Remembering Arsenal’s Invincibles

Remembering Arsenal's Invincibles
Arsenal's Martin Keown lets Manchester United's Ruud van Nistelrooy know how he feels after van Nistelrooy missed a penalty (Photo by Neal Simpson/EMPICS via Getty Images)

Only twice in the history of the English game has a team completed a full league season without losing a single game. The first club to accomplish the feat was Preston North End in 1888-1889, where they won 18 games and drew four out of a league season of 22 matches. It took over one hundred years for another team to match that achievement, but Arsenal FC did it in 2003-2004. Of course, by then the Premier League had been established, and the campaign had swelled to 38 games, just like today. The Gunners won 26 matches that season while recording 12 draws, and many believe that such an accomplishment will never again be seen. Just what do you think about when remembering Arsenal’s Invincibles?

Remembering Arsenal’s Invincibles

Preseason

Despite the fact the Emirates Stadium was not yet completed, the team was already feeling the financial effects. With a stadium move the long-term goal of the franchise, the transfer budget given to Arsene Wenger was lacking, to say the least.

During the summer transfer window, the only major addition to the team was keeper Jens Lehmann, who joined from Borussia Dortmund for a paltry (by today’s standards) $4 million. The German shot-stopper had to be brought in after the legendary David Seaman left for Manchester City via free agency.

Several young players were also brought in, although most wouldn’t make an impact for years to come. Cesc Fabregas moved on a free from Barcelona, Gael Clichy switched from Cannes and Johan Djourou joined from Etoile Carouge.

So, the task of reclaiming the Premiership from the Red Devils fell to the core group of players that Wenger had come to rely upon. While the formation did fluctuate somewhat, it generally looked like a 4-4-2, or a 4-4-1-1.

Kolo Toure (one of the few new faces) and Sol Campbell were the preferred center-back pairing, with Lauren and Ashley Cole being deployed at full-back. Patrick Viera and Gilberto Silva patrolled the central midfield spots, with Robert Pires and Freddie Ljungberg supporting the attack on the flanks.

Attack was probably the most potent of all. Dennis Bergkamp and Thierry Henry led the charge from the front, with the Dutchman playing either shoulder-to-shoulder with the Frenchman or in support of him.

Even without major additions to the first team, Arsenal were still contenders for the League title. Many pundits were split in their preseason predictions, with most picking either the Gunners or Manchester United for top spot.

Community Shield Showdown

Therefore, it was fitting for the traditional Community Shield to be contested by those rivals.

The Red Devils took the lead in the game before Henry leveled via a free kick. Neither club could find a winner in regulation, so a penalty shootout would decide the match.

In goal for United was a young American named Tim Howard, who proved his worth in the shootout. He stopped two Arsenal penalties to lift the trophy for his team.

No doubt Sir Alex’s men took confidence from the game; after all, no other club seemed to be on the same planet as the Red Devils. So, dispatching Arsenal made Manchester United the team to beat at the start of the 03-04 campaign.

There was no telling that this was to be the beginning of a year no fan will ever forget.

August-December

Arsenal began the campaign at home to Everton, where they got an early scare. Sol Campbell got sent off at Highbury that day after just 25 minutes after professionally fouling Thomas Graveson.

Despite being down a man, the Gunners then went 2-0 up with thirty minutes remaining. The Toffees did get a consolation strike, but at the end of the day they were bested by the ten-man Arsenal.

The next two games were far less dramatic; a 4-0 thrashing of Middlesborough and a 2-0 win over Aston Villa. With Campbell suspended for his red on opening day, Martin Keown partnered Kolo Toure in the heart of defense.

August wrapped up with a juicy fixture as the team paid a visit to an old friend, David Seaman, at his new home, Manchester City. The Citizens were fortunate to find themselves ahead at the end of the first half, as Lauren scored an own goal, but their luck ran out eventually.

Sylvain Wiltord managed to grab an equalizing goal before Freddie Ljungberg sealed the points for Arsenal. This time it was the visitors who got lucky, as Seaman made a rare error to set his former teammate in on goal.

An international break followed, breaking the good momentum Arsenal had built up in their first four league games. The team suffered because of this.

Upon resumption of league play, the team hosted newly-promoted Portsmouth and their manager, Harry Redknapp. Pompey got the lead in the first half through Terry Sheringham and seemed the better side in the first 45.

However, the hosts would not sit down, and Robert Pires earned a penalty kick for Arsenal which Thierry Henry duly converted. Neither team could break the deadlock in the second half, meaning the Gunners dropped their first points of the year.

Battle of Old Trafford

Their next league match was probably the most difficult on paper; away to Manchester United. The famous ‘Battle of Old Trafford‘.

The match lives on in the hearts and minds of both sets of fans as one of, if not the, defining game in the rivalry between the two foes.

Arsene Wenger set his team up in a relatively defensive system, dropping Pires and Wiltord in favor of the more physical Ray Parlour and Ljungberg. This combative starting XI allowed the Gunners to keep the dangerous Red Devils attack at bay.

