When you look at the final Premier League table for the 2003-04 season, one thing immediately grabs your attention. To see ‘0’ in a ‘losses’ column is the type of thing that, if you were unaware of the remarkable story of Arsene Wenger’s early 2000s Arsenal, you’d attribute to an editorial mistake. But that famous Gunners team defied their critics, every team in the Premier League and common sense itself to go unbeaten over the course of 38 games.
Along the way, they played some of the best football seen on these shores and have written themselves indelibly into English football’s folklore. In this piece, we’ll take an in-depth look at the players that made this spectacular achievement possible, how they functioned within Wenger’s revolutionary tactical system and some of the facts and figures behind their unbeatable triumph.
Arsenal Invincibles Table – FA Premier League 2003-04 Season
Until recently, the prospect of another team going unbeaten seemed a ludicrously far-fetched notion. But the duopoly of Manchester City and Liverpool in recent times has left pundits speculating as to whether history could repeat itself. Of course, this campaign, only Liverpool are yet to see defeat. Manchester City have already lost six times — twice more than they did in the entirety of last season. But Jurgen Klopp’s men, on current form, look like they have an outside chance of matching the invincibles. If they were to achieve this, they would almost certainly do it with a greater point tally.
In recent years, the Porto side featuring Jackson Martinez and James Rodriguez went unbeaten in the 2012-13 Primera Liga season. As did Brendan Rodger’s Celtic side in the 2016-17 Scottish Premier League. But in terms of other teams in the so-called ‘Big Five’ leagues (Premier League, Serie A, La Liga, Ligue 1, Bundesliga) Juventus are the only other team to do so in the past 25 years.
So who are the players that helped Arsenal pull-off this extraordinary accomplishment?
Arsenal Invincibles squad in full:
Goalkeepers: Craig Holloway, Jens Lehmann, Graham Stack, Stuart Taylor
Forwards: Jeremie Aliadiere, Dennis Bergkamp, Thierry Henry, Nwankwo Kanu, Quincy Owusu-Abeyie, Michal Papadopulos, José Antonio Reyes, Sylvian Wiltord
There are some extraordinary names on the list, I’m sure you’ll agree. Even some of the players who didn’t get much of a look-in back in the early 2000s would go on to have stellar careers in the game.
Cesc Fabregas – who didn’t play a game in the league throughout the entire season – would go on to become an Arsenal icon before he left for Barcelona in 2011. He was part of the magnificent Spanish side which won back-to-back-to-back major international tournaments (Euro 2008, World Cup 2010 and Euro 2012) and has been described as of one of the supreme talents of his generation.
Nwankwo Kanu is another familiar name who was far from a mainstay in the Arsenal starting 11 at that time. While he did make a handful of appearances from the bench, the Nigerian centre-forward found much more success in his earlier years with Arsenal. He scored 44 times in 119 Premier League appearances for the Gunners, but by the start of the 2003-04 season, he had been usurped upfront.
There was no shame in this, though. Arsenal boasted some of the best talent in Europe at the time and getting into their starting 11 was no mean feat.
So, how exactly did the Gunners line-up on a typical day at Highbury or elsewhere? Let’s take a look at their formation:
Arsenal Invincibles Starting 11
One German, two Englishmen, an Ivorian, four Frenchmen, a Dutchman, a Swede and a Brazilian. Not exactly a bad side, was it? Let’s take a more in-depth look at these players as individual footballers before examining how they were set up as a cohesive tactical unit.
Goalkeeper – Jens Lehmann
A newcomer to the side in the 03-04 season, Jens Lehmann came into the Arsenal side in place of David Seaman. He would go on to play for Arsenal for five seasons, making 199 appearances before leaving in favour of a return to his homeland in Germany with VfB Stuttgart. In the 2010-11 season, however, Lehmann briefly returned to London to make it a round 200 as he made a single appearance for the Gunners before hanging up his gloves.
Like many goalkeepers, he had a touch of chaos about him — the ultimate wind-up merchant, Lehmann was an excellent shot-stopper and commanded his area well. But at times he was erratic, a trait which later led to his ousting from Arsenal.
