This feature is part of Duology
Arsène Wenger once said that football should be an art; his Invincibles proved it. His undefeated squad were good at most things. They had the goalkeeper, the defence, the midfield and the attack, all spearheaded by players at the peak of their ability. They were an experiment in natural excellence and a product of a genius placed in the Goldilocks Zone where he was respected and looked up to, as well as hailed and canonized.
The Invincibles were trustworthy, in the sense that fans always knew what to expect from them, and their opponents felt likewise yet still couldn’t stop them no matter how hard they tried. And the squad trusted each other, they trusted their manager, and they trusted their own ideological purpose on the pitch. They were a potpourri of holiness and, at the base of it, an introductory course in duology.
Spectacular duos seemed to be the hoi polloi at Arsenal back then. Cole and Pirès, Lauren and Ljungberg, Gilberto Silva and Vieira, Bergkamp and Henry, and then, perhaps the most important of all, Kolo Touré and Sol Campbell. All these contributed with each other and created a squad that was as closely knit as it was technically and tactically brilliant. While a few of these duos are coveted, there remains one that is seldom spoken about.
This might be down to the regular underrating of defensive performances but it could also be down to the fact that Arsenal’s attack was scintillating enough to make us forget that a defence even existed. Kolo Touré and Sol Campbell did, though, form one of the best partnerships the Premier League has ever seen. Their individual abilities completed each other in fantastic ways. They were quite simply perfect for each other; a duo formed by a genius at the height of his intellectual power.
To fully comprehend Kolo Touré and Sol Campbell’s importance, it seems important to look at Arsenal’s tactics. The Invincibles were, first and foremost, extremely tactically flexible. Even though their tactical identity was clear, they could easily switch and shift as the games went on.
In the build up, the two wing-backs moved up to support the midfield, where Vieira tended to either drift wide or advance up the pitch. Gilberto Silva dropped back to pick up the ball and often found either Vieira or Dennis Bergkamp who would sneak between the opposing lines, thus creating a 4-2-3-1 of Arsenal’s regular 4-4-2. When defending, Arsenal wanted to win the back ball as quickly as possible and therefore implemented a determined press.
This was not gegenpressing, nor was it intense, but Arsenal would close down their opposition quickly and pressed with clever precision. The player closest to the possession holder would be closed down while their teammates dropped back to mark available passing options. This tended to result in the opposition attempting to bypass Arsenal’s press by playing a long ball and here the duo at centre-back would be made to feel right at home.
When a ball flew towards them, as they often would in their opponent’s increasing desperation, Campbell would often take the fight in the air while Touré swept the floor beneath him. And when an attempted pass was played through their legs Touré would regularly charge to halt the opposition early while Campbell dropped back to assume the role of sweeper. Yet, despite the intuition with which both defenders would play their natural roles, they remained supremely flexible.
Sol Campbell was the kind of signing most would have neglected to make nowadays and the feeling was hardly different back in the year he was signed, in 2001. Spurs to Arsenal? Unthinkable. But Campbell soon found himself in that blessed red shirt, careering across the beautiful Highbury turf in N5, his new home. “It was as if [Campbell] was indestructible, such a power spread from him,” Wenger said, when asked about the controversial signing. When Campbell later won the title in his first season in red, sending Spurs fans into an apoplectic frenzy, it appeared Wenger was quite right.
Campbell had a vast frame, was strong as an ox, and formed a good duo with Martin Keown in the title-winning season of 2001/02 when Arsenal teased the impending Invincibles season by remaining unbeaten in all their season’s away games, a feat which peaked when they secured the title at Old Trafford. He was an undeniable presence in the air and was quicker than most would have imagined, naturally completing Martin Keown’s slower but more experienced nous on the pitch. But the following season, even though both Sol and Arsenal performed well, it became clear that Martin Keown’s glory days were over. Arsenal would find Sol’s new partner playing in defensive midfield: Kolo Touré.
Signed from an academy club in the Ivory Coast the summer of 2002, Touré was initially signed as back-up to those deputising in defensive midfield and right back. The Ivorian had started his career as a striker and so, naturally, his attacking ability was best utilized in positions other than in the centre of defence. However, over the course of his maiden season, Touré began to evidence glimpses of defensive brilliance as he often combined his speed and technical abilities with addicting no-nonsense tackles that left the opponents stranded in their own chaos. With an eye on Keown’s place at the back, his follow-up season was destined to be his breakthrough.
Touré has since praised Keown, speaking of the positivity and encouragement brought to him by the veteran defender, as the Englishman often offered Kolo tips on how to improve his game, inspiring him greatly and easing Touré’s swift transition from midfield to centre back. Kolo already had the speed that was sorely needed for the role, the understanding and the vision. A little experience, to bolster his technical prowess, was all that was needed to make him the perfect match to Campbell in defence and these two were about to form the defensive spine of arguably the finest team Premier League has ever seen. The 2003/04 season, the undefeated league season, was to be the best of Kolo’s and Arsenal’s lives.
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All four of Arsenal’s defenders were rapid. Though lanky and stocky, Campbell remained extraordinarily fast both with and without the ball. To find a contemporary comparison, in his style of running, one needn’t look beyond Bayern Munich’s Niklas Süle. Never does it appear as though the defender standing before the approaching attacker will challenge them for pace but that is exactly what he possesses and so smugly disguises.
Even if their deceptive pace wasn’t enough to bail themselves out on occasion the other often would as Sol soon learned Kolo’s strengths and weaknesses and Kolo learned Sol’s. Another aspect of this duo and its strengths can be seen in Arsène Wenger’s management style, a style that has been lauded and criticized; both for its brilliance and for its narrow-mindedness. What is certain is that when Wenger gets it right, it can be breathtaking.
Wenger has on multiple occasions backed his penchant for encouraging a player’s strengths as opposed to dwelling on their weaknesses. As he looked not to bless his team of 2004 with well-rounded players but with experts, in every position, he improved Fredrik Ljungberg’s passing and technique, even though both his two main attributes, and he similarly improved Robert Pirès’ technical ability with the aim of helping him become one of the trickiest players to ever grace the green Highbury grass.
In this same vein, Wenger did likewise with Touré and Campbell. Instead of encouraging the production of two well-rounded and rather similar defenders, he recognized their strengths and weaknesses and insisted they play to their strengths. Kolo Touré became better with the ball, even more technically proficient, while Campbell further improved his strength and his aerial ability. A masterstroke from the French professor, their finest attributes soon leapt from good to great, turning them from highly-rated defenders to dreaded ones.
These were two players signed for wildly different reasons, who came from vastly different surroundings, and who played with exceedingly different personalities, strengths and weaknesses. But under Wenger’s tutelage, with the Invincibles by their side, the duo came to be seen as one of the most influential defensive pairings in Premier League’s history.
Two players who made the Arsenal Invincibles dream possible, by providing a stable foundation behind the most superlative of attacks; Touré and Campbell have since become club legends at Arsenal. Two players who will always be respected and cherished, loved and adored, studied and copied for years to come.
One of the more compelling love stories of Arsenal’s modern history — a defensive pairing that defied the odds to become significant in the club’s hunt for greatness — they also remain an enormous part of Wenger’s legacy. The French mastermind was, and still is, a bonafide expert at pairing the perfect players and the Campbell-Touré partnership is one of the best examples of this particular set of expertise. The perfect duo in the perfect team; will we ever see a duo quite like this in N5 again? You’d think not.
By Axel Falk @Falkfurt
Edited by Will Sharp @shillwarp