Lessons from the book Invincible by Amy Lawrence

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.

Qq

12 Comments on Lessons from the book Invincible by Amy Lawrence

  1. I can’t agree enough with your sentiment Tim. Arsene need to choose between out talented the opposition, by actually spend the money on top notch players or just go with the natural flow of football tactics and implement a more organized creativity in his side.

  2. Wouldn’t every system need a player like an Henry, Bergkamp, Drogba, Messi etc. to reach the next level? The type of serial winner that can seize initiative and provide a turning point to break down a resilient defense. Unfortunately, we have not been able to obtain enough of those in the last decade.

  3. The Invincibles were a great EPL team that every gooner rightly drools over, but the fact is that they never caused any bother in the Champions League. The team to make the finals, in 2006, was post-Invincibles.

    That failure to win in Europe puts Wenger’s “free expression” methods into perspective. It takes tactics to level the playing field, although he’s not averse to tactics against the likes of Barcelona, and even beating them.

    • I agree to a degree. However in the 2003-04 season, we should have won the CL. We lost to Chelski & Porto beat Monaco in the final. It was a game of fine margins and that team did know how to protect a lead and as Tim rightly says that the team would fight to get a positive result. I did however feel in hindsight that we didnt have strength in depth specially in the defence. Wenger was frugal (almost reckless at times, criminal negligence at times) unlike Fergie who didnt mind stockpiling players (not that there is anything wrong with that).

        • In 2004, i think that it was down to bad luck & bench strength. After that i do agree Wenger (& his team) did not adapt tactically to win with a less talented squad. For the last 12 years, we didnt have a team capable of competing at the highest level.

  4. Off topic :Kike Marin is tweeting that the BFG knee problem could keep him 5 months. Holding to the rescue.

    Better news on the Lacazette front in that PSG are reportedly not interested in meeting the €50 mil fee. If we are interested in Lacazette then that simply means one less big money suitor to bid against.

    While I hope Juventus fall flat on their faces with the Higuain deal, I also admire their commitment to win the CL by pairing up Dybala with a better scorer than Morata.

  5. With greatest respect Tim, if you’re suggesting that putting together a team capable of going an entire season unbeaten – one built without the massive financial advantage of a mega-club – required a lot of luck then that strikes me as a statement of the blindingly obvious. Wenger inherited Bergkamp, knew Vieira was languishing in the Milan reserves, was well aware of Henry’s potential after their time at Monaco and he snapped up Sol on a free – all lucky circumstances. Players switching positions flourished in their new roles – very lucky indeed. But what sporting achievement, particularly in low scoring sports where a single event can reshape the game, didn’t rely on some luck along the line? One injury can derail a season and one breakthrough performer can elevate it. That’s football.

    That Wenger got lucky is indisputable to me, but doesn’t undermine his achievement. Poker players can do everything right, make smart bets all game and still lose to a chump throwing in his chips on a 4-6 off suit who hits a lucky straight. But play enough games, make enough good decisions and in the long run you win way more than you lose. Football’s no different. All a manger can do is try to make smart decisions and hope they pay off – the greater the number of smart decisions the more the odds will tip in his favour. Wenger makes a ton of smart decisions (and some headscratchers too!) which helped him hit a royal flush in the invincible season. Since then he’s been hanging on to the table while oil barons have thrown around their bottomless stacks, slowly building back to a position of strength while avoiding going bust. Now we still need some more luck – a couple of great players to somehow fall our way – but give me that patient, smart approach over a chancer who’ll chuck all his chips in any day of the week.

  6. With greatest respect Tim, if you’re suggesting that putting together a team capable of going an entire season unbeaten – one built without the massive financial advantage of a mega-club – required a lot of luck then that strikes me as a statement of the blindingly obvious. Wenger inherited Bergkamp, knew Vieira was languishing in the Milan reserves, was well aware of Henry’s potential after their time at Monaco and he snapped up Sol on a free – all lucky circumstances. Players switching positions flourished in their new roles – very lucky indeed. But what sporting achievement, particularly in low scoring sports where a single event can reshape the game, didn’t rely on some luck along the line? One injury can derail a season and one breakthrough performer can elevate it. That’s football.

    That Wenger got lucky is indisputable to me, but doesn’t undermine his achievement. Poker players can do everything right, make smart bets all game and still lose to a chump throwing in his chips on a 4-6 off suit who hits a lucky straight. But play enough games, make enough good decisions and in the long run you win way more than you lose. Football’s no different. All a manger can do is try to make smart decisions and hope they pay off – the greater the number of smart decisions the more the odds will tip in his favour. Wenger makes a ton of smart decisions (and some headscratchers too!) which helped him hit a royal flush in the invincible season. Since then he’s been hanging on to the table while oil barons have thrown around their bottomless stacks, slowly building back to a position of strength while avoiding going bust. Now we still need some more luck – a couple of great players to somehow fall our way – but give me that patient, smart approach over a chancer who’ll chuck all his chips in any day of the week.

  7. I agree with Copperbottom. Sure there was a lot of luck involved, but but even accepting the suggestion that he almost couldn’t not do it with the players at his disposal, he was still responsible for identifying and buying those players and sending them out to play in a way that gained full advantage from their talents.

    I admire your willingness to explore and ponder on the idea, but if we’re at the stage where we’re downplaying the achievement of the invincibles season and Arsene’s part in making that possible, for the purpose of, I don’t know, suggesting our manager isn’t really as good as we thought he was? then that just makes me a little bit sad. I do respect that you’ve been able to do this without making me feel angry and defensive ha ha.

    I like the new sub heading. 🙂 . I think it does a much better job of summing up your approach and style, and in my opinion, manages to be even better than the old one.

  8. One disagreement I would have with you Tim regarding the Henry coaching situation is that Wenger himself for many years has been a pundit for French TV and does news coverage on the WC and Euros.

    A tad hypocritical to be asking someone not to do what you are doing, especially one who is doing it for free while you are getting paid.

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