Right-Back – Lauren
The prosaically named Lauren started 32 of Arsenal’s 38 Premier League matches in the 2003-04 campaign. It was his fourth season with the club after signing from Mallorca at the turn of the century. Like Lehmann, Lauren replaced an Arsenal legend in the starting 11. He usurped Lee Dixon — who made over 600 appearances for Arsenal over the course of 15 seasons — in Arsene Wenger’s favoured roster. It was a bold decision, but one the manager would not regret.
Arguably Lauren’s most iconic moment in an Arsenal shirt came when he was one of the players to bellow in the face of Ruud Van Nistelrooy after the Manchester United forward missed a late penalty in their clash dubbed the ‘Battle of Old Trafford’. This miss would ultimately turn out to be pivotal in Arsenal remaining undefeated.
Centre-Back – Sol Campbell
When Sol Campbell signed for Arsenal from arch-rivals Tottenham Hotspur in 2001, he was absolutely lambasted by swathes of the British press. What they couldn’t possibly know was that it would be a decision that would turn out to be not only entirely justified, but one which would write him into the Arsenal history books as a club legend.
He played for Spurs for almost a decade winning one trophy, the Football League Cup in 1999. In five years with Arsenal, Campbell established himself as a permanent fixture in the England back-four, won two Premier League titles, two FA Cups and appeared in a Champions League final. In the 2003-04 campaign, Campbell played all but three of Arsenal’s 38 fixtures, scoring twice.
Centre-Back – Kolo Toure
Kolo Toure was one of the youngest players in the Arsenal cannon of senior pros at the time, but also one of the most trusted. The Ivorian was just 22 years old when he became a permanent fixture in the Invincibles back-line.
It was just his second-ever season as a professional footballer and already he was making history.
All-in-all, the young Ivory Coast international missed just one match in the entirety of the 2003-04 campaign and won endless praise for his exhilarating performances from centre-half. In the process, he forged a reputation for himself as an unswerving defender who was both technically proficient and an exciting ball-player. Toure would go on to make 353 Premier League appearances for Arsenal, Manchester City and Liverpool, winning the Premier League and FA Cup twice in this time.
Left-Back – Ashley Cole
Just one year Kolo Touré’s senior, Ashley Cole was another youthful player that injected some exuberance and vivacity into Arsenal’s otherwise experienced, cultured and world-wise starting 11.
Despite his young age, Cole had been part of the furniture at Highbury for several years before the immortal 2003-04 season. His breakout season had come a few years earlier in 2001-02 when he began to establish himself as the number 1 left-back in the squad.
Cole would later make a controversial move to Chelsea leading Arsenal fans to label him with the rather unflattering nickname ‘Cashley Hole’, nice. Money-grabber or not, there is no disputing Ashley Cole’s fundamental brilliance as a player, and he’s probably the best left-back the English game has ever seen.
Right-Midfield – Freddie Ljungberg
Long before his short stint in charge of the club, Freddie Ljungberg arrived at Arsenal as a relatively unknown young player when he signed from Halmstad in 1998 aged just 19. Over just shy of a decade, the Swede would play over two centuries of league appearances for Arsenal, scoring 46 goals and winning six trophies in what was a glistening golden era for the club.
In 2003-04, Ljungberg enjoyed one of his best seasons for the club, playing 30 times in the league and scoring four goals. Unfortunately, the enigmatic Scandinavian was unable to replicate the success of his playing days in the managerial dugout with Arsenal.
Centre-Midfield – Patrick Vieira
Patrick Vieira is the first name on this list that was already a truly global superstar by the time of the 2003-04 season. He already had two Premier League trophies, two FA Cups, a European Championship and a World Cup in his bursting trophy cabinet by the time he became arguably the most influential figure in the Invincibles line-up. A domineering presence in the heart of midfield, Vieira captained Arsenal to their historic triumph in his penultimate season with the club.
Aggressive in the tackle Vieira might have been used as a hatchet-man by many an English manager in years gone by, but by Arsene Wenger he was anything but. Vieira was used in a box-to-box role, cutting out enemy attacks and starting his own by driving with the ball or spraying a killer pass to a teammate. The Frenchman is a true Arsenal and Premier League legend.
Centre-Midfield – Gilberto Silva
Supporting Vieira in midfield was Gilberto Silva whose role was almost as crucial as the Frenchman’s. More defensively minded, Gilberto Silva covered for Vieira when he went on one of his trademark forays up the pitch and was a constant source of reliability for the back-four.
