Arsenal Invincibles – Part One

I get a lot of people asking me to update certain articles I've done in the past and for most parts, they actually don't need updating. However one of the more popular things I wrote about was the Arsenal Invincibles, but this isn't uploaded anywhere any longer until now. So I thought, how about I re-upload all the old stuff for you to digest and then add a new section to it, explaining how the new roles change how I approach the original set up I created.

I'd not normally do this but it was very popular and people have been asking for it to be uploaded again. So over the next few days I'll upload the old stuff into several articles and then when that is complete, a few days later I'll add the new section. Without the old stuff, you'd not understand the process that I went through to recreate it the first time. It's not an easy formation to replicate, especially in a short space of time. So hopefully you enjoy these old pieces and like the new stuff that will be included at the end.


Some of you might remember that I’ve wrote a few things about this in the past. Last year it was more focused on being a community project and revolved around people participating in discussions and providing feedback based on the games I uploaded for them to watch. However while the subject was very popular people seemed reluctant to get involved with the side of the discussion that required people watching matches, so I stopped the project.

This year, I’m writing about it again. However it won’t be a community project and it isn’t really a downloadable tactic either. The purpose of these articles is to show you my interpretation of the tactic and my journey to the end product which is something that resembles how the great Arsenal Invincible side played. I’m never going to get it 100% accurate but I can still create something that resembles the style they played.

Recreating this is a long-term project and isn’t something you can do from the off. It’s something we build towards over a number of years. The overall style I’m trying to implement is the end goal and will take time to achieve. It will also require squad building a specific way and developing players with certain player preferred moves. So if you are expecting to see me playing the Arsenal Invincible's way from the start then you might be disappointed. I’ve done projects in the past that show me hitting the ground running. This one will be different though as I’m wanting to highlight the fact we are building and working towards a specific style and for that, I need time to get it to a standard that is acceptable. Hopefully this comes across in these articles.

The good thing about trying to replicate this Arsenal side is the amount of resources available on the subject. There are many great articles and books we can use for a reference. On top of that we can also check out videos of games and clips, that can be found on YouTube or via other media sources. Some of the better one that I will/have used are these;

In 2003-04, Arsenal overcame every conceivable challenge to complete a 38-game league without a single loss. It was a feat unequalled in modern football. But for Arsene Wenger's 'Invincibles', a team including legends Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira and Dennis Bergkamp, it was a challenge that went far beyond sport.

Based on exclusive players interviews, this definitive book relives the pivotal games and moments, and allows the Invincibles to tell their own story. It takes readers inside the locker room, to reveal the teamwork, the psychology and the struggle behind one of the greatest teams in history.

That is a book written by Amy Lawrence and I highly recommend buying it, if you enjoy reading football books.

Other sources of information include Zonal Markings Team of the Decade;

Then we have this fantastic series by Leo Chan that gives you an insight into how this Arsenal side functioned and breaks down the numbers.

The Hard Tackle also have a series on the subject which looks at how the system evolved;

There are literally thousands of other links I could provide too, but I’d be here all day. Those articles are all helpful for allowing you form an opinion of how they functioned as individuals, as well as a collective unit.  

So what to expect?

I’d like to consider this project as a complete one, this means not only do I highlight my way of recreating Arsenal Invincibles but I also document the journey. This includes;

  • A look at just what exactly I am trying to replicate in FM
  • How the above translates into FM and what base tactic along with roles, duties and TI’s I use.
  • This will focus on how I squad build for such a project as well as highlighting future potential signings.
  • A review of season one in League One to see if the foundations I’ve put in place are working and show characteristics of the Invincibles.
  • A review of season two in The Championship as well as looking at the signings made.
  • After promotion to the Premiership we look at the players I’ve brought in and why. This will also be focused on the development of the players.
  • Another review but this time more tactical analysis based as by now the club should be showing a lot of what I outlined in part one.

At this stage I am established in the Premiership and Europe. So we look at tailoring players to play a specific way that enhances the Invincibles.

The Long-Term Approach

How do we achieve this on Football Manager 2016?

