that can help improve them they can only really learn from each other

  22. I think that what isn’t mentioned in a lot of the comments is that it’s easier to keep hold of older players and have a more gradual transition if you have the budget that allows you to do such a thing. People seem to think that the break up of the Invincibles and move to the new stadium and its financial impact had nothing to do with each other but how can that really be?

    Older, more mature and experienced players are just that much more expensive and players like Vieira, Campbell, Pires and Henry were on colossal wages. They deserved those wages, no doubt but Wenger had to manage a team within some pretty severe restrictions in the last 5 years, from all accounts, and one way of managing that budget was to reduce the wage bill. It is a weird state of many fans thinking about spending that hardly anyone considers wages as real expenditure; we only seem to notice the headline transfer fee!… for instance Campbell is always listed as a Free transfer and to an extent that is true in so far as we didn’t hand any money over to Spurs but in another way it is a misrepresentation because Campbell was earning a fortune because he was a free agent. Now, it’s clearly true that we may well not have been able to afford Campbell if we’d had to pay a transfer fee AND his wages but it still stands to reason that getting Campbell off the wage bill gave Wenger the space to manoeuvre.

    In more recent years we’ve had to offer vastly improved contracts to the likes of Cesc, Song, etc and there’s one on the table for Nasri. I know that I’m stating the obvious but all of those improved contracts cost money and if you have a veteran on 80k a week then you have less room to offer a similar contract to someone like Nasri.

    I guess my point is that when we discuss the break up of the invincibles it may just help everyone involved to remember the context and the financial situation of the club over period we’re talking about…

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