Arsenal Invincibles: How Wenger’s 2003-04 Gunners went a season without defeat

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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’.

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Chelsea have the record for the most points in a single campaign in the Premier League era, set the following season with 95, and Manchester United have also won the title with more than the 90 the Gunners collected on their unbeaten run. But neither, 13 years on, can say they have ever gone an entire season without losing a league game.

How did Arsenal do it? We’ve put together a complete guide to one of the most famous sides in English football history.


THE INVINCIBLES


GFX Arsenal Invincibles

Arsenal usually lined up in a 4-4-2 formation, though it could also be labelled 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.

Arsenal Invincibles

It was not just the quality of the personnel, however, but also the way they set up. Arsenal were 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.


THE MANAGER


Arsene Wenger Arsenal Invincibles

After the victory over Leicester City that completed Arsenal’s unbeaten season, the Guardian writer Kevin Mitchell labelled Arsene Wenger the most astute manager in the Premier League, and “probably all of football at the moment”.

Wenger had not only revolutionised 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.

The Frenchman’s record of identifying players no one had heard of and moulding them into full internationals was also unmatched at that time. Toure was signed for £150,000 from an Ivorian club and converted from midfield and full-back into a central defender, while Ljungberg cost £3 million from Halmstads in Sweden.

Perhaps the most flattering compliment you can pay Wenger is that he was Sir Alex Ferguson’s first true equal. The Arsenal boss has seen his star fall since, but in his first decade in north London he was a brilliant combination of tactical nous and ruthlessness, assembling teams that played scintillating football and were not intimidated by anyone.


THE STAR


Thierry Henry Arsenal Invincibles

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.

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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.


INVINCIBLES RESULTS


Home Score Away Scorers Date
Arsenal 2-1 Everton Campbell, Pires 16/08/03
Middlesbrough 0-4 Arsenal Henry, Gilberto, Wiltord (2) 24/08/03
Arsenal 2-0 Aston Villa Campbell, Henry 27/08/03
Manchester City 1-2 Arsenal Wiltord, Ljungberg 31/08/03
Arsenal 1-1 Portsmouth Henry 13/09/03
Manchester United 0-0 Arsenal None 21/09/03
Arsenal 3-2 Newcastle United Henry (2), Gilberto 26/09/03
Liverpool 1-2 Arsenal Hyypia (og), Pires 04/10/03
Arsenal 2-1 Chelsea Edu, Henry 18/10/03
Charlton Athletic 1-1 Arsenal Henry 26/10/03
Leeds United 1-4 Arsenal Henry (2), Pires, Gilberto 01/11/03
Arsenal 2-1 Tottenham Hotspur Pires, Ljungberg 08/11/03
Birmingham City 0-3 Arsenal Ljungberg, Bergkamp, Pires 22/11/03
Arsenal 0-0 Fulham None 30/11/03
Leicester City 1-1 Arsenal Gilberto 06/12/03
Arsenal 1-0 Blackburn Rovers Bergkamp 14/12/03
Bolton Wanderers 1-1 Arsenal Pires 20/12/03
Arsenal 3-0 Wolverhampton Wanderers Craddock (og), Henry (2) 26/12/03
Southampton 0-1 Arsenal Pires 29/12/03
Everton 1-1 Arsenal Kanu 07/01/04
Arsenal 4-1 Middlesbrough Henry, Queudrue (og), Pires, Ljungberg 10/01/04
Aston Villa 0-2 Arsenal Henry (2) 18/01/04
Arsenal 2-1 Manchester City Tarnat (og), Henry 01/02/04
Wolverhampton Wanderers 1-3 Arsenal Bergkamp, Henry, Toure 07/02/04
Arsenal 2-0 Southampton Henry (2) 10/02/04
Chelsea 1-2 Arsenal Vieira, Edu 21/02/04
Arsenal 2-1 Charlton Athletic Pires, Henry 28/02/04
Blackburn Rovers 0-2 Arsenal Henry, Pires 13/03/04
Arsenal 2-1 Bolton Wanderers Pires, Bergkamp 20/03/04
Arsenal 1-1 Manchester United Henry 28/03/04
Arsenal 4-2 Liverpool Henry (3), Pires 09/04/04
Newcastle United 0-0 Arsenal None 11/04/04
Arsenal 5-0 Leeds United Pires, Henry (4) 16/04/04
Tottenham Hotspur 2-2 Arsenal Vieira, Pires 25/04/04
Arsenal 0-0 Birmingham City None 01/05/04
Portsmouth 1-1 Arsenal Reyes 04/05/04
Fulham 0-1 Arsenal Reyes 09/05/04
Arsenal 2-1 Leicester City Henry, Vieira 15/05/04

INVINCIBLES SQUAD


No. Pos Player Apps Goals
1 GK Jens Lehmann 38 0
3 DF Ashley Cole 32 0
4 MF Patrick Vieira 29 3
5 DF Martin Keown 3 (7) 0
7 MF Robert Pires 33 (3) 14
8 MF Fredrik Ljungberg 27 (3) 4
9 FW Jose Antonio Reyes 7 (6) 2
10 FW Dennis Bergkamp 21 (7) 4
11 FW Sylvain Wiltord 8 (4) 3
12 DF Lauren 30 (2) 0
14 FW Thierry Henry 37 30
15 MF Ray Parlour 12 (10) 0
17 MF Edu 12 (17) 2
18 DF Pascal Cygan 10 (8) 0
19 MF Gilberto Silva 29 (3) 4
22 DF Gael Clichy 7 (5) 0
23 DF Sol Campbell 35 1
25 FW Nwankwo Kanu 3 (7) 1
28 DF Kolo Toure 36 (1) 1
30 FW Jeremie Aliadiere 3 (7) 0
39 MF David Bentley 1 0
45 DF Justin Hoyte (1) 0

Includes all players to make at least one Premier League appearance.


INVINCIBLES TABLE


Pos Team Pld W D L GF GA GD Pts
1 Arsenal 38 26 12 0 73 26 +47 90
2 Chelsea 38 24 7 7 67 30 +37 79
3 Manchester United 38 23 6 9 64 35 +29 75
4 Liverpool 38 16 12 10 55 37 +18 60
5 Newcastle United 38 13 17 8 52 40 +12 56
6 Aston Villa 38 15 11 12 48 44 +4 56
7 Charlton Athletic 38 14 11 13 51 51 0 53
8 Bolton Wanderers 38 14 11 13 48 56 -8 53
9 Fulham 38 14 10 14 52 46 +6 52
10 Birmingham City 38 12 14 12 43 48 -5 50
11 Middlesbrough 38 13 9 16 44 52 -8 48
12 Southampton 38 12 11 15 44 45 -1 47
13 Portsmouth 38 12 9 17 47 54 -7 45
14 Tottenham 38 13 6 19 47 57 -10 45
15 Blackburn Rovers 38 12 8 18 51 59 -8 44
16 Manchester City 38 9 14 15 55 54 +1 41
17 Everton 38 9 12 17 45 57 -12 39
18 Leicester City 38 6 15 17 48 65 -17 33
19 Leeds United 38 8 9 21 40 79 -39 33
20 Wolves 38 7 12 19 38 77 -39 33

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