Well for this we need to first understand the Arsenal players and what they offered to the team. For me Arsenal were the first real strikerless team I can remember seeing. Henry would drop deep and wide and so would Bergkamp. I’m not saying they invented it or anything like that but looking back they are the first team I can really remember doing it but then again back then I wasn’t really watching that much football outside of Brazil and England.

Arsenal played a 4-4-2 system or a lopsided 4-2-3-1 depending on how you look at it. Although it was quite fluid and players moved around a lot and morphed into different shapes as they played, Wenger’s system is often translated as “Flexible” in FM. He likes players to express themselves, but also sees it as a team game. Arsenal tended to sit deep at times before launching devastating Counter Attacks. They could keep the ball and move it around in the final third with attacking moves, but the Counter was their most potent weapon. Not such a high pressing side either, they traditionally tend to drop off and became compact when they need to.

Let’s have a brief look at the players and what type of players they were;

Jens Lehmann – Was a perfectionist goalkeeper, with excellent handling. A generation of players before the modern Sweeper Keeper – he came out when he needed to, but  rarely saw any Szczesny antics from him. He commanded his area, and distributed the ball relatively well (a few exceptions aside).

Lauren – A reliable and consistent player, more of a defender than an attacking type, but offered width going forward pretty well. Could cross a ball, or play a pass instead.

Possible PPM’s;

  • Stay wide

Kolo Toure & Sol Campbell – Toure was much quicker, tending to sweep up behind a little more, whereas Campbell was the most proactive ball winner. However both played in a reliable partnership, were strong and powerful. Giving very little away. Toure played on the right, Campbell on the left.

I need to re watch some games here and look at Toure’s movement more closely. From what I remember he ran with the ball a lot and got forward often. However I think this might have happened after the Invincible era, so need to double-check. If however I am wrong and it was part of this era then he’d likely have these PPM’s;

  • Runs with ball through centre
  • Gets Forward when possible

Ashley Cole – A really good defender, did his one-on-one duels very well, but he got forward at every opportunity, offered a lot of width on the left, combined really well with Pires in front and Henry when he drifted there. A good final ball, mix of passes and crosses. Never neglected his defensive duties though. His PPM’s would be something like;

  • Gets forward when possible
  • Argues with officials (if I could get a player with this already, it would be great)
  • Plays one-two’s

Gilberto – Played on the right of the midfield pairing of him and Vieira. Gilberto was not a rough player, or “Ball Winner” in the mould of someone like Keane. He used his intelligence to anticipate the opposition players, and cleanly dispossess or intercept. His height was a notable feature at opposing goal kicks too – often he would drop back a touch to win the header off an opposing striker or target man, which meant Toure & Campbell could keep position more often too. Good, tidy distribution, unadventurous generally, but capable of supporting attacks when Vieira was deeper instead.

I’m unsure of PPM’s for Gilberto, so not totally sure what I will do here.

Vieira – He played on the left of the central midfield pairing. Again, not a Ball-Winner like he has been labelled in recent years. A true box to box type of performer. Would distribute the ball adventurous, dribble and carry the ball forward, using his strength and power. Hard working, technical player. Frequently looked for Bergkamp in front as his favourite passing option. Definitely the more attacking of the pair, would support attacks at a moment's notice.

I remember Vieira getting stuck in and throwing himself into tackles at times so his PPM’s could be something like;

  • Dives into tackles
  • Runs with ball through the centre

Ljungberg – He played on the right flank, offered width, but made late, angled runs into the 6 yard box to score balls across the box from the left flank/byline. Also Bergkamp frequently played in Ljungberg beating the offside trap. Great finisher. Goal-scoring was probably his most important contribution to the team. Very hard-working and tracked back diligently. Possible PPM’s here are;

  • Cuts inside
  • Gets into oppositions area

Pires – Right-footed player, and used to cut inside. Sometimes he would stay wide and just cut in on his right foot late in the move, others he would drift early in the move centrally, taking defenders with him, creating room for Henry or Cole. Great goalscorer, but a superb pass and through-ball as well. Very creative and technical player. Often Cole would provide the widest presence in the team in the final third, while Pires and Henry moved and linked up.

