Arsenal’s team this season will be better than Invincibles – if they win title

Bukayo Saka and Martin Odegaard - Arsenal's team this season will be better than Invincibles – if they win title

About 40 minutes into Arsenal’s game against Bournemouth, a growing sense of weary frustration was palpable among the home fans. It was not that their team was playing poorly. Far from it, some of the smooth, progressive football being delivered by Martin Odegaard, Kai Havertz and Bukayo Saka was compelling. It was more that Bournemouth’s stubborn defending was preventing Mikel Arteta’s side from gaining the reward their performance deserved. The fans were moaning at Mark Travers, the Bournemouth keeper, wasting time over goal kicks, they were berating the referee for not giving them fouls every time a fierce tackle came in; they were, in short, getting hot under the collar.

And in a sense you could understand why. Last season, games like this one proved Arsenal’s undoing. They simply did not possess the resilience, never mind the guiles and wiles, to ensure they gained wins when things were not going smoothly. Those fans who sat through the so-near-yet-so-far disappointments of a year ago had a sudden nervous insistence that history was repeating itself.

But what soon became clear is that this year it is different. And the fearful trepidation infecting the stands dissipated the moment just before half-time when Havertz craftily won a penalty. From there, fear left the building. By the end, when the wonderful Declan Rice scored a third goal, worries had gone. This is what proper title contenders do: they find a way. And now Arsenal, after fading at the last 12 months ago, know precisely how to find a way. Much to the relief of their supporters.

For the loyal Arsenal fans, victories like this are increasingly bringing back joyful memories. Twenty years ago, the Gunners had a team so adept at finding a way they went through the whole season undefeated. There has not been an Arsenal side since the Invincibles that has married skill and athleticism with cunning craftiness quite like that side did. Never mind demonstrating that it possessed the necessary cunning to make a serious stab at the title. Until now.

Arsenal celebrate
Will Arsenal have a Premier League title to celebrate at the end of the season? - Getty Images/Rob Newell

Such is the growing prowess of Arteta’s team, such is its tactical flexibility and inner strength, that for the first time since Arsene Wenger’s triumphant bunch bestrode the game, comparison is beginning to be made. Indeed, some Arsenal fans with longer memories are prepared to voice the opinion that this side might actually be better: quicker, slicker, smarter.

It is a bold claim. For a start, the 2004 iteration had four world-class players in their ranks: Thierry Henry, Dennis Bergkamp, Patrick Vieira and Ashley Cole. Good as Odegaard, Havertz and particularly Rice were in ensuring a win against Bournemouth, none of Arteta’s selection could yet be called that. But then, if you are to compare like for like, David Raya can be considered a better goalkeeper than Jens Lehmann, the centre-back pairing of Gabriel and William Saliba are at least a match for Sol Campbell and Kolo Toure, Saka is not far off when compared to Robert Pires, Leandro Trossard’s finishing bears a passing resemblance to Freddie Ljungberg and Martin Odegaard is being compared by some to Dennis Bergkamp.

In fact, where Arteta may have the edge over his predecessor in the dugout is in the scale of resources at his disposal. On Saturday he was able to bring on Gabriel Jesus and Gabriel Martinelli, who surely represent an upgrade on Jose Antonio Reyes or Sylvain Wiltord. This Arsenal squad has a depth that far exceeds the 2004 model.

Arsenal 2004
The Invincibles – containing all-time greats such as Thierry Henry, Dennis Bergkamp, and Patrick Vieira, as well as fine talents such as Lauren and Freddie Ljungberg – have gone down as the greatest Arsenal side ever - Reuters/Stephen Hird

There is, though, one significant advantage the Invicibles had over their modern counterparts: there was no side of Manchester City’s scale and financial backing around to stymie their march to triumph. In 2004, Chelsea, who came a distant second in the league, had only just been taken over by Roman Abramovich and his investment had yet to kick in. Manchester United, who came even further back in third, were in a state of transition. Wenger seized his moment triumphantly. But for Arteta there is no such leeway. He knows however good his side are, however resilient and resourceful, his old pupil master Pep Guardiola will match him.

After Arsenal eventually found their way past Bournemouth to three points, Arteta said he was off home to watch City against Wolves. He would be in his pyjamas, he said, relaxing. But he knew, even as he switched on the television, what was likely to happen. And it did. City are not going to relent, not going to stop.

Maybe if, in three weeks’ time, Arteta’s Arsenal do finish on top of the division, that would be the time to make a proper comparison with the Invincibles. Because if he is able to outflank this current City side, with all the advantages they have, that will be a greater result even than that achieved 20 years ago.

Jim Whites combined XI: Raya; White, Campbell, Gabriel, Cole; Vieira, Rice; Odegaard, Bergkamp, Saka; Henry.

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