A historic achievement, heralded as one of the greatest in English football. The Invincibles of the 2003-04 Premier League campaign boasted an Arsenal side built around the solid organisation, strength, and mental attitude ideal for winning football matches
Yet just a year later, the arrival of a young Spaniard would plant the seeds for more than a decade of failure at the North London club. Cesc Fabregas would make his senior Arsenal debut in the Community Shield against Manchester United; soon after, injury to talismanic midfielder Patrick Vieira would pave the way toward several consecutive league starts as a Gunner.
Now, it would be naïve of me to discredit Fabregas as a poor midfielder that set the stage for a long line of poor talent both developed at and brought to the club—this is simply not true to Fabregas’ role in the Arsenal’s devolutionary period. However, the Spaniard’s inclusion did signal a significant shift in the Arsenal side in subsequent seasons, with effects still lingering now in 2017.
The likes of Patrick Vieira, Gilberto Silva and Emmanuel Petit once comprised an intimidating Arsenal midfield whose mere presence won games. This ilk of physical players were the centerpieces of Arsene Wenger’s early reign.
Yet a small and technically-gifted youngster would take the Arsenal team by storm, eventually captaining the side before leaving the club in disarray to join his hometown Barcelona. As we all know, the Spainiard’s journey followed with a return to the Premier League, this time to arch-rivals Chelsea.
Fabregas’ fantastic performances for Arsenal appeared to have shifted Arsene Wenger’s faith in the strong physical ball player—an archetype with which he found so much success in the late nineties and early noughties—in favor of more quick-footed talents. The Frenchman likely sought to adapt to the changing nature of football in this epoch, replicating the feat he achieved in advance of his rivals during the club’s Golden Age. You would have been brave to bet against Wenger revolutionising the game yet again; but in hindsight, such bravery would have been well-founded.
As time progressed and Arsenal’s competitiveness regressed on virtually all fronts, new acquirees grew increasingly technically-focused. Denilson, Arshavin, Rosicky, Hleb, Nasri, Wilshere, Ramsey, Santi Cazorla—the list goes on and on. The one exception to the trend was none other than the talented Abou Diaby, who would have most certainly succeeded at the club had he not been plagued by persistent injuries.
On the contrary, Arsenal’s rivals took careful note of The Gunners’ early success, building their teams around strong, imposing midfielders focused on winning the ball and maintaining possession. This has been even more apparent in recent campaigns, with all teams bar one of the Premier League top six adopting this stance.
Manchester City have arguably the best example with Yaya Toure’s role as a mainstay in Roberto Mancini, Manuel Pellegrini and—after early season controversy—Pep Guardiola’s line-ups. Meanwhile, Manchester United have enjoyed one of the most underrated Premier League defensive midfielders in Michael Carrick, whilst Tottenham have had success with new signing Victor Wanyama alongside Eric Dier and Moussa Dembele’s simultaneously strong and technical presences in the Spurs midfield. Chelsea built upon the slightly smaller but nonetheless brilliant Claude Makelele with the more technically-able Michael Ballack, before more recently re-signing Nemanja Matic from Benfica and forming a formidable midfield partnership with N’Golo Kante.
However, is Arsene Wenger entirely to blame the failure to adapt his Arsenal side to the young Fabregas? I think not. The Spaniard’s performances became integral to Arsenal’s push toward achieving a top four finish each year—especially after the departure of record goal-scorer Thierry Henry.
It is important, however, to consider Arsenal’s dire need to fill the defensive midfield vacancy through much of the late 00s and early 10s. The first real attempt by Arsene arose after stumbling upon Francis Coquelin, and still the French youth product was not the intimidating leader Arsenal fans had been crying out for.
It is certainly true that Arsenal’s financial restrictions in the decade following The Invincibles hampered the club’s ability to buy top players, however there is a very strong case to suggest that Cesc’s success in the Arsenal ranks convinced Arsene Wenger that he need not rely on the titans of old, prompting him to hyper-focus on technical passing style with the smaller, quicker-footed signees. However, this appears to have been a huge mistake which has enabled opposition sides to bully Arsenal in the centre of the pitch.
It is all well and good placing blame, but what are the solutions at Arsenal’s disposal? Taking the 2016/17 season as an example, it has been made evident that the absence of Santi Cazorla placed a significant dent to the club’s fortunes. This alone symbolises how reliant The Gunners are on their passing wizards; even with the signings of Granit Xhaka and Shkodran Mustafi, Arsenal have remained their fragile selves, conceding a plethora of goals in seemingly winnable games.
If Arsene is to stay, which appears increasingly likely, it is important that Arsenal bring in players who will be able to compete against every team in the league not just technically, but physically too.