26 – 12 – 0
The above is Arsenal’s record (wins – draws – defeats) for the 2003/04 Premier League season. The Gunners won the title, were presented with a golden version of the famous trophy for their unblemished efforts, and became known from that moment on as The Invincibles.
In the club’s long and storied history, the feats of that remarkable, record-breaking season stand out as the greatest impression made on English football by Arsenal. Arsene Wenger’s men did what many believed impossible, what most had scoffed at the Frenchman for suggesting could be done just a year before, they had gone throughout the entire season unbeaten.
Now, as the North London club embark upon their 15th campaign since that iconic triumph, they do so without its architect at the helm. Arsene Wenger finally brought his 22-year reign to an end this summer. Wenger left the Emirates Stadium with Arsenal no longer a Champions League club.
A brand new chapter in the history of this club has just been opened, but it hasn’t all been plain sailing. New boss Unai Emery’s first two competitive fixtures have both ended in defeat. The first was a clinical dispatching at the hands of Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City – a club that only suffered defeat twice upon their march to the title last season, playing the brand of scintillating, fast, attacking football that the Invincibles prided themselves upon.
Arsenal are no longer a club really within title contention. Their fight is for the top four. 15 years ago, Arsenal were arguably the best team in the world. They were on top of the world. Not any more.
The club’s gradual decline in this period is perhaps best typified by the comments made by the current Arsenal goalkeeper following last weekend’s defeat at the hands of Chelsea.
The one team that dared to dream, to do, the ‘impossible’ now claims that the same thing cannot be done.
Arsenal fans hearing Cech’s words must have felt a pang of yearning for something lost. Those who remember the 2003/04 season may also have been shocked to see the campaign so easily slip from the current club No. 1’s mind.
Fans don’t so easily forget such heady days. However, the Arsenal of then are not the Arsenal of now. The veteran shot-stopper’s comments confirm as much. This does though beg the question, how could this fall from grace have been allowed to take place?
The Invincibles squad was not kept together for long after their golden campaign. The summer immediately after the success, Nwankwo Kanu, Martin Keown, Giovanni van Bronckhorst, Ray Parlour and Sylvain Wiltord were all allowed to leave on free transfers.
Patrick Vieira, Ashley Cole, Pascal Cygan, Lauren, Robert Pires (free transfer), Sol Campbell (free transfer) and Dennis Bergkamp all also left within the next two years.
Had Wenger kept the heart of that side together for longer, rather than allowing most to leave as soon as they entered their 30s, he would not have had to combat the emergence of Chelsea, backed by Roman Abramovich’s millions, with such an inexperienced and youthful squad. Perhaps Arsenal could have remained on top a little longer with their old guard. Maybe it could all have been so different.
As it was, ‘project youth’ – featuring the likes of Cesc Fabregas, Robin van Persie, Alex Song, Theo Walcott, Manuel Almunia, About Diaby and David Bentley – ultimately failed. In doing so, Arsenal slowly lost touch with the top.
Now, the club’s own ‘keeper feels that to be invincible is impossible.