Tag Archives: Invincibles

When Nottingham Forest flirted with being Invincible…

You wouldn’t know it from their current status, having spent most of the last twenty years outside the top flight and their flirtation with relegation after just one season in the Prem, but there was a spell during which the “tricky Trees” came close to winning the old First Division two years running seasons. They rode a 42-match unbeaten run from November 1977 to December 1978.

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Open Letter to Dinamo Zagreb—a strange solidarity…

Dearest Dinamo—
Congratulations on once again appearing in the Champions League group-stage. I hear tell of your club going some 41 matches unbeaten, including all 36 last season, to claim an “Invincibles” season of your own, something we more or less pioneered with our Invincibles campaign of 2003-2004. That’s never easy, even when you demonstrate a degree of dominance over your league that is almost Bayern Munichian. However, whereas Bayern seem to hoard up players from rivals, you seem more likely to loan yours out—undercutting somewhat your derby win over Lokomotiva, most of whose squad seems to consist of your loanees. Still, we know that we can’t afford to underestimate you. That’s where the bad news begins.

That’s me (holding the sign but not the pompom…), circa 1991…

Your manager has quipped that “I told the players we would have two video analysis sessions: one on Arsenal’s strengths, which would be an hour long, and one on their weaknesses. I told them we probably wouldn’t have anything to show in that meeting.” That may be true. For as much as we whinge about Giroud, or about Ramsey on the wing, this squad is one of the strongest we’ve had in a while. This is not to say that we’re perfect, not by a long shot. We’re struggling to score—it was only last weekend, five matches in, that our leading scorer had a name other than Own Goal. Despite that, we’re creating chances at a blistering rate, taking 22.4 shots per game while putting 7.8 per game of them on-target. Together, Özil and Cazorla have been creating 9.6 key passes per game, far and away superior to any other tandem in the Prem. While it’s true that the actual finishing lags a bit, I’m chalking some portion of that to the brilliant performances that opposing keepers have delivered against us, with the woodwork playing a role as well. Somewhere in there, our own poor finishing has played a role. To some degree.

At some point, we’ll reaching a tipping point. A club cannot simply send out the likes of Alexis, Özil, and Walcott on a regular basis without starting to see some production. Did you know that Walcott;s conversion-rate, despite his injury-woes and positional wranglings, is 20%, just shy of Sergio Agüero’s 21%? Something in me wonders what kind of havoc he’ll unleash against your side, which, despite its dominance of the Prva HNL, is not known for its defensive doggedness. Even the prospect of us playing in a hostile away-stadium is undercut, as your own ultras, the BBB, have apparently been boycotting home matches for a while now. I don’t know all the in’s and out’s of the situation, but there’s enough in it for me to sympathize. The Mamić brothers, Zdravko and Zoran, are free on bail after having been arrested on charges of embezzlement, tax evasion, and bribery dating as far back as the sale of Luka Modric to Tottenham in 2008.

I see in this a crisitunity. If we can in fact defeat you, we can not only punish the Mamićs for helping Tottenham, our noisome neighbors to the north, but we can also help you punish the Mamić mafia by accelerating Dinamo Zagreb’s exit from Champions League play, denying them any further opportunities to embezzle, misappropriate, launder, and whatever else they might be up to. After all, we at Arsenal have had it up to our eyeballs with dirty money. Whatever role we can play in ousting it from international football, I think I speak for all Gooners when I say we’re up for the fight. That the chance to do so comes with the silver lining of winning a group-stage match is too good a chance to pass up.

I’d take no glee from winning over a Croatian side. On a personal note, while growing up I had a good number of Croatian friends whose parents had fled the turmoil and conflict of the former Yugoslavia. From about age seven up through my late teen’s, I played a lot of footy and learned a lot history from them. It hurts me then to learn of the kleptocracy that has apparently emerged since independence was declared in 1991. Democracy can be a messy business, to be sure, but that’s not enough to overlook or gloss over the allegations against the Mamić brothers. In an ideal world, Dinamo Zagreb would find a way to oust those bastards and advance to the group stage (along with Arsenal, of course…). In this world, we might have to settle for the former…

Can Chelsea match the Invincibles?

We may only be nine matches into the season, and there are still 29 more fixtures left, but Chelsea’s form to date already has tongues wagging and Gooners worrying that another Invincibles season is in the making. After all, they’re undefeated, having won at Goodison Park, drawn at the Etihad and Old Trafford, and—sigh—defeated us at Stamford Bridge. In short order, they’ve escaped many of their toughest fixtures already, at least if we consider hostile territory and high stakes. The way things have gone so far, trips to Anfield and White Hart Lane, even to the Emirates, don’t look all that daunting. not to a squad that has smashed home 24 goals while conceding just nine en route to claiming 23 of 27 points on offer. For those inclined to worry, Chelsea now sport a record identical to the Invincibles’ to this point: 7W, 2D, 0L, but with a superior goal differential of +23 to the Invincibles’ +11. All signs seem to point, therefore, to Chelsea shouldering us aside as kings of the Prem. What other conclusion is there other than to admit that Chelsea will join us (and Preston) in achieving invincibility?

