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06th Mar 2020

The 100% definitive, completely unarguable Liverpool/Invincibles Combined XI

Kyle Picknell

Loathe as I am to dip my toes into the murky death-threats-on-Twitter waters of combined XIs, this is the one time it actually makes sense

We all remember those Arsenal Invincibles so vividly. The O2 emblazoned red and white blurs cruising through the flickering green sea on our TV sets, modern footballers before modern football: double-figure-goals-a-season wingers and warp speed, Swiss Army knife fullbacks. Henry and Bergkamp. Kolo and Sol. Bobby and Freddy. Stuff of dreams partnerships all over the field and scarcely improvable, one to eleven. Forgive me Jose Mourinho’s back-to-back Chelsea, but the Arsenal Invincibles are the team that everyone will remember more fondly from the early 2000s. The team that still makes the yearning, nostalgic, football heart flutter. The one with that utterly arbitrary but equally magnificent asterisk to their name: a full Premier League season undefeated.

Liverpool have drawn inevitable comparisons through their own majestic dominance this season. The table remains a baffling series of numbers. They didn’t manage to go undefeated like Arsenal, that is true, thanks in no small part to Dejan Lovren’s almost pathological fear of burly strikers from the Midlands named Troy. Even so, they will surely go down as the most dominant force to ever grace the league. A team so good the biggest – no, only – threat to their title procession is the global outbreak of an infectious disease. But what better way to take our minds of all that than by embracing the fury-inducing banality of combined XIs, reading my choices, and then replying with either the worst insult you can think of or the equally hurtful “no Bergkamp yano ??? lmaoooooo”?

Yeah. No Bergkamp. He started just 21 games during the Invincibles season, scored four goals, and was on the bench during Arsenal’s biggest game of the season – the Champions League quarter-final against Chelsea. Late 90s Dennis Bergkamp walks into this team. But the Invincibles one doesn’t get close. No, I do not care that he once turned Nikos Dabizas. I could turn Nikos Dabizas. Step outside and fight me for the right to turn Nikos Dabizas, you cowards.

Goalkeeper – Alisson

If you were a cat stuck in a tree – a scenario that only seems to happen in films and never in real life because, you know, they’re cats – and you were waiting to fall safely into the arms of lovely bearded Alisson, an ocean of calm and quiet poise, or Jens Lehmann, a big, angry, shouty German man with the kind of curly hair you can’t trust, who would you choose? The Liverpool goalkeeper, obviously, as he would catch you and take you home and stroke that bit behind your ear you love so much. You know, rather than dropping you and yelling ‘dumme Katze!’ over and over again.

I’ve already mentioned that quarter-final against Chelsea, aka Wayne Bridge’s finest hour, but let me remind you that Frank Lampard’s equalising goal came as a result of Lehmann completely flubbing a Claude Makelele (yep, Claude Makelele) long-range drive hit directly at him. Meanwhile, Alisson makes a crucial last-minute save against Napoli and wins the Champions League.

Lehmann was already losing his place to Manuel Almunia (yep, Manuel Almunia) following the Invincibles season. This one really wasn’t that close. God bless you, Alisson. And thanks for saving my cat.

Left-back – Ashley Cole

With all due respect to Andy Robertson, who is essentially Bixente Lizarazu if he swapped out bottled breastmilk for Irn Bru as a child, the battle for the left-back was similarly one-sided. Ashley Cole was the best left-back in the world for a decade. Let’s just repeat that until it stinks in. Ashley Cole was the best left-back in the world for a decade. Ashley Cole was the best left-back in the world for a decade. Ashley Cole was the best left-back in the world for a decade.

He’s also the best left-back the Premier League has ever seen. Glide up and down my left flank and make outrageous goal-line clearances until my bones fade to dust, please.

Centre-back – Sol Campbell

Big Sol Campbell and the Never-Ending Slide Tackle. By Roald Dahl. Whatever the reason is, Sol Campbell was a much better player than he’s really given credit for. He read the game superbly, ruled the skies, possessed exceptional recovery pace and was a bit better on the ball than you might remember. He had it all, more or less, bar the adoration of fans. Nevertheless, he strolls into our combined XI like he strolled into “Volgograd… Stadium… Russia” in his Instagram stories.

Oh no wait, yeah, it was probably the whole leaving Spurs to sign for Arsenal on a free transfer thing. That was probably why.

Centre-back – Virgil van Dijk

He’s Virgil van Dijk. If you need me to actually explain why Virgil van Dijk is in over Kolo Toure, admittedly a revelation during the Invincibles season and the outfield player who made the most league appearances other than Henry, then I’m not sure what you’re even doing here. Forget about football. Your mind works in mysterious ways. Drop some LSD, hit the studio (bring your sitar) and give us the next Revolver. Thank you.

Right-back – Lauren

Just kidding.

Actual Right-back – Trent

Trent. That’s it. Just Trent. Like LeBron and Steph and Giannis and Luka, our favourite NBA luminaries, and Lauren, actually, now I come to think of it, he’s breathing the most rarefied air. The first name moniker. A single word and everyone knows who you are talking about because, and let me just pause for effect here, the boy is special. The boy is really special.