He signed for Arsenal in the 2002-03 season from Atletico Mineiro where he had been part of the side which won South America’s premier cup competition, the Copa Libertadores. Unusually for a young player coming from a non-European footballing background, he jumped immediately into the first team, making 35 Premier League appearances in his first season.
In 2003-04, he made 32 and scored four goals and became another one of Arsenal’s legends in the process.
Left-Midfield – Robert Pires
Robert Pires was one of the most flair-filled and emotionally evocative players in this incredible Arsenal 11. This is owing to his penchant for scoring stunning goals and his classy, artistic approach to the beautiful game. He played predominantly as a left-midfielder but could operate almost anywhere in midfield or in the forward line. Wenger put an enormous amount of faith in his countryman and talisman.
The 2003-04 season was Pires’ fourth as an Arsenal player and probably the best of his distinguished career in the sport. In total, Pires scored 62 goals in 189 Premier League appearances for Arsenal and 14 of them came in Arsenal’s undefeated title triumph.
Centre-Forward – Dennis Bergkamp
Nicknamed the non-flying Dutchman because of his crippling fear of travelling by air, Dennis Bergkamp is another name synonymous with Arsenal in their glorious heyday.
He scored four goals over the course of their Invincible season, bad going for a striker, one might think. But in reality, Bergkamp’s approach was so much more important than just scoring goals. He was a provider and a player that brought others into play, serving more as a ‘second striker’ than an auxiliary centre-forward rather than a traditional number 9.
The Dutchman finished his Arsenal career with 89 goals in 315 games scored across ten wondrous seasons with the Gunners. Bergkamp who by this time was 33, was the oldest player in Wenger’s favoured starting 11. He hung up his boots two seasons later having won ten trophies with the club. There is a statue outside the Emirates Stadium in his image.
Striker – Thierry Henry
Last but by no means least (quite the opposite, in fact) is the magisterial Thierry Henry. The Premier League’s top scorer in the 2003-04 campaign with 30 goals, the Frenchman enjoyed one his own personal best seasons in the best campaign Arsenal have ever had.
He is probably the single player whom the Arsenal faithful love the most, and with good reason too. In 258 Premier League games, he scored 175 goals and made 74 assists giving him an incredible goals/assists rate just shy of around 1.00.
Henry scored the equaliser on the decisive day of the Premier League title race in 2004 before Vieira went on to score the winner. Although he was used to scoring more aesthetically pleasing goals, it was a contribution which summed up his immeasurably important role in the Arsenal team: composure, class and capability.
That’s the historic 11. But how did Arsene Wenger, the architect of their success, make them gel into a spectacular unbeatable force? With tactical sophistication and giving them the perfect balance of freedom/expression and systemic discipline.
Arsene Wenger’s Tactics
Arsenal lined up in what might on paper look like a traditional 4-4-2, the formation used in England for decades and one which has only really fallen out of favour in the last 5-8 years. Hardly a revolutionary system, no? Well, it was a 4-4-2 with a twist.
Rather than playing with two out-and-out strikers Dennis Bergkamp, as previously mentioned, dropped in behind Thierry Henry and occupied something of a free-role. The kind that Lionel Messi has performed over the years for Barcelona. By doing this, Bergkamp ensured a certain amount of unpredictability about Arsenal — would they be playing with a 4-4-2, 4-5-1, 4-2-3-1 or a 4-4-1-1? This made it harder for an already star-struck opposition to prepare for the daunting clash with Arsene Wenger’s side.
The wide-midfielders, Ljungberg and Pires, played more like inside forwards when attacking, meaning Arsenal possessed devastating powers on the counter-attacks when clearing the ball to the flanks. Thierry Henry, who had begun his career as a left-winger, was naturally adept at drifting out to the left and could play as much as a wide-playmaker as he could a striker.
In addition to this, the cover provided by Gilberto Silva in midfield and Kolo Toure’s comfortability in pressurised situations meant that Patrick Vieira was allowed to shine when bursting forward with the ball, giving Arsenal a more direct route towards goal if tricky interplay on the wings and in the forward areas was not paying dividends. This meant that goalscoring chances came from all areas of the pitch for Arsenal.
