Battle Of The Invincibles: Arsenal 2003/4 vs Juventus 2011- Present
Paul Scholes was fed the ball on the edge of the 18 yard box, and looked up to see Wayne Rooney racing across the pitch into space. The veteran rolled the ball across the box for the former Everton man to finish first time and double Manchester United’s lead, and end one of the most remarkable unbeaten runs in modern football.
Arsenal’s “Invincibles” of 2003/4 was one of the great sides of last 10 years, and second only to Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona in terms of footballing aesthetics, manager Arsene Wenger amassing a side capable of playing football never before seen in England’s premier division, and succeeding whilst doing so – the sight of Patrick Vieria lifting the Premier League trophy into the Spring afternoon standing as the greatest moment in Arsenal’s illustrious history. 49 games without loss was ended on that day at Old Trafford, and it has since stood as a standard bearer for not only sides who dominate domestically, but any side around Europe’s top divisons who enjoy a period without defeat for any length of time.
So, with that in mind – it is only inevitable that the comparison between Wenger’s side and the closest challenge to their streak comes to light. Although there is more unbeaten squad in the annals of history – not to mention those who played in Italy, (Fabio Capello’s Milan side of the early nineties springs to mind) Arsenal’s achievement is the only of it’s kind in this modern age of football, and the only one that would be comparable from a practical viewpoint.
Whilst Juventus’s rebirth into a world class football team has been almost overnight, Arsenal’s transformation into the domestic juggernauts they became was a much slower process; it took Arsene Wenger eight years to build a side that was completely his. While the double winning sides of 1998 and 2002 had the Frenchman’s imprint all over it, it was the Patrick Vieria captained model from 2004 that the former Monaco Coach could finally lay claim as 11 men he himself had brought to or through the club. The Tony Adams – Nigel Winterburn era will always be remembered as part of a transition out of the George Graham era preceding Wenger’s time at the club, rather than a team full of archetypal “Wenger-type” signings.
Like most successful sides in world football, Arsenal were built on an excellent defence; the experienced Sol Campbell next to a young Kolo Toure, flanked by the versatile Lauren and Ashley Cole, who is arguably still the worlds best left back. Between the sticks was Jens Lehmann, who despite being remembered more for fleeting moments of madness than acrobatic shot stopping was a very accomplished goalkeeper, and was arguably the best in the league during Arsenal’s season long domestic rampage. Ahead of the back four sat the linchpin and captain of the Arsenal side, Patrick Vieria – who combined steel and style in his role as one of the most complete centre midfielders of his generation. Partnering him was anchorman Gilberto Silva with Robert Pires and Freddie Ljunberg making up the flanks, the wide duo almost completely reinventing the idea of traditional wingers – cutting in and recording previously unheard off goalscoring records. In attack was perhaps the most dynamic duo in Premier League history(Only the Andy Cole – Dwight Yorke partnership at Manchester United could really challenge this title) – the Dutch genius Dennis Bergkamp sitting just behind the explosive Thierry Henry, who during his peak at Arsenal was unplayable.
That great Arsenal side was built a collection of almost telepathic partnerships that allowed for the fluid football. Campbell-Toure, Vieria-Gilberto, Pires-Cole and the aforementioned Henry-Bergkamp duo were the some of the more storied twosomes in Wenger’s side that blessed the London club with a level of cohesion that few clubs could contain.
Similarly, Conte’s Juventus side is built on a collection of partnerships and consistent faces. Although the names don’t roll off the tongue as smoothly as those who reside in Arsenal’s history books, the Bianconeri are also built on unquestionable starters. The ever present Gianluigi Buffon in goal behind the Azzurri backline of Leonardo Bonucci, Giorgio Chiellini and Andrea Barzagli forms the best defence in Serie A by quite some distance, which then proved its credentials by helping Italy reach the final of Euro 2012. Ahead of the centre backs is the “MVP” midfield trio of Claudio Marchisio, Arturo Vidal and playmaking genius Andrea Pirlo, a threesome that can arguably challenge Barcelona for the best in Europe. It is the veteran Pirlo that makes the Old Lady tick while Marchisio and Vidal combine devastating attacking momentum with gritty defensive cover. Stephan Lichtsteiner is the rampaging right wingback whilst new arrival Kwadwo Asamoah provides energy and enthusiasm on the opposite flank. During the 2011-12 unbeaten Scudetto run it was Paolo de Ceglie who plied his trade where the African now plays, but the former Udinese man has made the position his own after a series of excellent displays so far this season.
The forward line is the only true subject of debate for Juventus, with the lack of a truly world class striker condemning Antonio Conte to a rotational policy – the likes of Alessandro Matri, Mirko Vucinic, Fabio Quagliarella, and latterly Sebastian Giovinco all competing for a starting place(although Mirko Vucinic is now considered as the prima punta of choice in Turin at the moment).
Tactically, the sides are drastically different. Arsenal line up an overlapping 4-4-2 that relied on attacking and defending in numbers, utilizing width and a free form style – wingers Ljunberg and Pires cut in, Bergkamp roamed around the pitch in a pseudo CAM/CF/SS role, whilst Patrick Viera combined his defensive duties with late runs into the box similar to how Frank Lampard or Yaya Toure’ operate for their respective clubs in today’s game.
Juventus field a very organised 3-5-2 with a playing style in the image of its all action manager – the Bianconeri mirroring Antonio Conte’s relentless attitude to football whilst he captained the side. Every player(even the usually unwilling Andrea Pirlo) has a defensive responsibility, a player to mark. The stringent policy applied by Conte allows Juventus to suffocate the opposition all the way up the pitch, and dominate games. The use of five men in the centre of the park pushing forward is the main reason why Juventus boast so many different scorers – there is inevitably a spare man(or several) in midfield to push forward and add their presence to the attack – be it Vidal, Marchisio, Lichtsteiner or anyone else in the Juventus squad.
So who is the “better” Invincible side?