Kevin De Bruyne at right-back, they call him. The one carrying Fantasy Football teams up and down the country and taking ingenious quick corner kicks to put it on a plate for Divock Origi in a Champions League semi-final. A ball-striking technique so pure he could probably curl a balloon into a waste-paper basket from the office across the street. Just an outrageous, outrageous footballer. And still only 21. Like I said: Trent. That’s it.

Centre-midfield – Patrick Vieira

The perfect footballer doesn’t exist. Oh no wait, sorry, he does. It was Patrick Vieira. A galloping, Vaporub-chested king. Take 13 minutes and 42 seconds out of your day to stan him like you mean it. To stan him like he deserves.

Centre-midfield – Jordan Henderson

I’m sorry, Gilberto Silva. Gilberto Silva, I am sorry. Can’t believe I’m sat here in 2020 washing my hands every four minutes and leaving out one of the classiest defensive midfielders I’ve ever seen for Jordan Henderson but this is it, I’m afraid. The brave new world. This is where we are now, and the lad who runs like he’s a Centaur is just really, really, really good I’m afraid. Want to know something? Yesterday I actually, spontaneously, said the words “Jordan Henderson has done more in a Liverpool shirt than Steven Gerrard.” At the time I wasn’t sure if I meant it. Gerrard is by far the better player. He carried his team for longer. He had all the iconic moments, too. The bullet-time half-volleys you’d re-enact with a float-away and some velcro Clarks in the playground the day after. And he had Istanbul. My God. That header.

But Henderson matched him with Madrid, albeit in a much better team, and is now going to do something Gerrard failed to do during 17 seasons at Anfield. He’ll win the league. Had Henderson not been sent off in the 3-2 win against Man City in April 2014, Gerrard might have been the first Liverpool captain to Simba the Premier League trophy. As it stands, though, that legacy will belong to Henderson and Henderson alone, as will “sum lad, mi gawjuz girl, n me.

Left attacking-midfield – Sadio Mane

Imagine marking Sadio Mane. He’s quicker than you. He’s more skilful than you. He’s strong, not easily shrugged off the ball. He can turn on a sixpence. Whatever that is. His movement is intelligent. And incessant. He’s exceptional in the air for his height. His finishing is deadly. Start blinking and he’ll have fired one into the top corner before you’ve even opened your eyes. What is there left to do? He’ll rip you to shreds and he’ll do it all with a big fucking smile on his face.

Essentially your preference out of Liverpool’s front three is like choosing a starter Pokemon. There is no wrong answer, but you can’t change who you are. You can put all three of them on the table all you like, Professor Oak. When push comes to shove I’m taking Charmander and Sadio Mane.

Number 10/wherever he damn well likes because he’s Bobby Pires and he’s in this team whether you like it or not – Bobby Pires

Look at this man. The most French person to ever exist. Robert Emmanuel Pires. You can picture how he runs, can’t you? That peculiar duckish waddle at speed, like someone coming out of the bathroom, trousers round their legs, searching desperately for more loo roll. You can picture how he wags his finger and grins after impudently chipping your goalkeeper. Again. How he flashes the ball from instep to instep in his quicksilver Pumas, how he wobbles those snakish hips and how he opens them up, too, caressing a shot into the far corner as elegantly as he sweeps his hair back behind his ears. Once again: just fucking look at him.

After initially struggling to adapt to the ‘proper English game’, as your da calls it, Pires scored nine goals and made 15 (fifteen!) assists as Arsenal won the league in 2001/02. He was also named FWA Player of the Year. The season after he scored a ludicrous 14 goals in 26 games from the left-wing. Next came the Invincibles and another 14 league goals. Then the same amount the year following, rinse and repeat. It might seem the norm now given the more advanced, unrestricted nature of wide players, unless they’re tucking in under Roy Hodgson (happy 72nd birthday, Roy!), but back then those numbers were extraordinary. Add to that his telepathic nudge-nudge-wink-wink chemistry with Henry (Bonjour Thierry! Let us, how do you say, mess up a penalty, for a joke? Who iz zis Danny Mills person?) and a goatee that simply cannot be matched and you’ll quickly realise he has to be in this team. Stop whinging about Bergkamp. Get over it.

I’m not mad at any arguments for Bobby Firmino in this position, however. I’m happy long as it’s someone called Bobby.

Right attacking-midfield – Mohamed Salah

The short answer? Miles better than Freddie Ljungberg ever was. Arguably better abs, too. Another equally short answer? 69 goals in 99 games in the league for Liverpool. That is two things and two things only: a) nice and b) unquestionable greatness. Even if he is Bulbasaur.

Striker – Thierry Henry

It’s Thierry Henry? It’s Thierry Henry. It’s… Thierry Henry!

The 100% Completely Unarguable Liverpool/Arsenal Invincibles Combined XI in full:

I’m glad that has been settled, once and for all, and you will all respect my judgement and move on with your lives without further comment.