That explains the attacking side, but the real reason Arsenal didn’t lose a single game in 2003-04 was the defence. The team didn’t employ the rock-and-roll press we see so many teams employ nowadays. Nor was the team set up in such a way as to desperately want to win the ball back when the opposition were in their half. Instead, they were happy to defend as two solid banks of four, not allowing tricky players to break their lines. The recovery speed of the full-backs and the box-to-box abilities of the two central midfielders meant that they were not susceptible to teams who were set up to hurt them in transition, either.
Arsenal Invincibles Results
1. Arsenal 6-1 Southampton 07-05-2003
2. Sunderland 0-4 Arsenal 11-05-2003
3. Arsenal 2-1 Everton 16-08-2003
4. Middlesborough 0-4 Arsenal 24-08-2003
5. Arsenal 2-0 Aston Villa 27-08-2003
6. Man City 1-2 Arsenal 31-08-2003
7. Arsenal 1-1 Portsmouth 13-09-2003
8. Man Utd 0-0 Arsenal 21-09-2003
9. Arsenal 3-2 Newcastle 26-09-2003
10. Liverpool 1-2 Arsenal 04-10-2003
11. Arsenal 2-1 Chelsea 18-10-2003
12. Charlton 1-1 Arsenal 26-10-2003
13. Leeds 1-4 Arsenal 01-11-2003
14. Arsenal 2-1 Tottenham 08-11-2003
15. Birmingham 0-3 Arsenal 22-11-2003
16. Arsenal 0-0 Fulham 30-11-2003
17. Leicester 1-1 Arsenal 06-12-2003
18. Arsenal 1-0 Blackburn 14-12-2003
19. Bolton 1-1 Arsenal 20-12-2003
20. Arsenal 3-0 Wolves 26-12-2003
21. Southampton 0-1 Arsenal 29-12-2003
22. Everton 1-1 Arsenal 07-01-2004
23. Arsenal 4-1 Middlesborough 10-01-2004
24. Aston Villa 0-2 Arsenal 18-01-2004
25. Arsenal 2-1 Man City 01-02-2004
26. Wolves 1-3 Arsenal 07-02-2004
27. Arsenal 2-0 Southampton 10-02-2004
28. Chelsea 1-2 Arsenal 21-02-2004
29. Arsenal 2-1 Charlton 28-02-2004
30. Blackburn 0-2 Arsenal 13-03-2004
31. Arsenal 2-1 Bolton 20-03-2004
32. Arsenal 1-1 Man Utd 28-03-2004
33. Arsenal 4-2 Liverpool 09-04-2004
34. Newcastle 0-0 Arsenal 11-04-2004
35. Arsenal 5-0 Leeds 16-04-2004
36. Tottenham 2-2 Arsenal 25-04-2004
37. Arsenal 0-0 Birmingham 01-05-2004
38. Portsmouth 1-1 Arsenal 04-05-2004
39. Fulham 0-1 Arsenal 09-05-2004
40. Arsenal 2-1 Leicester 15-05-2004
41. Everton 1-4 Arsenal 15-08-2004
42. Arsenal 5-3 Middlesborough 22-08-2004
43. Arsenal 3-0 Blackburn 25-08-2004
44. Norwich 1-4 Arsenal 28-08-2004
45. Fulham 0-3 Arsenal 11-09-2004
46. Arsenal 2-2 Bolton 18-09-2004
47. Man City 0-1 Arsenal 25-09-2004
48. Arsenal 4-0 Charlton 02-10-2004
49. Arsenal 3-1 Aston Villa 16-10-2004
When did Arsenal’s unbeaten run come to an end?
All good things pass and for Arsenal fans, the glory days of the Invincibles are a distant memory. Nowadays, the North London club are in a state of decline. After Arsene Wenger departed the club, Unai Emery failed to restore the club to its former glory. Freddie Ljungberg’s temporary spell in charge was also unsuccessful and former captain Mikel Arteta is now the head coach.
Ultimately, this decline started — slowly but surely on the day their 49-game unbeaten run in the league came to an end. That day was October 24th 2004 when Arsenal faced Manchester United at Old Trafford. They lost 2-0 thanks to 73rd minute Ruud Van Nistelrooy penalty (retribution for the ugly scenes which engulfed him in the same fixture in the previous campaign) and a last-minute Rooney killer. They haven’t won a Premier League title since.