PL25: One defeat isn’t enough to separate Mourinho’s Chelsea from Arsenal’s Invincibles

Throughout its 25-year existence, Arsenal’s 49-game unbeaten run is the greatest achievement in Premier League history. But whether it makes them the most dominant side to ever grace the competition is a different debate altogether.

Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United side claimed eight titles during the first decade of the Premier League, including three consecutively between 1998 and 2001. And if we’re talking about the most dominant side over the course of a single season, although Arsenal’s Invincibles are the only team ever to complete a Premier League campaign undefeated, the Roman Abramovich-funded Chelsea outfit that stopped them from successfully defending the English crown the year after gave them as close a run for their money as it gets.

Of course, there is one obvious intrinsic difference between the two teams – Arsenal didn’t lose a single one of their 38 games whereas Chelsea did – a solitary 1-0 defeat at the hands of Manchester City in October. If the old adage of the only statistic that matters being the scoreline is applied to this debate, it undoubtedly works in the Gunners’ favour. They’re one ahead on the leaderboard.

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But losing just one game out of 38 is a stunning run, one that would be relentlessly lauded today had it not been overshadowed by Arsenal the campaign previous, and there are some caveats that arguably excuse Chelsea’s minute, one-game-one-goal difference.

First and foremost, whereas the Invincibles season was Arsene Wenger’s seventh in English football and goalkeeper Jens Lehman was the only member of the full-strength Invincibles starting XI to join them at the start of the campaign, the defeat to Manchester City was Jose Mourinho’s eleventh game in charge of Chelsea and just his ninth in English football, during only the fifth year of his management career.

Letting one game slip early on is understandable if not inevitable, especially considering nine members of Chelsea’s regular squad arrived that summer, not least including Petr Cech, Ricardo Carvalho, Tiago, Paulo Ferreira, Didier Drogba and Arjen Robben who, barring the latter, all made at least 25 top flight appearances en route to the title.

Whereas Wenger slowly evolved his side into what became the Invincibles over several seasons, Mourinho pitched up at Stamford Bridge and created his team practically overnight, using players who’d never set foot in English football before. That’s an incredible managerial achievement in itself, if not a wider footballing achievement in the same way as Arsenal’s unbeaten streak, and compared to his Chelsea counterpart, Wenger had a gigantic head start.

Furthermore, the fact Arsenal had just won the league undefeated shows the top end of the Premier League was more competitive during the Blues’ title win. When Arsenal claimed it, their biggest challenge was from Claudio Ranieri’s considerably weaker Blues side, whereas serial title winners Manchester United finished up with the fewest points (75) of Ferguson’s Premier League career.

They improved on that by two points when Chelsea dethroned the Gunners in the following season – suffering just five defeats compared to nine. Despite this, Chelsea’s title-winning margin was still one point greater than the Gunners’, twelve compared to eleven, whilst their overall points haul was five superior.

That’s not the only example of Chelsea displaying greater efficiency. They conceded a record-lowest 15 goals – less than one per two games – and kept a record-highest 25 clean sheets, yet still produced more wins than Arsenal – who actually drew twelve, the joint-second most of any title-winning side during a 38-game season – and accordingly claimed a record-setting 95 points. They may have lost one game, but the statistics suggest that over the remaining 37, Chelsea were more dominant than the Invincibles.

But of course, seasons are 38 games for a reason and to ignore the one that puts the gap between Arsenal and Chelsea would be a flawed analysis. Furthermore, it wasn’t simply the Invincibles’ undefeated run that made them such an incredible side, but also the manner in which they did it.

Compared to more recent Gunners teams, Arsenal’s in 2003/04 had a real backbone about it, and a particularly nasty one at that, but they also played the most aesthetic brand of attacking football in the division, players like Robert Pires, Dennis Bergkamp and Thierry Henry – not to mention ever-overlapping full-backs Lauren and Ashley Cole – producing a stunningly beautiful style of play.

There’s no question Mourinho’s Chelsea side were far more machine like, with far less thrills. Arsenal were involved in just three 1-0 wins as they took the title, whereas the Blues recorded a comparatively huge eleven.

Yet, Chelsea still claimed more wins by three goals or more and produced four goals or more on three more occasions. In fact, by the end of May, they’d only scored one goal less than the Invincibles managed the year previous – ironically, Arsene Wenger’s side actually outscored the Blues in 2004/05 by a huge margin of 15.

Statistics, however, can never tell the whole story and even if Chelsea didn’t lose 1-0 to Manchester City in November, Arsenal would always still have been the side who won the Premier League title undefeated first – Chelsea, in comparison, would’ve been an incredibly expensively-assembled imitation.

The Blues squad that lifted the title cost over £100million more, much of that difference being made in summer 2003 alone. Consequently, purists will argue Wenger’s side not only played the better football but also that he nurtured and developed it in the way a manager should over a sustained period of time. Buying success is part of the parcel of the Premier League nowadays, but back in 2004/05 Chelsea’s transfer policy was more than just frowned upon – it was one of the most divisive talking points in world football. There’s no question their imperious title win wouldn’t have been possible without the unprecedented investment Abramovich funded in the transfer market.

But opinions since then have changed dramatically and if we’re judging both teams by today’s standards, the cost of assembling them is very much a moot point – fans and critics only care how much was spent in the summer when the results struggle to justify it Wenger may well have gone about matters in the right way, but Abramovich and Mourinho’s methods weren’t exactly wrong either, albeit unheard of at the time.

Yet, the fact that’s being discussed as a key difference between the two sides shows how marginal the gap actually is – as much as the records themselves, we’re talking about style, idealism and means rather than substance and ends. And thus, this debate highlights the true beauty of football, especially in the Premier League; rather than stats, facts, wins, defeats and points on the board, it nearly always boils down to a matter of opinion.

So, who were the most dominant team in Premier League history? We’ll let you decide.