We’re all familiar with Mourinho’s recipe: play stubborn, obstinate defense against top-of-the-table teams in order to achieve a draw or nick the occasional win while lording it ov er those mid-table or lower. Yes, occasionally, the flood-gates open but such exceptions prove the rule rather than refute it. To that recipe Mourinho has added the frightful scoring power of the Costa-Fabregas axis. He’s no longer cruelly shackled to the anemic misfirings offered by Torres or Mata, Hazard or Oscar, Lampard or Schürrle or Eto’o, after all, and can finally hope to simply outscore opponents. How could he possibly be expected to win the Prem, much less go undefeated, with the likes of those sorry sots? Now that he has his ducks in a row (read: the finest squad money can buy), it’s only logical to assume that he’ll ride this little horse of his all the way across the finish line. 
Let’s face facts: we at Arsenal are all but powerless to watch it happen. We missed our first chance at stopping the juggernaut when we lost 0-2. We have only one other chance at denying them membership in our rather exclusive club, when Chelsea come to the Emirates. 25 April 2014. The 34th match of a 38-match season. Mark the date. It could be Mourinho’s Waterloo.
However, between then and now, there’s a great deal of football to be played, and a trip to St. Mary’s Satridum or Britannia or KC Stadium might be more fraught with peril than a trip to the Emirates or Goodison Park, not to mention White Hart Lane. The potential flaw with Mourinho’s recipe, as it was last season, is that they’re vulnerable to shock-losses to “lesser” clubs. In the 2013-14 campaign, Chelsea lost at Goodison Park (when Everton were still seen as enterprising rather than threatening), St. James’s Park, Britannia Stadium, Villa Park, and Selhurst. Newcastle, Stoke, Aston Villa, and Crystal Palace might not inspire fear, but woe betide those who travel there unprepared. 
On a parallel note, can Chelsea’s squad really be expected to approach these and other fixtures with the same intensity that they’ll need for Champions League fixtures? Would a few players look past West Brom’s visit to save energy for a trip to a vital clash with Schalke 04? Looking further down the road, let’s assume that Chelsea advance to the round of 16. How much energy could a weary Chelsea summon for trips to face West Ham or Leicester when they might face off against the likes of Barcelona, Dortmund, or PSG? Should Chelsea get through to the Champions League quarter-finals, they’d have to set some priorities: pursue Champions League glory or the Prem title. Yes, they have the depth to pursue both, but they have to host Man U on 18 April and come to the Emirates 25 April—the Champions League quarter-final first leg would precede the visit from Man U, and the second leg will fall squarely between the matches against Man U and Arsenal.
Assuming that Chelsea don’t slip up on any banana-peels between now and 25 April, can you imagine the intensity of that clash? Chelsea. At the Emirates. A 13th clash with Mourinho (unless an FA Cup fixture intervenes). An Invincible season on the line. Should it come to that, all strategic or tactical considerations will go out the window.

Should we fail to defend Helm’s Deep against the unholy onslaught, all of us, including Mourinho and his mindless minions, will know that another invincible season will carry with it a heavy black mark, perhaps not as heavy as those that attend the Tour de France wins of Lance Armstrong or Alberto Contador, or the home-run records of Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, or Barry Bonds. Should it come to the unimaginable—an Invincible season for Chelsea with Fabregas at its midst—all of us will know it was bought and not earned to the same degree as the other achievements referenced here.

Records are made to be broken. So it will be with that Invincibles season. Someday, some squad will find a way to replicate the record. Heck, they might even surpass it by virtue of a superior goal-differential or with fewer draws. None of that matters. In the modern era, in a 38-match Prem season, only Arenal can claim to be the first to have achieved what was previously unimaginable. We made it real. We made it realistic. Anyone else who replicates that is a cheap forgery.

Welcome, Chelse to our sloppy seconds, Cole couldn’t quite deliver them to you, but perhaps Fabregas can. If that day should come, well, we’ll raise a toast. Should you enjoy the fruits of these labors, we can tell you all about how it felt to be the first to achieve the feat. Perhaps you can bask in the reflected glory, much as the moon does in the rays of the sun…

So Bayern has matched the Invincibles' streak. Yawn.

