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English Angle: Kolo Toure, The Last Invincible - How The Legends Left Arsenal

The holy grail of club management is finding the constituent components of sustained success. For many commentators, stability - both on the pitch and in the boardroom - is the core ingredient, and several have been quick to highlight the plight of the Gunners as evidence for that theory. Arsenal's unbeatable 'Invincible' team of the 2003-04 season will, despite failing to lift the Champions League, forever remain in football folklore for the manner in which they swept aside all domestic contenders in the Premier League without one single loss accrued.

Forget Preston North End in the 19th century... Such a feat was so rare that it was deemed virtually impossible, and was duly laughed off when Arsene Wenger first declared at the turn of the century that his team had the potential to achieve such stardom. This sensible and educated Frenchman had gone barmy, claimed the British press. The bespectacled-Alsatian turned out to be nothing short of a prophet.

However, an era of what could have been unrivalled dominance was drastically cut short as the Gunners began to be dismantled. Captain Patrick Vieira, the club's box-to-box driving force from midfield, was the first to disembark, and it was, ironically, his last kick of a football in the red-and-white strip of the N5 outfit that won the club their last trophy - the 2005 FA Cup, which was won after a penalty shoot-out against Manchester United.

Patrick Vieira - July 2005 (Juventus, Inter)

The initial transition for a Patrick Vieira-less Arsenal side was promising as the club turned to teenage prodigy Cesc Fabregas. The decision for Arsene Wenger to cash-in on the ageing French international and put his faith in the blossoming Spaniard was vindicated during a fateful Champions League tie when the leggy talismanic midfielder returned to Highbury with Juventus in 2006, only for Fabregas to exert his game onto Serie A's Old Lady and help run the central zones. The Gunners, despite Wenger's protestations that his squad are strong enough to challenge, are currently crying out for a player of Vieira's calibre. His imposing style, his leadership credentials, the break-up play and his drive were all pivotal to the team's success. He has since won four Scudetti in Italy (one of them with Juve has since been stripped away due to the Calciopoli scandal), in addition to two Supercoppa Italiana with Inter.


Talisman | Do Arsenal miss his crunching style?

Dennis Bergkamp - May 2006 (Retired)

The artistry of Arsenal's non-flying Dutchman knew no bounds as he picked passes from deep for fun while sitting pretty in 'the hole'. Thierry Henry has oft referred to Bergkamp, now 40, as the perfect partner for a forward as he knew where you were going before you'd even thought about making your run. His touch was exquisite, he possessed composure and coolness in front of goal, and his playmaking skills in the supplementary striker's role were constantly an inspiration. He showed relentless loyalty to the club's cause before eventually hanging up his cleats in 2006. No-one has, as of yet, come close to filling his boots...


Dutch Master | Dennis won 3 Prems & 4 Cups

Robert Pires - May 2006 (Villarreal)

The pencil-bearded Frenchman is the subject of debate for geek Gunners fans, who argue over whether the Pires of 2002 was greater than the Marc Overmars of 1998. The Dutchman often comes second best in such arguments, as Pires danced his way to fame for his goal-scoring record that would have made some strikers satisfied. He was brought off the field during his last game for Arsenal less than 20 minutes into the club's Champions League final against Barca, compensating for Lehmann's sending off. The player's performances for current club Villarreal are perhaps indicative of the fact that Wenger may have sold the 35-year-old prematurely.


Cavalier | Pires applauds his supporters in CL final

Sol Campbell
- August 2006 (Portsmouth)

A Kolo Toure and William Gallas partnership has drawn criticism in the past as the pair were seen to have a style too similar. Not since Martin Keown have the club had a defender who was willing to get his face ugly in order to win a mid-air ball, even if it meant crash collisions with opposition members. Sol Campbell, though, won the high balls, was a big-game player (see below - his goal in the Champions League final, 2006), and functioned well whether he was partnering Tony Adams, Keown or Toure. His decision to leave the club has since been justified as he has won more trophies with Portsmouth (the FA Cup of 2007) than he would have done had he remained with the Gunners. Fans will be hoping that new recruit Thomas Vermaelen is just as aerially dominant.


Strong Head | Sol was a big-game player

Ashley Cole - August 2006 (Chelsea)

Ashley Cole's Arsenal exit had been on the cards for a lengthy period of time, despite the fact that his cross-city switch was not concluded until moments before the closure of the 2006 summer transfer window. His reciprocated flirtations with Chelsea had been well-documented, and Jose Mourinho's declarations that he wasn't interested in Cole as he was "too small" for a full-back fooled no-one. Cole partnered Robert Pires on the left flank in irresistible fashion, overlapping with ease, and the pair shared an almost telepathic understanding. His detractors will like to claim otherwise, but he is now officially an FA Cup legend having scooped the coveted cup no less than five times. He recaptured his Arsenal form with Chelsea last year, and was awarded the honour of being the Blues fans' Player of the Season.


