I just finished Amy Lawrence’s Invincible. It’s an enjoyable read filled with quotes and memories of Arsene Wenger’s crowning achievement as a manager, taking a team through an entire season unbeaten.
If you were a supporter at the time there are few surprises in the book. For example, it is well-known that Wenger’s philosophy is the opposite of Mourinho. Where Mourinho drills his players into near automatons and reviles their every mistake, Lawrence said that Wenger
“Encourages his players to work things out for themselves. He does not want to work with robots. He dislikes the idea that so much in football is premeditated, with routines worked until they can be done blind-fold. At times, that has looked like a flaw, when his sides have been exposed by more diligently organized opponents. But when it works, there is nothing Wenger appreciates more than a team that interprets the game according to a philosophy he simply defines as ‘the game we love’.
If you’ve been following this team for more than a few years, you already know that about Wenger.
You also already know that Wenger is a hugely dedicated man and loves nothing more than getting up in the morning, putting on his stopwatch, and taking to the field to teach football. As Pat Rice, Arsene’s assistant during those glorious years, put it
I’ll tell you why I was so impressed with Arsene Wenger. He was on the training field every single day. He never had a day off. He never once came in to training and said, “The first team are in the gym warming down from the game, I won’t bother going out today.” He was out there with the other players, teaching youngsters, whoever it was, on that training field.
There is no questioning Wenger’s dedication to the cause but that dedication left me wondering about the Henry situation. As you know, Henry (the striker on the Invincibles and if I had to tell you that, you need to read the book more than anyone) was offered a job coaching at Arsenal but was told to give up his punditry career. Many speculated that Wenger was upset over some of the criticisms Henry made of Arsenal in that role and wanted Henry to quit in order to stop them. But for me I can see Wenger expecting his coaches to dedicate 100% of their life to coaching and not have side jobs and distractions. Is it an unreasonable request?
The one big reveal in the book is how much the Invincibles managed themselves. What I mean by that is that the team was packed full of players who wanted to be winners and they would go the extra mile after training and in games without the prompting of Wenger.
They would have dinner together and discuss tactics. On the pitch, they had to pull together to overcome obstacles like a 1-0 deficit to Leicester on the final match of the season: a game which they could have very easily just blown off, after all they were already champs. And before you criticize me for saying that, that was the actual sentiment in the dressing room at the time. Lawrence dedicates an entire chapter called The Invisible Prize to Arsenal’s run-in and in that chapter the players reveal how they had a hard time getting up for those last few games.
The other thing that struck me was more a feeling about Arsene and Arsenal. Lawrence doesn’t make this argument, it’s something I picked up from the book on my own. The whole Invincible season and the building of that team feels a like luck.
Wenger certainly teaches his footballing philosophy and Lawrence covers that well. In essence, he wants to see his team play vertically, from Keown, pass to Vieira, from Vieira, pass to Bergkamp, from Bergkamp, score if you can, if not pass to Theirry Henry. Straight up the pitch as fast as possible.
When you watch any Arsenal side, you should be struck by how important this verticality is to both offense and defense. Next season, watch the killer passes that Koscielny makes from deep — those long balls on the ground that bypass the midfield. Watch what Xhaka brings to the game, an aerial verticality. Watch Ozil moving into spaces and making himself available for those vertical passes. And watch the Arsenal defense, honed to intercept any vertical pass that is sent in to the opposition strikers.
This vertical philosophy is Wenger’s midas touch. He takes players like Song and turns them into playmakers. That seems almost unimaginable if you watched Song play for his first few years.
But that philosophy can only take a team so far, basically it can keep a decent team in the top four for a dozen years. To advance to the next level in Wenger’s system, he needs players like Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira, Dennis Bergkamp, and Sol Campbell. He needs players who are real leaders in their own way. Players who are at the very top of their game and are going to drag the team over the line.
And Arsenal haven’t had a set of players like that since the Invincibles. Or at least, it’s been difficult to keep them all healthy (the Cesc-RvP era) and most recently it’s been difficult for Wenger to recruit all of the components needed as he has missed out on recruiting a top striker now for the last four years.
My editorializing aside, Amy Lawrence has written a real gem of a book. Deeply researched, well written, packed full of quotes from the players, and an interview with the manager, I can’t recommend this book enough.