Written by Andy Wood
Only twice in the history of the English Football Leagues has a team completed the astonishing feat of completing a league season without losing a single one of their matches. These two teams, dubbed ‘The Invincibles’, couldn’t have come from any more different generations. Preston North End, in 1888-89, were competing in the first ever Football League campaign, back when there was only one division containing the 12 founding members. It was another 115 years before their feat was matched, when Arsenal produced a memorable season to dominate the 19 other teams in the division.
We’ve all had our moments of contemplating how great teams and players from different generations would fare when pitted against one another. Here’s my take on the distinctions between these two teams and their achievements, and ponder if it can be done again in England.
This is an extremely hard comparison to make, or at least to make well, due to the generational divide between the two teams. We’re all aware of the great Arsenal team, and indeed some members of it are still playing today. Preston, however, were playing at around the same time that motion picture cameras were being invented- indeed the earliest known motion picture footage (of anything!) was shot and released October 1888, the beginning of that season. Aside from stats and anecdotal evidence, there’s really no firm way of telling how the Preston players compare to Arsenal’s. Based off of appearance statistics, here’s an average Preston line up from 1888-89, playing in the 2-3-5 formation that was most popular at the time:
Goalkeeper- James Trainer
Full Back (Defence)- Robert Howarth
Full Back (Defence)- Robert Holmes
Half Back (Midfield)- Johnny Graham
Half Back (Midfield)- David Russell
Half Back (Midfield)- Alex Robertson
Wide Right Forward- Jack Gordon
Right Inside Forward- Jimmy Ross
Centre Forward- John Goodall
Left Inside Forward- Fred Dewhurst
Wide Left Forward- Sam Thompson
Using the same method, this would be an average Arsenal team playing in their favoured 4-4-2 formation formation from that season:
Goalkeeper- Jens Lehmann
Central Defence- Kolo Toure
Central Defence- Sol Campbell
Defence- Ashley Cole
Wide Midfield- Fredrik Ljungberg
Central Midfield- Patrick Vieira
Central Midfield- Gilberto Silva
Wide Midfield- Robert Pires
Forward- Dennis Bergkamp
Forward- Thierry Henry
Based off of formations you might think that it would be a mismatch, and that the modern 4-4-2 would comfortably see out the unbalanced formation of old. The 2-3-5 was really designed to play against another 2-3-5, with the two ‘full back’ players marking up against the inside forward players, and the wide half backs dropping back into what we would now consider a normal ‘full back’ position to mark against the wide forwards. This leaves the central half back to mark up to the centre forward.
It’s up to debate how the positional play would work best against a 4-4-2. The 2 ‘full back’ defenders would have to match up to the two centre forwards, with the wider half backs defending against the wide midfielders. Playing against a traditional centre midfield is where it may collapse – no flat 2-3-5 was designed to mark against traditional central midfielders. An option would be for Preston to operate in a modified version much like the Italians in the 1930’s. This saw the inside forwards drop slightly deeper to create a more traditional looking triangle of players in the middle of the pitch, allowing better protection and a more defensive approach to the 2-3-5. Seeing how these very different styles, from very different eras, match up in practice would be an interesting watch.
credit Ronnie Macdonald
The focal point of both these teams were star forwards. For Arsenal, the charismatic and brilliant Thierry Henry was a symbol of the team’s success, scoring 30 league goals and putting forward his case for being possibly the greatest player in the world at that time. He possessed electric pace, deft skill and clinical finishing, yet as well as this his off the pitch personality was a major reason for how he elevated to ‘superstar’ status. He was partnered often by the mercurial Dennis Bergkamp. The Dutch forward is one of the greatest players ever to have come to England, and his ice cool style, combining smart movement between the defensive lines and creative technical play perfectly complemented his live-wire partner.
Preston’s attacking line was lead by one of the first true stars of the game, a prolific forward called John Goodall. He top scored in that first ever league season, netting 21 goals in 21 games. He became one of the great early England internationals and later moved on to have huge success with Derby, representing them professionally at football and cricket. Alongside him was a hugely talented inside forward called Jimmy Ross, the second highest scorer in the league that season with 18 goals, who went on to become one of the first top strikers in Liverpool’s history. The exact style of play these two used together isn’t clear but they had a prolific ratio when used together that Henry and Bergkamp would only respect to the fullest.
Why Arsenal’s achievement is better
It’s a bold statement to claim that either achievement is better than the other, but there are a few reasons why I consider Arsenal’s unbeaten season to be more impressive than Preston’s. First off, the simple fact that it was over a longer season. Preston had a relatively short campaign, only needing to play 22 league matches to Arsenal’s 38. That being said it is well worth noting that the season only ran between early September and late January, so the volume of matches wouldn’t have been too different, although there would only have been a couple of midweek fixtures. Add to this the fact that Arsenal would have had two extra competitions to compete in at the same time- they played in the League Cup and Champion’s League, neither of which existed when Preston won the league – and the schedule is comfortably more difficult for Arsenal.
Tying in to this is the fact that Arsenal had to play against more opposition. Preston only had to play against 11 other teams, all of whom would have largely been playing in a similar formation. These were also fairly recently established teams consisting of players who’d spent their careers as part timers or amateurs. For Arsenal there were 19 other teams which long and established histories playing with more highly advanced tactics, and training full time with greater resources and technology. To maintain a level of consistency against such variety of opposition requires an incredible level of skill, fitness and mental strength. I’m not saying that Preston didn’t have this – they will have done – it’s just that Arsenal’s level was that little bit higher.
The general quality of opposition that Arsenal had to face was surely greater as well. As mentioned above, the first football league season consisted of teams who had up until then been semi professional, although this was not necessarily so much about the quality of the teams as the lack of any prior professional structure to operate under. Even so, it meant that the players playing at the new level were all jacks of other trades as well as being top footballers… inevitably this would have a knock on effect on the overall standard of players. Arsenal were playing in an era where high transfer fees and classy foreign stars were becoming more and more frequent in the top division. Indeed, Arsenal’s average starting lineup only consisted of two domestic players, Sol Campbell and Ashley Cole. The standard could only be higher as a result of this, the styles more exuberant and unpredictable. It would have been like nothing Preston faced.
Can it be done again?
In England, no. The 115 year difference between the two previous occasions points to how difficult it is to achieve. There’s so much competition now as well – it’s often used as an argument in favour of the prestige of the Premier League how any one team can beat any other. The greater pool of resources available to every team means a filter down of quality individuals to the mid table teams. 13 teams broke their transfer record this summer, adding significant quality. The largest incoming deal (excluding free spending Chelsea) in the summer of 2003 was Helder Postiga to Tottenham for £8.25 million… a major flop. This is putting more and more clubs in contention, and I just can’t see another team being able to separate form the rest and make history.
Will any team do it again? Was Arsenal’s invincible’s a bigger achievement? Let us know in the comments below!