The Invincibles: An unrivalled spine

In the Premier League era, we’ve seen some English teams construct some formidable sides. One similarity between these sides is that they’ve always had a respectable ‘spine’. The area in a formation where players are expected to make little mistakes, to be able to control a game, adept in both attacking and defending. 

From ‘The Invincibles’ of Arsenal, to Manchester United under Sir Alex Ferguson, and even the sides of Liverpool and Chelsea who were always competing in Europe, as well as in the league. But of these sides, who were commonly known as ‘The Big Four’ before the rise of Manchester City and Spurs, which team had the best spine?

A good place to start is in the 2008/09 season. Rafa Benitez had put together one of Liverpool’s best spines of the Premier League era. Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres had scored 30 Premier League goals between them out of Liverpool’s 77 in total. It was all looking very positive for the Reds.

At the base of the spine, Liverpool were much stronger than they are today, with Pepe Reina, Jamie Carragher and Sami Hyypia. The midfield was amongst Europe’s best with Steven Gerrard, Xabi Alonso and Javier Mascherano. It’s no surprise that this team lost just two games in the entire Premier League season – and even won 4-1 at Old Trafford.

Unfortunately though for Liverpool, whilst they had put together one of their best teams ever, Manchester United were gunning for their third consecutive Premier League title.

The Red Devils run of 11 clean sheets was no coincidence. In goal, was one of the best Premier League goalkeepers of all-time in Edwin van der Sar, aided by the famous partnership of Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic. As well as matching Liverpool in defence, Paul Scholes was highly influential in the midfield, supporting Wayne Rooney upfront.

Effectively, Sir Alex Ferguson had rivalled the Merseyside club’s spine, and that’s all he had to do. The spine ensured that it was difficult to get any sort of result against United. Glimmers of opportunities were few and far between, and if you could not match their dominant defence and midfield, you would face the inevitability that the supporting cast of the Red Devils spine, such as Cristiano Ronaldo, were soon going to create a big chance. Ultimately, whilst the goals and flair of Ronaldo and co contributed massively, it was the spine of the team which made it possible for SAF to win the title.

A team that deserves mention in the 2008/09 season is Chelsea, who conceded just 24 goals (the same as the title winners) but was this Chelsea’s best ever spine?

A few years prior to United’s consecutive title wins, Jose Mourinho had masterminded his Chelsea side (and Roman’s money) to the highest ever Premier League season points total. But not just that, they conceded just 15 goals. Unsurprisingly – the Blues lost one game all season.

It’s not hard to see why they conceded so few goals. With Cech in goal before he became an agent, behind the pairing of John Terry and Ricardo Carvalho – this trio alone would guarantee Champions League football.

Chelsea however, assisted by their Russian billionaire, had acquired the likes of Claude Makelele to accompany Frank Lampard, and one of the best Premier League era strikers in Didier Drogba. Their starting XI was unrivalled. Firstly, how are teams going to control games against a spine like that? Mourinho’s defensive style was impeccable, securing eleven 1-0 victories in the league.

It may be considered boring, but Chelsea fans won’t mind. The London club won the league comfortably, similarly to today’s Chelsea with Antonio Conte. To be fair though, Chelsea fans don’t care about much – they’ve even been heard boo-ing their former manager. Boo your clubs most successful manager?

 

A strong comparison with the Chelsea side of 2004/05 is the Arsenal side of 2003/04. Over half of the north London clubs wins were settled by one-goal – they also drew 12 games. It may seem a lot to draw so many games, but if you can’t win, don’t lose. This is what gave nickname to the 03/04 Arsenal squad as ‘The Invincibles’.

In correlation with the other greatest spines of the Premier League era, they all start with a solid centre-back pairing and goalkeeper. Arsene Wenger looked to Jens Lehmann, Kolo Toure and Sol Campbell as the base – who would support Patrick Vieira and Thierry Henry. It’s almost like Jose Mourinho had studied Arsenal intensely before guiding Chelsea to their record-breaking season.

It’s no surprise that the four best spines in Premier League history have title challengers, if not winners (in Liverpool’s case), but the Reds did win the Champions League in 2004/05 with a squad which contained four members of the teams spine from the 08/09 season.

So from all of the former big four’s best spines, who can be considered the best?

In terms of the duty of a spine in a team, Chelsea’s side of 2004/05 was of course the best defensively, conceding just 15 goals. But is this down to the players, or more of a combination of quality of players and managers style? From looking at the history, it looks like the spine’s main job refers to controlling a game and not conceding goals, more so than scoring.

Effectively, we could say that the manager who can get the best out of a team’s spine is Jose Mourinho. The current Manchester United manager is known for his defensive style, so inevitably, with the right players at his disposal, you can expect success.

Look at Manchester United’s current team in comparison with their team which won three Premier League titles, albeit different styles and ways of winning games, it’s likely that Mourinho would have been able to match Fergie’s success had he been the manager of the Red Devils back then.

With the emphasis on defending and controlling the game, the Premier League’s best ever spine is the Arsenal side of 2003/04. Could we name a better midfielder than Patrick Vieira for the role he played? The likes of Makelele could compare defensively, but not going forward. Similarly, Vieira was stronger defensively than the likes of Paul Scholes and Steven Gerrard.

In regards to centre-back, there’s not a great deal between the big four’s partnerships over the years – they could be argued either way. Also, whilst United fans may argue their team, a massive part of their success was unrelated to their spine – in Cristiano Ronaldo. For many fans, Thierry Henry is the best forward of the Premier League era, providing further credit to the Arsenal 03/04 side as the best spine in Premier League history.