The two most iconic moments from the day happened very late on, the first not until the 80th minute. Patrick Viera, after receiving a challenge from Ruud van Nistelrooy, tried to kick the Dutch striker from the ground, an act which caught the referee’s eye.

The French midfielder received his second yellow of the game, reducing his team to just ten men with ten minutes to go. Arsenal’s position was further complicated by a stoppage-time penalty, which van Nistelrooy stepped up to take.

With almost the last kick of the match, the United attacker struck the bar, sending the ball careening back into play. The final whistle sounded just moments later, meaning Arsenal had survived with a point.

After the game ended, several Gunners swarmed United players, perhaps the most iconic was Martin Keown who made his feeling known to Ruud van Nistelrooy.

The FA took action against the team and its players for that altercation. Arsenal was made to pay almost $250,000 for the incident, while Viera and Parlour were given one-match bans and Lauren was given a four-match ban.

Risky Business

The following fixture was much higher-scoring, although far less controversial. Arsenal beat Newcastle United by a slim 3-2 margin, with the winner coming from an Henry penalty kick.

Next up was a trip to Anfield, another tough test for Wenger’s men. The team faced further complications after going down after just 11 minutes.

The team got level through an own-goal from Sami Hyppia, who diverted the ball in after an Arsenal free-kick. Robert Pires then played the hero with a timely goal in the second half, meaning the Gunners kept their lead on top of the league table.

The tough schedule continued for Arsenal through October, with the next test taking the form of Chelsea, newly-purchased by Roman Abramovic, at Highbury.

Once again it was a goalkeeping error that gifted Arsenal the win, with Carlo Cudicini giving the ball away to Thierry Henry, who converted his 7th league goal up to that point.

October ended with a relatively dull draw with Charlton, 1-1, although the team once again finished the month on top of the league, although only one point clear of second-place Chelsea.

Spurs Scare

The once-mighty Leeds United then awaited Arsenal at Elland Road, a game in which the Gunners won 4-1. Another big game was then on-tap for Wenger’s men, as their fiercest rivals, Tottenham Hots****, visited Highbury.

The bad guys took the lead early on, capitalizing on a defensive mix-up, but their first win at Arsenal in over ten years would continue to elude them. The hosts fought their way back into the game, and scored twice late in the second half to claim all three points.

With another international break coming, the team once again sat on top of the league.

Birmingham City were the next club to contest Arsenal’s unbeaten streak, but the Gunners were too strong. The North Londoners took the points with a three-goal performance in which Gael Clichy made his debut for the club.

Arsenal then returned home for another London derby, this time hosting Fulham. The Cottagers held the Gunners to a draw and prevented them from scoring at home for the first time in 46 matches.

United Back on Top

The 0-0, combined with Chelsea’s 1-0 win over Manchester United, meant that November ended with Arsenal in second place.

Another frustrating draw awaited the team as they began December with a trip to Leicester City. Both Henry and Viera were ruled out for the game, but despite this fact the team grabbed a lead through Ljungberg.

Ashley Cole was later sent off for a rash, two-footed challenge, meaning he earned a three-match ban. To make matters worse, the Foxes scored in second half stoppage time to deny the visitors a win.

Arsenal did rally next time out, beating Blackburn by a slim 1-0 margin, and regaining the top spot in the Premier League. Entering the festive period, the team were in the race for the title, and hoped for some great results to retain first place into the New Year.

Firs up was Bolton Wanderers away, a match which yielded only one point for Arsenal. That meant it was three draws from the last four matches for Wenger, but his club was determined to get back to winning ways.

More Wanderers, this time from Wolverhampton, then met Arsenal at Highbury. Thierry Henry led his team to a 3-0 win, contributing a brace on the way to give the fans a great Boxing Day present.

The calendar year ended with the Gunners playing Southampton, a very low-scoring affair. The only goal came from Pires, with Henry notching the assist via a great through-ball.

When the clock tolled midnight on December 31st, Arsenal were in second place in the league, one point behind Man U and three above Chelsea. They were also the only team still unbeaten, causing many to wonder aloud if they were witnesses to history.

January-May

Just like the league season kicked off with the Gunners hosting the Toffees, the second half of the campaign began at Goodison Park, where Everton hosted Arsenal.

Kanu struck first for the North Londoners, and the team led the game for most of the 90, but an equalizer with just 15 minutes left meant that the Gunners had to settle for one point.

Despite that stumble, the team kept their cool. Next time out it was back to Highbury, where Boro were to pay them a visit.

Arsenal came out strong and never gave their opponents a chance, beating them 4-1. The win brought them back level with the Red Devils on top of the league, with identical points, goal difference and goals scored on the year.

The Gunners didn’t need to wait long to overtake their rivals on top of the Premiership, as they traveled to Birmingham and dispatched of Aston Villa 2-0. The win gave the team a two-point lead at the top.