Sour Exit | Arsenal got out of Gael with Cole's replacement

Bisan Lauren
- January 2007 (Portsmouth)

The Cameroon international was rightly rendered the club's greatest right-back of the current decade by Goal.com's Graham Lister. His strength and combative style were integrated into a new role, as the 32-year-old, who is currently without a club, was initially deployed further up-field. He was a member of two-double winning Arsenal sides, and pocketed three FA Cup winners medals in total, but his last days as a member of Wenger's teams were ones of frustration for the player, as he was eventually replaced by Emmanuel Eboue and Justin Hoyte (now at Sunderland). The club's new right-back Bacary Sagna, is a consistent performer.


Built Like A Bison | Lauren was tough to attack

Thierry Henry - June 2007 (Barcelona)

After many seasons of shunning continental advances for his signature, Arsenal's biggest threat, and indeed the Premier League's most feared striker, joined Barcelona two years ago. His exit, despite being sorely lamented for many months, did not dent the club's play too much, as Emmanuel Adebayor picked up the goal-scoring mantle and bulged nets 30 times the following campaign. His affection for the club, still to do this day, will cement his hero-status for all those who visit the temple at Ashburton Grove, although some fans are now - with the club's questionable transfer policy - beginning to wonder if they are worshipping false idols. Henry came agonisingly close to helping Wenger's side to Champions League glory, but remedied that last season with Barca, triumphing 2-0 over Manchester United.


Record-Setter | Who, if anyone, can catch Henry?

Fredrik Ljungberg - July 2007 (West Ham United, Seattle Sounders)

Ljungberg's ability to penetrate the box from midfield and round off team goals has not been adequately replaced. By no means was he the same player as he approached his final season in Arsenal colours, but only pint-sized Russian recruit Andrey Arshavin in the club's current crop possesses the ability to strike as many goals from midfield as Ljungberg or Pires did during their respective pomps.


Cup Winner | Freddy also won the hearts of fans

Jens Lehmann - June 2008 (Stuttgart)

'Mad Jens' was known for his eccentricities and his comical rage, as well as his solid shot-stopping. There was some doubting whether Wenger, who had signed flop goalkeepers, such as Rami Shaaban, in the past could replace Arsenal and England legend David 'Safe Hands' Seaman. But Lehmann proved a hit. During the club's record-breaking Champions League run, in which ten games were completed without concession, there were fewer better than the former Borussia Dortmund glovesman. However, his woeful start to the 2007-08 season, when he made a couple of catastrophic errors, saw him relinquish the mitts to reserve 'keeper Manuel Almunia who, last season, seemed comfortable enough in goal to further convince Wenger that he needs no urgent acquisition to man the area between the sticks.


Crazy | Lehmann was as mad as he was effective

Gilberto Silva
- July 2008 (Panathinaikos)

Often unnoticed. Cruelly under-rated. Gilberto was almost like an invisible shield as he offered protection to his rearguard whilst the likes of Vieira strode forward. Once Vieira had vacated, he allowed Fabregas to make his name, as the Spaniard was afforded the freedom to playmake. Gilberto, a World Cup winner, is anti-Brazilian in the sense that he is not flashy, he has few tricks, but his effectiveness and influence in the first XI was only ever realised when he was out of the side. The allowance to let him leave in 2008, when the club had already lost Lassana Diarra in January, and Mathieu Flamini on a free, was, with hindsight, perplexing.
 

Unlikely Samba Star | Gilberto won plaudits

Kolo Toure - July 2009 (Manchester City)

The last of the regular 'Invincibles'. The only remaining players, some of whom barely featured during the 03-04 campaign, if at all, are Cesc Fabregas, Gael Clichy, Robin van Persie, Philippe Senderos and Emmanuel Eboue. There is therefore much mourning over the absolute squad overhaul that Arsenal have witnessed. Toure handed in a transfer request at the turn of the year over an apparent falling out with defensive partner William Gallas, and has now joined money-laden Manchester City at the prime age of 28. However, there are many who claim Toure has already enjoyed his greater days.


Making A Point | Toure is the last to leave

Alan Dawson, Goal.com

Out of all the "Invincibles", who have Arsenal missed the most? Goal.com invites readers to vote for the player that has left the biggest hole in the Gunners' armoury. Thierry Henry, arguably the club's finest player and record goal-scorer, was seen to liberate the team upon his initial exit. Patrick Vieira and Gilberto Silva, perhaps, could be utilised to add experience and a protective shield to an otherwise raw and youthful midfield. Or do the north London side miss Dennis Bergkamp's artistry the most? Maybe even the dominance of the well-built Sol Campbell? As always, Goal.com wants to know what you think!


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