The greatest Premier League team ever? The north Londoners may be currently experiencing a title drought but their crowning achievement is unmatched. Whether it was the greatest Premier League season of all-time is up for debate, but Arsenal’s 2003-04 team will always stand apart from the rest as the ‘Invincibles’.
In the past 130 years, only two English teams have gone an entire league campaign unbeaten. Preston North End did it in 1888/89 & Arsenal in 2003/04. Even in an era where clubs strived to survive rather than thrive and just 22 league games were played, Preston still deserves plenty of praise. The Gunners managed to do it in a 38-game season and although it could be argued that the Premier League wasn’t as tough as it is now, Arsene Wenger’s men still had plenty of competition in the form of fierce rivals Manchester United and newly-rich Chelsea. As well as being one of only two teams in over a century to be invincible, Arsenal’s unbeaten achievement looks even better when you realize that the great Everton sides of the late 60s and mid-80s, the dominant Liverpool team of the 70s and early 80s, the treble-winning Manchester United of 1999, Jose Mourinho‘s impressive Chelsea sides and Manchester City’s record-breaking 100-point team couldn’t go a whole season unbeaten. Jurgen Klopp’s blood and thunder Liverpool side couldn’t do it either. Going an entire league campaign unbeaten is a task that is near impossible. The Arsenal side of 03/04 showed that it is possible and for that, they should be celebrated. Played 38, won 26, drew 12, lost 0. Arsenal’s Invincibles.
Arsenal usually lined up in a 4-4-2 formation, though it could also be labeled a 4-2-3-1 due to the way Dennis Bergkamp dropped into the ‘No.10’ position between midfield and attack. The team is mostly remembered for its attacking genius. Thierry Henry was at the peak of his powers and finished second in the Ballon d’Or voting in 2003 and fourth in 2004, and while Bergkamp was nearing the end of his career he had not lost his brilliant movement or vision. Left-winger Robert Pires provided a secondary source of goals, netting 14 in the league, while Patrick Vieira was both the heart and brain of the team from central midfield. On the right, Freddie Ljungberg was a ferocious box-to-box player who raised his game for the big occasion. What is not mentioned as often – particularly when comparing the Invincibles to today’s Arsenal team – was that the Gunners were also outstanding defensively, conceding just 26 goals. Sol Campbell and Kolo Toure were a brilliant mix of athleticism and intelligence at centre-back, Jens Lehmann brought international class in goal and Ashley Cole and Lauren were a dynamic full-back pairing. It was not just the quality of the personnel, however, but also the way they set up. Arsenal was more like Atletico Madrid than Barcelona, with both Gilberto Silva and Vieira tasked with shielding the defence and Cole and Lauren not allowing their desire to attack and overlap compromise their duties in their own half. Pires and Ljungberg did not hang around high up the field but were expected to track back and turn the ball over. That commitment to defending made Arsenal an even better team going forward than their talent alone would suggest because they were able to absorb pressure in their own half before launching lethal counter-attacks led by Henry.
Arsene Wenger was the manager of Arsenal during their ‘Invincibles’ season in 2003-04. After the victory over Leicester City that completed Arsenal’s unbeaten season, the Guardian writer Kevin Mitchell labelled Wenger the most astute manager in the Premier League, and “probably all of football at the moment”. Wenger had not only revolutionized Arsenal but the entire division, introducing new training, fitness and dieting regimes that forced managers across the country to follow suit and demand greater professionalism and discipline from their players. Gone were the days of victories being celebrated with fatty food and several pints of beer.
Thierry Henry can lay legitimate claim to being the greatest player of the Premier League era. He is not the only star in the conversation and some may argue that Alan Shearer and Ryan Giggs did it for longer, but only Cristiano Ronaldo has hit the heights of Arsenal’s No.14 at his peak.
The Frenchman has been voted the Gunners’ greatest ever, anyway, and netted a career-best 30 league goals during the unbeaten campaign. Quite simply, everything Henry did was fast; whether it be running, shooting or passing, it was as if he could do and see things twice as quickly as everyone else around him. As was the case with about half of Arsenal’s starting XI, Henry arrived at Arsenal with a much lesser profile than that which he left them with and had struggled on the left wing during a solitary season at Juventus. Wenger, who had coached him previously at Monaco, paid £11m to cut his stay in Italy short and made him a centre forward.
His partnership with Bergkamp was the perfect blend of speed, skill and intelligence. With the Dutchman’s tendency to drop into the hole and Henry’s fondness of pulling out on to the left flank, they were brilliant at finding space and left opposition centre-backs wondering whether to follow them and be dragged around the pitch or leave them unattended.
Continuing into the next season, a special gold version of the Premier League trophy was commissioned to commemorate Arsenal winning the title without a single defeat. In May 2018, this gold trophy was presented to Arsene Wenger as a gift from Arsenal Football Club at Wenger’s final home game as manager after 22 years. In addition to their two wins at the end of the 2002–03 FA Premier League, Arsenal beat Middlesbrough in their second league game of 2004–05 to equal Nottingham Forest’s record of 42 league matches unbeaten; the feat was eclipsed with a win at home to Blackburn Rovers. The run extended to six more matches for a total of 49 league games undefeated, before coming to an end with a controversial 2–0 defeat to Manchester United.