Spanish Signing

Fans were elated to be on top of the league after 22 games and had even more reason to cheer soon. Arsene Wenger splashed the cash and brought in Jose Antonio Reyes from Sevilla for an initial $13.5 million (although eventually rising to $22 million).

The Spaniard made his debut in the team’s next fixture; home to Manchester City to start February. Reyes came on in the second half but didn’t contribute to Henry’s 25-yard stunner to win the points.

The next two games were fairly simple for Arsenal, beating Wolves and Southampton by two goals each. The two wins were fairly easy but very important.

The win over Wolves meant that the team had broken the franchise-record for games unbeaten from the start of the year (originally 24 set by George Graham). Meanwhile, Henry’s brace against the Saints were his 100th and 101st goals in the Premier League.

Battle at the Bridge

With the month of February began to drag on, the team faced a fellow title rival; Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. The Blues found the first goal after only 27 seconds, forcing the visitors to respond.

Respond they did; Dennis Bergkamp found Patrick Viera just 15 minutes later, and the Frenchman made no mistakes as he ripped the ball into the back of the net. The winning goal came just six minutes later when Edu found the empty net following a corner kick.

The team held on and increased their league lead to seven points.

The last game of the month was back at Highbury, against Charlton. The Gunners scored two goals within the opening four minutes, but let the lead slip, as the visitors made it 2-1.

By the final few minutes the team had to defend desperately, but they held on in the end, to further increase their lead to nine points above both United and Chelsea.

March kicked off with Arsenal in Blackburn, where they dispatched Rovers 2-0, despite being short on creativity. The win caused many to repeat the old idiom, ‘Champions win even when they play bad’.

Returning to Highbury, the team hosted Bolton Wanderers in another tight match. This time Pires and Bergkamp made it 2-0 in the first half before Bolton brought one back just before the half.

Arsenal managed to hang on, meaning they had won their ninth straight league match, and continued their dominance on top of the league.

Return of Fergie

Then came one of the final tests for the title hopefuls, as Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United traveled to Highbury. The game ended in a draw, just like the Battle of Old Trafford in September, but there was not quite as much controversy.

Thierry Henry gave Arsenal the lead with a terrific long-range goal, but his team couldn’t quite see the result out. Louis Saha danced around the Gunners’ defense to create space, and duly stroked the ball into the net.

Not only did this set a Premiership record for unbeaten games from the start of the season (30), it also caused the United boss to claim,

“They’ll go on to win the league now – I’m sure of that. They are playing with great determination … a very strong team, so should win the league really.”

Liverpool Visit

As April began, the stage was set for a dramatic end to the season, with Arsenal fans hopeful of regaining the title. Their first match was a really tough test, with Liverpool visiting north London.

The visitors went ahead early on and, although Henry leveled at 30 minutes, scored again just before the break to make fans sweat.

In typical fantastic Henry fashion, the Frenchman finished off a hat trick in the second half, and Pires added one, to make it 4-2 to the Arsenal, and another three points to them.

Just days later the team traveled to Newcastle and, while on short rest, only managed to take one point off the Toon Army. It was just the team’s second draw in the last 12 games.

Arsenal’s next game was against Leeds at home, and Henry again made scoring goals look easy. Robert Pires opened the scoring in the 6th minute, but his French striker took over from there, netting four goals in the game to bring Arsenal to within two points of regaining the Premiership.

Winning it at the Lane

The next game took place nine days later and, just like every fan would want, the team had the chance to clinch the title on their rival’s home ground; White Hart Lane.

Arsenal came out strong against the Hots****, with Viera and Pires scoring before the halftime whistle. The hosts did well to respond, and even equalized through a penalty kick, but couldn’t find the winning goal to fend off the ravenous Gunners.

For the second time in club history, Arsenal had won the League at White Hart Lane. The title had been won, but there was still work to be done.

Strong Finish

The Gunners had only played 34 games, so they needed to elude defeat for the entire month of May to book their place in the history books. First up was Birmingham City, followed by Portsmouth away.

Both games ended in draws, first goalless to Birmingham and then 1-1 at Pompey. Craven Cottage was the next destination for Arsenal, and Fulham almost escaped with a point from the Champions.

Edwin van der Sar tried to danced around Reyes, but got caught in possession, basically gifting the winner to the Spaniard.

The final day of the year saw Arsenal play at home against Leicester City, who had the last chance to derail the history books. The Foxes did themselves proud, and even took a lead into halftime.

However, Henry converted a penalty just after halftime, and club captain Patrick Viera netted the winner just 20 minutes later, causing mass-hysteria to erupt in north London.

Arsenal won 36 games, drew 12 and lost 0 en route to the 2003-2004 Premier League title, a feat only once seen in England, and not for more than a century.

Arsenal’s Invincible season is among the greatest ever sporting achievements. Such a feat may never occur again, at least for another hundred years.

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