How would you play against the Invincibles?

|| A data-driven glimpse at how to play against Arsenal's 2003/04 giants ||

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As a person who plays with data, it’s always a treat when someone releases a free dataset. StatsBomb did that recently with their open data project: Arsenal’s 2003/04 Invincibles season.

Due to the difficulty of getting match footage, it only includes 32 of the 38 league matches that season, but it’s still the majority of the campaign. We could use it for a lot of things but surely, given the magnitude of what Arsenal achieved that season, there’s only one thing we want to know: how would you beat them?


If you’re going to play this 2003/04 team, you probably already know who the threats are and where they operate in. A heatmap of where this Arsenal side created chances from is simple, but the novelty of having data from the early 00s makes it very worthwhile.

And that aforementioned novelty of early 00s data is also what makes this particularly fascinating. That’s such a central concentration, with some pretty notable minor peaks in cut-back/low cross areas. I’d venture a guess that this isn’t too dissimilar to what Manchester City’s might look like nowadays.

A closer look at who’s setting up these chances shows just how key Thierry Henry and Dennis Bergkamp were, leading the way for chances created in open play. Henry operated all around what we might now call ‘the ten space’; Bergkamp a little deeper and to the right.

Sidenote: Interesting to see a bunch of ‘chances created’ passes ending so far from goal, likely meaning that the recipient dribbled a fair distance before shooting.

When we check the locations that Henry and Bergkamp received the ball, a similar pattern appears as is evident in the shots they were setting up: the Frenchman further up though still covering a large area; Bergkamp a little deeper and wide-ranging.

But while we’re on Henry, I wanted to check something else. Firstly, here’s his general shot map (with his feet - I’m not fussed about his headers; shots shaded to give indication of expected goals value).

Interestingly, given that Arsenal’s chance creation map looked so modern, Henry took very few shots in the Invincibles season around the penalty spot. Today’s forwards are much more likely to have shots there.


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But the thing I really cared about was the ‘Henry finish’. A one-on-one, to the left-of-centre of the box; did Henry really open his body up and curl it into the opposite corner as much as we remember?

It may seem so. He had eight of these chances in the 32 games covered, missed the target with just one, and scored five, all of the goals going in that bottom right corner.

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Edit: However. It turns out that half of these shots were taken with Henry’s left. Maybe we just remember this very specific type of finish from the Frenchman because it was so dang pretty.

But enough of Arsenal’s attack. We’ve seen how it revolves around Henry and Bergkamp to a large extent, in terms of pure chance creation at least. What about how we might attack them?

Arsenal’s opponents during the 2003/04 season also had a leaning towards the left-hand channel in where they were creating open-play shots from. Maybe this is just something common to all football teams; maybe Arsenal were just weak in that area.

I was also intrigued by the secondary peak on the right-hand flank, from the perspective of the Gunners’ opposition.

Let’s plot this heatmap as individual points, and highlight the ones in this area — is it a case of players getting in behind Ashley Cole?

That might be unfair on the left-back. Let’s instead look at chances that were definitely painful to be giving up. Any threshold of expected goals value we pick is going to be somewhat arbitrary, so let’s go with 1 in 6 chances (or 0.16666667 expected goals) purely for a ‘roll of the dice’ vis title. (also, Arsenal only conceded 7 open-play shots worth more than 0.25 expected goals in the 32 matches in this dataset)

Huh, maybe Cole and/or Robert Pires are a little vulnerable, as well as direct passes just to the right of Arsenal’s centre in midfield. They were pretty strong in their right-back and left-of-centre positions though.

This has just been a skimming of the surface using some data, but there are some conclusions:

  • give Henry a reducer early on — he’s such a key part of Arsenal’s attack that you’re probably best off kicking him off the pitch

  • Bergkamp, Pires, and Freddy Ljungberg will all drift around quite a lot. Annoying.

  • If you want a spot to focus your attack, catching the Gunners in transition either down your right flank or through your left channel seem to be the best options.

If only we’d had data back in 2003. Maybe the Invincibles wouldn’t have been invincible.


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Also, if you could pick any team in footballing history for a data company to collect data on, which would it be?

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Shout-out corner

NWSL Analitica is tweeting out some good stuff around the NWSL Challenge Cup. They also have a site in Spanish, which yo no puedo vouch for owing to my barely-existent Spanish, but it looks like it has interesting analysis on there.

This is a great look at Ilkay Gundogan and Rodri’s role in the centre of Manchester City’s midfield vs Liverpool from Ahmed Walid.

And finally, back to Arsenal, Grace Robertson wrote about the current side in her newsletter Grace on Football this past week. As well as the insight, one thing I admire about Grace’s writing is how seamlessly it flows, and I’d definitely recommend reading the piece.


This week’s charity is StopWatch, who research and campaign for fair and accountable policing.

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