There have been many pretenders, including Liverpool in the 9/20 season, but none have come close to Arsenal’s magnificent achievement of going undefeated.
As an Arsenal supporter, to see the Invincibles tag applied to any team who happens to go a few games unbeaten is irritating, having watched Arsenal undefeated for real. That’s not to say that those teams aren’t good, but I often feel that the magnitude of Arsenal’s 49 game unbeaten run is often forgotten; that the achievement itself is played down as something that any team is capable of doing, never mind the fact that it’s an incredibly rare feat to pull off in professional football, so rare in fact that agen bola almost seems like free money.
That may be where the hunger from the media to see a new Invincibles comes from. We were only ten games into the last Premier League season when Manchester City were being bigged up for an unbeaten season, just because they happen to be having an easy time of it. Pep Guardiola and his players, at least, understood there was little point in entertaining any ideas about going the whole year unbeaten.
While they were distancing themselves from the idea, I was reminded of something Arsene Wenger said back in 2002. Arsenal had gone a whole season without losing away from home, and had started the 02/03 campaign in fine form. The idea that Arsenal could go a whole season unbeaten was in its infancy, but nonetheless existed as early as then. Rather than shy away from the possibility, Wenger, emboldened as he was by his team’s quality, embraced it.
“It’s not impossible as A.C. Milan once did it but I can’t see why it’s so shocking to say it,” he said. “Do you think Manchester United, Liverpool or Chelsea don’t dream that as well? They’re exactly the same. They just don’t say it because they’re scared to look ridiculous, but nobody is ridiculous in this job as we know anything can happen.”
Wenger did end up looking ridiculous, at least temporarily. Arsenal lost to Everton in October, when a certain 16-year-old Wayne Rooney popped up with a last minute screamer to kill the run before it even got going. Arsenal would go on to lose the title to Manchester United that season, and the thought of a season undefeated was put aside.
The run of 49, though, had its origins in the tail end of that campaign. Robert Pires and Jermaine Pennant both scored hat-tricks as Arsenal swept aside Southampton 6-1 at Highbury, before closing the season with a 4-0 win at Sunderland, thanks to another hat-trick, this time from Freddie Ljungberg. If nothing else, the games were a reminder of the immense quality Arsenal had.
By now, you could probably name the Invincibles team off by heart. Jens Lehmann, Sol Campbell, Kolo Toure, Lauren, Ashley Cole, Patrick Vieira, Gilberto Silva, Freddie Ljungberg, Robert Pires, Dennis Bergkamp and Thierry Henry, lined-up in a 4-4-1-1 formation. Tellingly, only Jens Lehmann was a new addition going into the 2003/04 season. In typical Wenger fashion, Arsenal’s response to losing out on the title wasn’t to go out in the summer and spend millions on reinforcements, but to rely on what he already had at his disposal getting even better.
The season began with four straight wins over Everton, Middlesbrough, Aston Villa and Manchester City. There was a stumble at home to Portsmouth, as they held Arsenal to a 1-1 draw, before the first big test: a trip to the champions, Manchester United.
That game turned out to be one of the most infamous in Premier League history. The “Battle of Old Trafford”, as it became to be known, saw two teams who genuinely hated each other spend most of the game fouling one another (overall, 31 fouls were committed by both teams) before setting off a mass brawl after the final whistle. The flash point was the antics of United striker Ruud van Nistelrooy, who managed to get Patrick Vieira sent off by provoking him into a second yellow card. Hence, when the Dutchman stepped up and missed a late penalty, the Arsenal players wasted little time in confronting him.
In the aftermath, Arsenal were fined £175,000, and several players were banned. Lauren was suspended for four games, Martin Keown got three games while Vieira and Ray Parlour got one each. Meanwhile, the rather fortunate fact that van Nistelrooy, a top striker in his day, missed his penalty meant that Arsenal were still unbeaten in the league.
Having escaped Old Trafford with a point, and with several players suspended, Arsenal rallied to win their next three games against Newcastle, Liverpool and Chelsea. A draw at Charlton followed, before three more wins against Leeds, Tottenham, and Birmingham. By this point, Arsenal had played most of the would-be title contenders and teams most likely to finish in the European spaces, yet still hadn’t lost. The unbeaten run at this stage was 15 games long.
By January, Arsenal were still unbeaten. Ominously for the rest of the league, it was this point that the team entered its best spell of form. Between January 10th and March 20th, Arsenal won nine straight league games. An unbeaten season wasn’t the only possibility, as an unprecedented treble was also on the cards.
Regrettably, that prospect came crashing down in the space of a week. Arsenal were eliminated from the FA Cup by Manchester United before, days later, Chelsea upset them in the Champions League quarter-final. Having taken two significant punches, Arsenal were teetering going into the game against Liverpool at Highbury.