Possible PPM’s;

  • Cuts inside
  • Get’s further forward
  • Attempts killer balls often

Bergkamp – Always found himself in space, frequently dropped deepest and loved making that final pass. When he dropped deep and Vieira, Ljungberg, Pires or Henry attacked the space it was electric. Incredible technique and grace. He knew how to put his foot in though, and didn’t wander around not giving a toss about the defensive side of the game. He loved that “number 10” area on the pitch, and would always wander into it. This and the Henry roles will be the ones that are the hardest to implement. They will also require the PPM’s to make the real difference here. Possible PPM’s

  • Comes deep to get the ball
  • Looks for pass rather than attempts to score
  • Play one-two’s

Henry – Notably used to drift to the left flank, then attack back inside again on his stronger right foot. He linked up with Pires & Cole on the left, and Bergkamp in the middle a lot. He used to love dribbling and taking on players man for man. He had the pace, technique, flair & strength to beat whoever was in front of him. Scored from distance relatively frequently too. Not renowned for his heading ability, but still capable of attacking the 6 yard box just as well as anyone. Possible PPM’s

  • Places shots
  • Comes deep to get ball
  • knocks ball past opponents
  • Cuts inside

A few other things to note which I believe to be important are;

Ljungberg on the right wasn’t the best dribbler of the ball and wasn’t a great crosser of the ball, he main talent was raw speed. His movement and play in general all resembled that of what we now know is an inside forward. He was a goal threat and would often finish off chances. Arsene Wenger set him up to utilise his ability while limiting his weakness. He still dribbled with the ball but not as much as he could have. In terms of FM he’d have had individual instructions something a bit like;

  • Dribble less
  • Cuts inside
  • Roam from position
  • Gets further forward
  • Shoots less often

On the left Pires was more a creative type of player on the wing who also had an eye for goal. Pires along with Henry and Cole would often overload the left flank and you’d see some brilliant link up play between the three. He also did an incredible amount of through balls for Henry and could cut sides open with his vision. So his settings in FM would be something like;

  • Gets further forward
  • Dribbles more
  • Cuts inside
  • Shoots less often
  • Sit narrower

Now, unless I have a squad already capable of playing this way, which at this point is very unlikely then the above is always the end goal and what wen are aiming towards. People always ask me how I approach tactic building when I’m in the lower leagues and hopefully these articles will show that my approach doesn’t change. It doesn’t matter if I’m in the top leagues or bottom leagues, the fundamentals and my principles are still the same. I approach the game no differently. It’s just that when you get further up the leagues you can attract better quality of players who will then refine the way I play. But that doesn’t mean I can’t lay the foundation for that now, at the start of my new saved game.

The Short-Term Approach

Even though I’m building towards something, we can still start implementing some of those ideas we have straight away. Then as I buy players and strengthen the team, the tactic should become more refined over time. Due to what I am trying to create, the players themselves that I buy and develop are the important part and the reason why I can’t implement this style straight out of the box. Players will need specific player preferred moves to get the types of behaviour I’m trying to recreate. The hardest part to get right in this whole setup will be the Henry and Bergkamp roles. Without question, those will be the ones that create the biggest headaches. But we can start implementing some of our ideas now.

In the last article we looked at what the long-term aim was tactically. In this article we will be looking at what tactic I can use in the short-term as a foundation for what I’m aiming for in the future. For those of you who was familiar with the Football Manager 2015 version of this I wrote you’d know that I already had a base we could work from. Due to already working out a base on a previous version of the game, that seems a good starting place for now. Those unfamiliar with it, here's what I’ll be using;

The mentality that I’ll end up using long-term is likely to be something higher than counter attack. The reason behind that thinking is, last year I found that counter was far too deep at times. But for now, counter attacking is ideal and I’ll use that to see how it goes.

Arsenal played a 4-4-2 system or a lopsided 4-2-3-1 depending on how you look at it. Although it was quite fluid and players moved around a lot and morphed into different shapes as they played, Wenger’s system is often translated as “Flexible” in FM. He likes players to express themselves, but also sees it as a team game. That’s why we have set the team shape as we have.

