Arsenal’s unbeaten season in 2003/04 is probably the greatest triumph in Premier League history.
The word ‘unbeaten’ has been thrown about a lot this season. Many backed Chelsea to go the whole campaign without a loss, but their 2-1 defeat at the hands of Newcastle United ended their hopes of replicating Arsenal’s success.
Over the years, the Premier League has showcased a number of brilliant teams. The class of ’92 helping Manchester United win the treble in 1998-1999 and Carlo Ancelotti’s free-scoring Chelsea team of 2009-10 are just a couple of sides that really stand out as major Premier League successes. However, Arsene Wenger’s unbeaten side of 2003/04 must be recognised as the best Premier League side ever.
The fact that Wenger managed to produce a team that could go a 38-game season unbeaten is a master stroke. Even more impressive is that this unbeaten run continued until the 50th game, when Ruud van Nistelrooy and Wayne Rooney struck at Old Trafford to end the run, representing, in Wenger’s words, a domestic ‘shift in power.’
They say that every good team must have a very strong spine and Arsenal’s was the perfect example of that. In goal was the typically reliable German goalkeeper Jens Lehmann, who had Sol Campbell and Kolo Toure in front of him. The two centre backs enjoyed the best form of their careers at Arsenal, conceding only 26 goals across the entire Premier League season. In front of them was the brilliant Patrick Vieira. The Frenchman had everything. Pace, power and excellent technical ability.
Alongside Vieira was Gilberto Silva, another midfielder who possessed creativity as well as a strong physical presence. Arsenal fans must be crying out for a player in the mold of Vieira or Silva at the moment – a position on the pitch that has been a long standing problem in Wenger’s side for many years. The final piece in the jigsaw was the attacking talent of Dennis Bergkamp and Thierry Henry, one of the greatest strike forces in Premier League history.
Both strikers had amazing creative skills as well as brilliant finishing ability. The experience of Dennis Bergkamp worked well with the lightning pace of Thierry Henry, who was probably the best striker in the world at that particular moment in time. Henry and Bergkamp scored 46 goals between them on the 49 game unbeaten run, with Henry netting 39 of them. Clearly, the spine of the team had a lethal attacking threat to compliment its defensive solidarity.
Wenger got the simple things right with his team of 2003/04. But once he had a strong spine, he developed a mode of creativity and a style of football that even the most committed of Tottenham fans must recognise. Robert Pires was one of the finest talents the league has ever seen – his dribbling, pace and finishing shared similarities with Henry and both players developed a fantastic understanding with each other. It was a similar story on the opposite wing with Freddie Ljunberg, who was in the finest form of his career. He also had a goalscoring touch to his play, as well as offering pace on the wings to cause the opposition defence even more worry. The wingers didn’t just hug the touchline either.
They were inclined to cut inside and work centrally, something Wenger replicates in his teams today. Although Arsenal liked to work centrally, they added width to their play by including two ‘modern full-backs.’
In Ashley Cole and Lauren, Wenger had two defenders who could attack brilliantly but were also quick enough to recover and defend well too. The full back is now probably one of the most important positions on the pitch in a tactical sense. Wenger realised the potential of this position in his team of Invincibles. It added an extra attacking dimension to Arsenal’s game and showed that full backs were not just in the team to mark opposition wingers out of the game.
Although Arsenal fans crave the success Wenger brought to the club over a decade ago, they must also understand that this team was one of a kind. The unbeaten season came after Arsenal surrendered an eight point lead to Manchester United the season before. The character shown to then go the season unbeaten demonstrates exactly why the Arsenal team of the 2003/04 season was the best ever. Sir Alex Ferguson created a legacy of success over a prolonged period of time.
But the Invincibles achieved something that may not be matched for many seasons to come, making them the greatest side in Premier League history so far.