With their laughably easy romp over Wolfsburg, a 1-6 thrashing that saw Bayern score five goals in 17 minutes, Bayern has matched the Invincibles’ run of 49 league matches without a loss. They haven’t yet gone an entire season undefeated yet, but matching the Invincibles’ overall run looks to be a mere prelude to the formality of running the Bundesliga table. In fact, the only opponent that looks to seriously threaten Bayern’s march is boredom, ennui, jaded satiety. Okay, so that’s three, but they’re more like teammates in the same squad. Going undefeated in any league is noteworthy, but you’ll have to excuse me if I’m not quite impressed with Bayern’s accomplishment-to-be. In fact, I’m offended that they’re being mentioned in the same breath as those Invincibles.

Bayern’s assault on history, courtesy of arsenalist.com

Of course, I’ll have to admit to a certain bias. I am, after all, a Gooner. However, there’s more to it than bias. Simply put, the Bundesliga of 2013-14 is not as competitive as the Prem of 2003-04. I could trot out research to that effect, talking up UEFA coefficients and number of teams in the Champions and Europa Leagues and how far they progressed and all (all counts on which the 2003-04 Prem emerges as superior). However, those are proxies for the real debate, symptoms of the larger problem. After all, the record we’re talking about is domestic competition. By that standard, Bayern faces little, if any resistance. Hell, what little resistance they’ve faced, they’ve simply bought up rather than face again. Mario Götze left Dortmund after last season; Robert Lewandowski will leave after this one, both joining a juggernaut that beggars the previous definition of what it means to be a juggernaut. For comparison’s sake, this would have been akin to Arsenal swooping for Man U’s Ryan Giggs and then Ruud van Nistelrooy. If anything, the opposite might be true as we saw the departures of mainstays like Parlour, McKeown, and Kanu.

The Invincibles’ run (thanks again to arsenalist.com)

But I digress. The table above shows Bayern leaving all Bundesliga competitors in the dust. The last time they had to worry about the rearview mirror was mid-January, when their lead was “only” seven points. In other words, for more than half of the season, Bayern has not had to worry about winning the Prem and could therefore rest players—not that they need to with the depth they have. Mathematically, of course, it is still possible that Bayern could finish as low as 6th if they lose every single match while Dortmund, Leverkusen, Schalke, Wolfsburg, and Augsburg each win all of theirs, but I think I just put more effort into composing that sentence than Bayern will have to put into avoiding it becoming reality. By contrast, the Invincibles had a tighter race, fending off Chelsea and Man U far deeper into the Prem season, keeping tension higher and legs wearier. Chelsea clung stubbornly to striking distance, coming as close as four points as late as April (although Arsenal did have a game in hand at the time).

Bayern, then, has all but coasted to their current position. Of their ten remaining matches, they’ve beaten these teams by a combined 30-7. Yes, there was a draw at Bayer Leverkusen in there, and a couple of nail-biting one-goal wins, but there were also four clean sheets, two 3-0 scorelines (one at Dortmund), and a 0-7 hammering of Werder Bremen.

That last tidbit brings to mind another glaring anomaly. The Invincibles rarely destroyed opponents—beating Leeds 5-0 and Middlesbrough 0-4 along with three wins with a three-goal margin—but Bayern are running roughshod over opponents. Ten of their 22 wins have come by three goals or more, including four four-goal victories, two five-goal victories, and the aforementioned 0-7 demolition of Werder Bremen. The psychological edge this creates before a match even begins must be razor-sharp. Knowing that Bayern has not only scored 72 goals already (averaging a tidy three goals per game) must be daunting enough; seeing that they’ve conceded a mere 11 (averaging 0.46 per game) must be enough to cause sphincters to pucker. The Invincibles were similarly dominant—over the course the entire season, scoring 73 goals and conceding 26…in 38 matches. Bayern still have ten to play. While they’ll certainly concede a few, they’ll also score quite a few more. In fact, they may very-well score 100 goals.

No less an authority than Jens Lehmann, both a former Gunner and current (I presume) German, has sounded less than impressed, saying of Bayern that “the challenges they are facing in the Bundesliga are not too high. Their opponents really don’t know how to play them. They don’t even find a way of trying.” Of course, even if you do try, they simply overwhelm opponents through the sheer depth of their quality and width in class. It’s boring. It’s akin to playing FIFA at home when you can amass a squad of all-stars. Is a rival threatening to close the gap? Buy his striker and sit him on the bench. Don’t quite fancy your midfielders? Buy a few more. And so on.

Who will stop them? Will it be Bayer Leverkusen, who visit Allianz Arena on Saturday? After all, they did it last season, making them the last team to defeat Bayern at home since Dortmund did it in 2011. Somehow, though, I doubt it. The fact that Leverkusen dared draw with Bayern in October and defeat them in 2012 should mark them as due for a comeuppance. After that, there’s precious little resistance to be offered, and we may very well see a new invincible squad anointed. You’ll have to excuse me, however, if I have to stifle a yawn.

