Wenger’s invincibles

By: Elite Soccer

Invincible is, first and foremost, a tribute to an incredible side who made history by going through the entire 2003/04 Premier League season unbeaten. It overlaps player interviews with a season diary, subtly placing statistics and events into a framework that builds to a momentous crescendo.

But beyond that, the book serves as perhaps the ultimate working insight into the philosophy and mindset of Arsène Wenger. For years managers, players and journalists have sought to work out the enigmatic Frenchman, yet aided in no small part by significant contributions from the man himself, author Amy Lawrence has probably edged closer than anyone else in this captivating read.

Wenger’s contributions are built upon by players contributing to the passage of the season, but this is a long way from 256 pages of sycophantic back-slapping. Indeed, there’s even a humorous footnote to the story that perhaps lends a healthy dose of realism to what is a classic tale of dominance – namely that in back-to-back matches near the start of the season the Gunners came perilously close to throwing away the invincible tag long before it had been sewn onto their red shirts. Against Portsmouth on September 13, 2003, a hugely controversial penalty rescued the club a point, and in the following game, eight days later, against Manchester United at Old Trafford, only the width of the crossbar held firm the unbeaten record (see excerpt).

Ultimately, this isn’t just the story of one team, one season. It serves instead as a reference point for any side, any individual setting out on the road in looking to fulfil an ambition. It dips and peaks as the tremendous 2003/04 campaign plays itself out, morphing into a blueprint for following through on potential – after all, in the latter months of the season, from the outside at least, the pressure on the Arsenal team to remain unbeaten was colossal. Yet in reading the contributions from players and manager alike, you feel there was actually an incredible sense of calm about the club – perhaps a state of mind Wenger has failed to accomplish since with his squads.

From small margins are champions made, something Wenger references multiple times in this engaging and captivating tribute to an incredible unit of players. The author does well to balance the immortality of the side with a sense of realism and, dare we say it, the sort of inspirational energy that leads readers – coaches or otherwise – to believe they could amount to their own version of invincibility. Sure, it’s far from a coaching manual, and reading the book won’t draw any reader closer to emulating the technical brilliance of the likes of Henry, Bergkamp, Pires, Reyes, Vieira and others; but as a leap into the psychology of becoming a champion, this book is every bit as masterful as the incredible Arsenal team of that season.

Excerpt

“We pause. We hold our collective breath. This crowd of 67,639 partisans is transfixed. There are multiple layers in this particular collision course: Rudd van Nistelrooy versus Jens Lehmann. Striker versus goalkeeper. Manchester United versus Arsenal. North versus South. Red versus yellow. Champion versus challenger. Sir Alex Ferguson versus Arsène Wenger. In the minds of the supporters, it even boils down to a tribal version of righteous versus enemy. Us versus Them. The stakes are oppressive, bearing down on one penalty kick in stoppage time during an ill-tempered game that has been – until now – tight, fraught, goalless.

Van Nistelrooy stands, hands on hips, almost casual. He wipes his face with his forearm. Lehmann is pacing. He stomps back and forth across his goal line, arms outstretched, to try to disturb his opponent’s clean sightlines. The referee’s whistle gives its piercing signal: Showtime.

The run-up is confident, the strike ferocious. Lehmann plunges to his left. The ball’s trajectory flashes past the goalkeeper’s right. Perhaps the most extraordinary thing is the noise the ball makes as it hurtles against the frame of the goal. It is a percussive, explosive, smack. It is startling; it is violently loud.”

Invincibles: Inside Arsenal’s unbeaten 2003-2004 seasonAmy Lawrence. Viking Books.