Once upon a time, an Arsenal team went a full 38 game league season unbeaten.

We’re often told that the Invincibles were the ultimate team, a group of players who were so successful because they were just that – a group. There were some fantastic individuals in that set-up, but because so many of them were at such a high level, they were never seen as being dependent on Thierry Henry’s goals or Dennis Bergkamp’s assists.

(Photo by ODD ANDERSEN/AFP/Getty Images)
(Photo by ODD ANDERSEN/AFP/Getty Images)

Fast forward ten years, and Arsenal seem to lurch from being one ‘one man team’ to another.

Whether it was Henry in the closing years at Highbury, or Fabregas or van Persie through the austerity years, we haven’t been able to escape the accusation of dependence on a single player. Typically, we see this as an insult.

Truth is, when you have petrodollars and can afford to splash out hundreds of millions on quality players in a single transfer window, it’s pretty easy to poke fun at a self-sustaining club which has to grow its own talent and polish up the rough diamonds. When your funds are limitless, there really is no excuse for depending on any one player – that would be a serious case of squad mismanagement. But can the same be said for everyone else?

Is the label a bad thing?

It begs the question: is being labelled a one-man team actually a bad thing? Or in fact does it maximise the return you can get on your investment, albeit with a greater risk of a single injury exposing this key man dependency?

Let’s start by looking at goals scored.

In Arsenal’s Invincible season, Thierry Henry scored 30 league goals – 41% of the team’s total goals.

Henry again scored 40% of Arsenal’s goals in 2005-06, Adebayor scored 32% in 2007-08 and van Persie scored 41% in the 2011-12 season. So even in van Persie’s best season at Arsenal, when jokes were regularly made as to the weight of the Arsenal team on his shoulders, he still couldn’t eclipse Thierry Henry’s importance to the Invincibles team which was considered to be a team effort.

In every other season, the top scorer has contributed less than 30% of the team’s overall total.

So is this “one man team” negativity all in the eye of the beholder?

In the chart below, seasons where Arsenal finished 4th (red columns), the top scorer netted on average 24% of the team’s goals, compared to 32% contribution towards 1st, 2nd or 3rd placed finishes (white columns).

So it seems that Arsenal tend to perform better in seasons where they have a standout top scorer. Only in the 2009-10 season did Arsenal have a particularly low percentage of goals contributed by their top scorer – perhaps tellingly this was the only season where a midfielder topped the scoring charts (Fabregas with 15).

It was also a season where Fabregas broke his leg against Barcelona with the team only just behind Man Utd, but went on to fall away quite drastically.

In fact, Fabregas’ impact that season pretty much summarises the pitfalls of having such dependence on a single player – if you can keep them fit, they can lift the team to levels which are far beyond what you could achieve with a much more equitable balance of talent (albeit at a consistently lower level) but it is a gamble.

It requires substantial sacrifice to the injury gods to have a hope of pulling it off – something Arsenal have consistently failed at(!) – but it also requires the manager to balance the amount to be entrusted to that one man on a knife edge.

Arsenal Scorer Percents

For comparison, if we look at the clubs who have won the Premier League, we see that over the last few years, there is a fairly steady dependence on the top scorer, with the lower percentages coming from a season with a dominant midfielder (Lampard for Chelsea in 2004-05 and 2005-06) or from an injury hit player (Aguero in 2013-14).

The only other player to come close to Henry’s 41% was Cristiano Ronaldo, scoring 39% of Man Utd’s 80 goals in the 2007-08 season.

Champs Scorer Percents

So then, the evidence points to Arsenal’s comparatively higher dependence on a top scorer to deliver success historically.

Being a one-man team has actually benefited our league results.

But then we have to factor in that the three teams who have won the league since Arsenal’s last triumph have all had impressive financial backing, and corresponding numbers of top class players.

Historically Arsenal have been unable to afford and hold on to multiple top class players at once. This has meant Wenger has had to choose between gambling on a key player (and their fitness) for enough of a season to sustain a top four finish and ideally a cup run, versus having a deeper but lower quality squad which would be unlikely to have much of a chance of finishing in those coveted Champions League places.

It’s not a popular view at the moment, but getting this right balance and maintaining top level European football for the last eight years has been perhaps his biggest achievement.

The hard times are over

Arsenal are now in a space where we can afford to finance a number of quality players and theoretically reduce dependence on a single player. Certainly we haven’t missed Ozil and Walcott as much as we might have done, since Cazorla and Sanchez have been there to take in the slack. And now that the period of austerity is “officially” over, we can expect to see this extend out into other areas of the team.

So then, we’ve established that being a one man team is not necessarily a bad thing from an attacking point of view, but what about defensively?

Successful defence is notoriously more about the unit than its component players – it’s why top teams can sometimes be stifled by average but organised defences which are far greater than the sum of their parts and it’s why pundits are placing such emphasis on the importance of midfield and even forward protection.

One thing Arsenal have certainly improved is the teamwork involved when an opposition winger and full back are running at our corresponding winger and full back. In years gone by, the two Arsenal players might have tied themselves in knots and ended up leaving a fairly easy pass to get in behind them.

This season there has clearly been work on a handoff process where the full back takes whichever player runs furthest towards the Arsenal goal and hands them off to the winger if the other opposition player runs even further past. This way, there is no confusion over who should be marking who, even if there’s still work to do in blocking the eventual cross!