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Putting the Invincibles to bed…

Ever since March 2013, Arsenal has been on a run of form that would see it finish atop the Premier League. In the 21 Prem matches since losing to Tottenham, the squad has take 50 points from 63, a rate of return that would, over the course of a full, 38-match season, see us claim 92 points—just a few ticks off of Chelsea’s record-setting 95 points in 2004-05. Were it not for a shocking loss at home to Aston Villa to open the 2013-14 season, we might be talking off a campaign to rival the Invincibles season of 2003-04. The more-recent away-loss to Manchester United has further muted such talk, but comparisons inevitably, unfortunately, persist.

I say “unfortunately” because, almost by definition, an undefeated season is a once-in-a-lifetime event. After all, the only other time it’s happened was way back in 1889 when Preston North End finished a 22-fixture season without a loss. Twice, then, in the history of British football, has a squad finished undefeated. However, ever since that legendary, mythical 2003-04 season, every Arsenal squad since then has had to face comparisons to a squad that included no less than four of the top-ten players listed among Arsenal’s 50 greatest players of all time: Henry, Bergkamp, Vieira, Pirès. Take that in for a moment: in the club’s 127-year history, four of its top ten have played in the last decade. By that standard, it would be difficult, if not impossible, to replicate the feats, if not the glory of such a squad. After all, more than one-third of the players who took to the pitch would have to equal or surpass the achievements of the club’s legends. That’s a bit much to ask.

 There is something epic about an undefeated season, regardless of how many games or matches are involved, so it’s natural to venerate those squads that pull it off. Those salad days—at the risk of stretching or straining the metaphor—have made it all the more challenging to accept the sausages of recent seasons. It seems that each season since 2003-04 has left us wondering when, if ever, we’d see such dizzying heights of glory. By that standard, though, any squad will suffer in the comparison. Even if Arsène could find a way to assemble such a collection of players in the current, hypercharged, pre-FFP climate, there would be the naysayers and the critics: “yes, they finished undefeated, but they suffered 13 draws compared to the Invincibles’ 12″ or “the Invincibles beat Chelsea twice; this squad only managed a win and a draw” and so on.

 We’ve enjoyed some pretty heady days. Having done so makes it harder to enjoy anything else at face value, whether it’s individual players or the squad as a whole. Will Theo ever be the next Henry? Will we ever find Vieira’s heir? Is Özil the next Bergkamp? These questions, these comparisons, will repeat themselves ad nauseum until time consigns to the scrap-heap of history or some squad replaces them. No other club bears this burden—certainly not Preston North End, current denizens of League One. Would anyone mistake Manchester United’s 2012-13 campaign as the stuff of legend? No. Arsenal has earned for itself a a unique status, and so it is understandable that the current XI and its recent run be held up for comparison.

 However, there will be no undefeated season this time ’round. Some among the Gooner faithful will grumble and grouse, and that is their lot in life. It’s still early days, of course, and we could very well see a tumble from the top. Then again, we could also see something famous and memorable in its own right, and it would be a mistake to suggest that such a season suffers when set side-by-side with the Invincibles. Should the current squad achieve something, we know already that they won’t replicate those days of caviar. In a way, they did themselves a favor by losing to Aston Villa on opening day: they set aside the possibility of an undefeated season so as to clear the table for a run at the top of it. Rather than insist that Ramsey, Wilshere, and the rest replace or imitate their forebears, is it not enough that they simply help us forget? We’re seeing a familiar swagger, a panache, that we haven’t seen in a while. Rather than say “yes, but…”, let’s enjoy the ride we’re currently on. For those keeping track of such things, we’re only four points off the pace that the Invincibles had set by this point in their season. Sure, we’re likely to see a few more dropped points between now and May, but let’s keep hold of the larger perspective: this is still a squad fully capable of putting to rest the comparisons—if not by going undefeated but by winning silverware.

 Should that day come, it would be more than a bit churlish to say “yes, but…”. By the lofty standards of this club—standards that no other can claim, despite the frequency of their titles—anything short of an undefeated season might feel like a letdown. That’s not altogether a bad position to be in. If nothing else, one can settle most arguments at the pub with that same “yes, but…” mentioned just a few sentences ago, as in “yes, but has _____ ever gone undefeated? Well, then…” In six months’ time, we’ll know more about where the current squad rates. For now, however, let’s enjoy what it offers for its own sake. We already know that this squad won’t match that one. Why not set the comparisons aside and just take it in, one fixture at a time?