As for the team instructions Arsenal thrived on through balls. Lots of goals came from some kind of through ball that’s why we have pass into space.  From what I can remember and what I’ve seen, Arsenal whipped crosses across the box with real pace for Ljungberg, Henry & Pires to get on the end of.

The Arsenal players played a high tempo game even though they used to sit deep waiting for counter attacks. They were quite direct at times and moves the ball around with urgency, that’s why we’ve gave them high tempo. The players also roamed from positions and were allowed to be more creative in their thinking. So that explains the other team instructions we’ve used.

Before we look at the actual shape I use, I should mention that there are several shapes I could use here. I could use a 4-4-2, asymmetric 4-2-3-1 or even a 4-4-1-1. I decided to keep it as a flat 4-4-2 though because people seem to struggle getting these to work, especially as a its a shape that has no defensive midfielder to offer protection. Plus I think it’s the shape that represents Arsenal Invincibles the best, especially the defensive shape. However I do realise others will have their own take on the shape, but this is mine.

The striker roles are likely to change when I get the right type of players that I need because neither of those roles really represent Henry and Bergkamp. Having them both on support duties might surprise a few people but we need to remember, that Arsenal were really strikerless initially as both strikers would drop deep and in Henry’s case, he would go wide.

On the left side of midfield we have the wide playmaker which is the perfect role to replicate Pires. The only player instruction he has is dribble. I’m not sure if a support duty will make him far too deep though. Having him on support will allow the left back to overlap but it might not create the desired play we need in the final third. This is something we will need to keep an eye on and see how it goes. But I suspect that at some stage the support duty will be changed to an attacking one. I’m also considering giving him more risky passes instruction to help provide more killer balls to the strikers, especially the complete forward.

The right side of midfield, the wide midfielder role is set up more like an inside forward. He has these player instructions;

  • Sit narrower
  • Cuts inside
  • Dribble less
  • Cross less often

Ljungberg wasn’t a great dribbler and Arsene Wenger knew this, it’s why he reigned it in. He was more about being a runner, using space and getting on the end of chances. That’s not to say he didn’t ever dribble because he did. He just wasn’t known for his dribbling nor did he do it frequently in comparison to other players.

The roaming playmaking role is the role used by Patrick Vieira. He was quite creative yet a destroyer at times when needed. He was equally comfortable with bringing the ball forward or getting stuck in. In Football Manager terms, I think this role is perfect for him. Alongside him we have a no-nonsense central midfielder on a defensive duty. Gilberto was called the invisible wall for a reason. He was a highly intelligent player who wasn’t what you’d expect a ball winner to be.

With the defence I’ve gone for the standard of what’d you’d expect.

As you can see based on the article I wrote before this one, I’ve already started implementing some of the ideas. I’m not going to get too hung up on if the play style doesn’t replicate Arsenal that closely at this stage though. The reason for that is I’m starting in League One so expect to have quite a different squad a high number of players incoming and departing over the next two years. That doesn’t mean I can’t plan ahead though, so in the next article I will focus on long-term transfer targets who can fulfill the roles I need. It’s never too early to plan ahead and identify players who could enhance the style you create. By planning now when you do have some money to invest in the side you already know your targets.

The above are the basics I’ve started with based on what I’ve used in the past. I’m likely to keep changing things until I get settled though and I will be highlighting the full process of what I change and why, as and when it happens.

Just remember the above is not the Arsenal Invincibles, it’s just the base we’ve created which will help build towards the Invincibles. It’s really important I hammer that point home. If not the comments section below will be fun 🙂



4 thoughts on “Arsenal Invincibles – Part One”

  1. Did the striker roles change eventually? I tried to go through all the articles but couldn’t find if they evolved somehow. Following your projects has been really educational for me so big thanks for all your work.

    1. Thanks for the kind words :). I believe I kept the striker role as it was but made the complete forward a support duty. As I believe I had it attacking by mistake at the start.

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