The importance of the team rather than the individual becomes even clearer if we look at some of the stats that Sky are so fond of on Monday Night Football. Of Arsenal’s defenders, every single one has a games-per-clean-sheet ratio of between 2.0 and 3.5, with the exception of Debuchy who has yet to keep a clean sheet.

Of more interest are the midfielder statistics, where Flamini averages 3.8 games per clean sheet, compared to 2.0 apiece for Coquelin and Arteta. Admittedly the only game of any challenge that Arteta started was Man Utd (H), but given that the games Coquelin has started are West Ham (A), Southampton (A), Stoke (H) and City (A), that’s quite a surprising difference. It’s hard to draw too many conclusions from the defence, since there has been such a lack of consistency and the numbers are pretty similar, but the defensive midfield comparisons start to show the real benefits of having a quality shielding player in front of the defence.

Overall though, the impact of a defensive player appears to be significantly less obvious than that of an attacker, with quality of opposition and consistency of unit also big considerations. Arsenal have tried in recent years to have versatility across the backline in order to maximise this consistency, and is partly why we have seen so many full backs converted into the central defensive positions.

It is truly difficult to see any one defender as the key piece in the puzzle.

So we have established that a ‘one man team’ can only really exist in the attacking half of the pitch (which partly removes the possibility of a one man team ever in fact existing anyway, since Man Utd have successfully proven that simply trying to outscore your opposition isn’t a sustainable strategy against opposition of any quality).

So the question is then, now that Arsenal have got a bit more cash, and indeed have spent a bit more cash*, are we still as dependent on a single player?

*Irrespective of whether you think we have spent enough, we have definitely spent more!

Carry me?
Alexis Sanchez
(Photo by read IAN KINGTON/AFP/Getty Images)

The media would have us believe that Alexis has carried Arsenal single-handedly this season so far.

Certainly his return of 18 goals and nine assists in his first season is mightily impressive. However, Santi ‘magic feet’ Cazorla’s six goals and seven assists should not be sniffed at, for example, nor the contributions of some players who’ve sat out games through injury – such as Aaron ‘cute puppy’ Ramsey’s six goals and four assists or Oli Giroud’s seven goals.

This season at least, Arsenal’s glamour signing has had support.

Compare and contrast with last season…


Mesut Ozil didn’t just break Arsenal’s transfer record, he smashed it into tiny, tiny pieces.

Although the media conveniently choose to ignore it, he also hit the ground running, with his debut at Sunderland a sign of what was to come. That day, Ozil notched his first assist, and watched Walcott spurn a hat-trick of superb chances set up by the German playmaker (disappointingly they were only to start together four more times).

In his home debut, a trio of assists reinforced his quality.

In his first 20 games before being struck down with injury, Ozil scored five and assisted 10 goals. In total over his first season, he went on to rack up an impressive seven goals and 14 assists, despite struggling with a niggle here and there.

And yet the media would have you believe that he is a £42m flop.

When Theo Walcott got injured, teams compressed the space and targeted Ozil as the only significant threat.

It piled the pressure on the German playmaker, expected to produce magic to single-handedly win games. Ozil is not an individual – he is the ultimate team player who extracts the most from the team by doing the simple things perfectly and throwing in the odd trick just to show that he can.

He was purchased for a team reliant on combinations, rather than to be a ‘one man team’ all on his own.

Looking back to today, Arsenal are now blessed with a forward line so overloaded with riches that it’s hard to see how they can all fit into the same team in the unlikely event they were all available at the same time.

It gives Wenger the options to selected players on form and suitability to the opposition. It also allows those players to play free from pressure to be individually brilliant, in the knowledge that they don’t need to try to force things as others around them are also capable of picking up some slack.

Needs must

So then, being a One Man Team has been so desperately needed in the austerity years to sustain top level football, and Arsène Wenger has been precariously balancing his squad with the right trade-off between the risk of injury to a key man with the reward of keeping a player of that quality fit.

Now that period is over and we finally have the quality and depth of squad to release that key man dependency. So while Alexis is important, and brilliant, and a joy to watch right now, he has joined the club at a point in time where the load is better spread. It allows us to get the best from him.

The real ‘One Man’

These days if you label Arsenal a one man team, the truth is that that one man has to be Arsène Wenger – he’s the only one who pulls the string and controls the whole. Increasingly all the players are of sufficient quality that they are interchangeable pieces who can rely on each other to deliver.

Ultimately that’s the sign of a team capable of winning a championship – if we look at Chel$ki, much as I hate to admit it, they look every inch a championship-winning team right now. And that is in no small part because if there’s no Terry, Ivanovic steps in. Ivanovic is injured? No problem, Azpilicueta is available. Azpilicueta gets sent off? Then call on Filipe Luis. It’s the same in attack – Fabregas pulls his hammy (it will happen!) then Oscar gets called up. Oscar is tired after flying to Brazil for a pointless friendly? Schurrle can provide the legs.


Graph thanks to @ObjectiveFooty
Man games lost to injury. Graph thanks to @ObjectiveFooty

So far Chel$ki haven’t had to test this too much – they’ve been extremely fortunate with injuries as we can see in the table above, and have been able to field a ridiculously consistent XI, but the depth is there if needed.

As I say, championship-winning options.

And while we’re not 100% there yet – there is still work to do on getting sufficient numbers and quality of defensive players – we’re not that far away from that mark of champions.

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