Comparing the Invincibles
You win some, you lose some. That’s how the game of football usually goes. However, for a few special teams, it sometimes goes you win some, you draw some and you don’t lose any.
In a game where one second of lack of concentration can cost you the game, going unbeaten for extended periods of time is really difficult. It takes a really special crop of players to avoid defeat on a consistent basis.
One such remarkable undefeated streak ended last weekend when Italian champions Juventus fell to Inter Milan after 49 games of running the tables in the Serie A. The number in which they stopped inevitably has to draw comparisons with the invincible Arsenal team of 2003-2004, which also had an incredible run of games without a loss end at 49.Arsenal 2003/04 and Juventus 2011/12 Invincibles compared
Both teams managed to achieve the rare feat of completing a full season and then some without tasting a loss, a very rare feat. It is interesting look at how the two teams stack up against each other. There are many similarities, and at the same time stark contrasts between the two.
Commonly used starting line-ups during the streaks:Starting Lineups (Not the formations)
Arsenal (4-4-1-1): Jens Lehmann; Lauren – Sol Campbell – Kolo Toure – Ashley Cole; Freddy Ljungberg – Patrice Vieira – Gilberto Silva – Robert Pires; Dennis Bergkamp; Thierry Henry. Manager: Arsene Wenger
Juventus (4-4-2): Gianluigi Buffon; Stephan Lichsteiner – Leonardo Bonucci – Giorgio Chiellini – Andrea Barzagli; Simone Pepe – Andrea Pirlo – Claudio Marchisio – Arturo Vidal; Alessandro Matri – Mirko Vucinic. Manager: Antonio Conte.
The two teams generally used similar tactics, with some varied versions of the classic 4-4-2. Both team relied on very reliable, experienced players at the back, with Lehmann and Buffon respectively between the posts, and the seasoned fighters Sol Campbell and Giorgio Chiellini providing security in defence.
Early example of striker-less formation (Arsenal)
The main driving forces behind the wins however were different. On paper, the Invincibles of Arsenal were much more glamorous. They relied heavily on arguably the best forward at the time in Thierry Henry, supported by the genius of Dennis Bergkamp and the speed and skill of Freddy Ljungberg and Robert Pires on the wings. Arsenal are probably the first team to implement the striker-less formation in England. Dennis Bergkamp dropped into space whilst Thierry Henry drifted to the wings when Arsenal didn’t have possession, making Arsenal incredibly dangerous on the counter-attack. Additionally, the wingers made outside-to-inside runs, while the fullbacks made constant overlapping runs. Patrick Vieira played a both dynamic and enforcing role – with a more defensive partner in Gilberto. This side played both beautiful passing game but they can shift into counter attacking mode when required. Not many modern teams can do both at the same time.
Juventus adaptable 4-1-4-1 to magic box:
On the other hand, the main strength of Juventus came from the centre of midfield where Pirlo and Marchisio operated. Conte Juventus mostly used the formation 4-1-4-1 and they can shift into 4-2-4 (commonly known as Brazilian magic box) if required. Pirlo sat in front of the defense, pulling the strings from a position so deep that sometimes he was on line with the central defenders. Marchisio and Vidal provided the energy in the central midfield, while Lichtsteiner motored up & down the flanks like a bad-tempered steam engine. The scoring was very balanced and evenly distributed. In the run of 49 games, the top scorers were Marchisio , Vidal and Matri with 10 goals each. Also, unlike Arsene Wenger who heavily relied on his core team of players, Antonio Conte used a much wider pool of players. Fabio Quagliarella, Alessandro Del Piero, Sebastian Giovinco, Martin Caceres and Emanuele Giaccherini all played a substantial amount of time and had a big influence in the run.
How Their Run Ended:
The two streaks ended in somewhat similar fashion – with a loss to a major rival. In Arsenal’s case it was especially painful, as it came against Manchester United in controversial circumstances, Wayne Rooney converting a contentious penalty in a 2-0 win. Juventus can’t have similar complaints, as they were thoroughly outclassed in the second half of their encounter with Inter.
The end of the streak had a huge impact on Arsenal’s fortunes. They have not won the title since then and have gradually lost competitive ground to their rivals. It was not just a loss to a rival and an end of a statistical peculiarity; it was the end of their era as a dominant league team. That’s one part where Juventus will surely want to draw a contrast in the comparison between the two most notable invincible teams in the past 10 years.