It was this game against Liverpool that gave everyone at Arsenal the belief that the unbeaten season was possible. Sami Hypia gave the visitors the lead after just five minutes, and Henry’s equaliser was cancelled out by a Michael Owen goal before half-time. The team pulled themselves together during the break, and produced a second-half comeback that would generate enough momentum to carry them through to the end of the season. Pires equalised four minutes into the second half. Henry then embarked on a solo run through the heart of the Liverpool defence and gave Arsenal the lead. He then completed his hat-trick in the 78th minute. Doubts about Arsenal’s character were well and truly quashed.
A week later, the Premier League title was within sight. Leeds visited Highbury and were blitzed by a rampant Henry, who scored four goals in what many consider to be his best performance in an Arsenal shirt. The team just needed one more point to secure the title with four games to spare, and the venue couldn’t have been more perfect.
Arsenal had won the league at White Hart Lane before, way back in 1971. Still, nothing will dilute the pleasure of winning the league in your rival’s backyard. Goals from Patrick Vieira and Robert Pires, scored in typically sweeping Arsenal style, gave us an early two goal lead. Spurs came back in the second half with goals from Jamie Redknapp and Robbie Keane to level the game at 2-2, but it didn’t matter. Arsenal were champions again.
Henry didn’t score that day, but he did have an amusing anecdote to share.
“We had orders from the police not to over celebrate if we win the title there (White Hart Lane),” he told Sky Sports.
“In all fairness everyone said ‘okay we understand,’ because it might goo to far. So you know the story, we went 2-0 up. Then they came back and Jens Lehmann did what Jens Lehmann did sometimes, but then they came back into the game and drew the game 2-2.
“They started to celebrate like they had won the league, so then I said ‘hang on a minute wait,’ they didn’t actually realise that we just needed a point to be champions. I don’t understand.
“So, then I said to Ashley Cole ‘when the referee blows the whistle, now we’re going to celebrate, because we wanted to be humble about it at the beginning of the game, but you’re going to celebrate a draw, really, at your place when we need a point to win the league.”
With the league title done and dusted, it would have been easy for the squad to switch off and coast through the final four games of the season. In fact, they very nearly did precisely that. The following game at home to Birmingham was a drab 0-0, before the record came under significant threat at Fratton Park against Portsmouth. With Arsenal trailing, they had to rely on young January signing Jose Antonio Reyes to get back into the game. Reyes’ arrival at the club proved significant, as he went on to score the winner against Fulham in the penultimate game of the season. There was just one game to go.
Leicester at home, on paper, looked a breeze. But of course, in typical dramatic style, the underdogs took the lead on 26 minutes through former Arsenal striker Paul Dickov. Arsenal threw everything at Leicester, but couldn’t find a way through in the first half. Things would change quickly in the second half. Ashley Cole latched onto a trademark Bergkamp pass and was bundled over by Frank Sinclair in the penalty area. Henry stepped up and planted the ball into the bottom corner, becoming the first Arsenal player to score 30 league goals for 56 years in the process. In the 66th minute, Vieira fittingly gave Arsenal the lead, running onto a Bergkamp through pass, rounding the keeper and passing into an empty net. The game ended. Arsenal’s record stood at won 26, drawn 12, lost 0.
It’s been argued since that day that the achievement wasn’t all that special, because the standard of opposition wasn’t as high as it is now. However, there’s one very simple reason why it was a very special and incredible achievement: no team had done it for over 100 years. There have too many great teams in that time to count, but none of them were able to do what Arsenal did.
Having reached such a significant landmark, it would have, again, been so easy for Arsenal to relax and get complacent. The summer came and went, and the team regrouped to target a new record: Nottingham Forest’s 42 game unbeaten run, the longest run without defeat in English football. Arsenal need to avoid defeat in just three more games.
A 4-1 win at Everton got the 2004/05 season off to a flier. Middlesbrough then visited Highbury for the first home game of the season. Henry’s deft lob over Mark Schwarzer gave Arsenal an expected lead, but then the unexpected happened: Arsenal looked like losing. Middlesbrough equalised before half-time. Then, in the second half, Jimmy-Floyd Hasselbaink gave the visitors the lead. Three minutes later, Franck Queudrue took advantage of some dubious Lehmann positioning to put Middlesbrough 3-1 ahead. It looked like Arsenal were going to slip up right at the end.
This, though, was a side of hardened winners possessing bundles of ability. Bergkamp got a goal back straight away. Ten minutes later, Pires grabbed the equalier. Resurgent, Bergkamp set-up Reyes to hammer Arsenal into the lead, before Henry sealed the result with a fifth. The following week, Arsenal broke Forest’s record in rather more relaxing fashion with a 3-0 win over Blackburn.
The run continued for six more games, reaching 49 games – the number that is proudly sung by Arsenal supporters on the road. The run came to end in highly controversial circumstances at Old Trafford, but nobody has come close to threatening it since. Billions of pounds have been spent on players, and top class managers have come and gone, yet still the run endures. And until a club manages to get close to matching it, nobody should ever underestimate what an achievement it was, nor how special it was to see Arsenal undefeated.