Arsenal’s Invincibles: How one defeat triggered the downfall of Wenger’s legends

Forty-nine league matches unbeaten is no mean feat. And despite redefining the levels of quality and consistency needed to claim a Premier League title in recent years, it’s a bar even Manchester City and Liverpool have yet to jump.

But rewind 15 years and Arsenal were achieving exactly that in a very different football landscape. In a time when notions of 100-point hauls being needed for league success were nothing short of ludicrous.

The Gunners were the English game’s pre-eminent force, blazing a trail that nobody had previously thought possible, at least not in the modern era. They were The Invincibles, winning the 2003/04 title by going the entire league season unbeaten. The first club to do so since Preston North End in 1889 when there were just 22 games to contend with.

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It was an incredible achievement, made even more notable by the manner Arsenal did it. They played with supreme swagger, belief and fluency. They moved the ball at speed and with purpose, tearing through teams. Sleek, futuristic and regularly scoring sublime goals, this Gunners vintage were far removed from the ‘boring, boring Arsenal’ tag that used to haunt them.

Ably supported by the varied talents of Dennis Bergkamp, Robert Pires and Freddie Ljungberg, Thierry Henry was at his devastating best. The Premier League’s leading man and star attraction, he scored 39 goals in all competitions and set up a further 11. He so often drifted past players with a contemptuous ease and finished calmly. Everyone knew the ball was destined for the bottom corner, but it would end up nestling there regardless.

For all the silken, skilful players they had in forward positions, Arsenal were anything but a soft touch. If Arsene Wenger’s later sides could be accused of lacking grit and resilience, that wasn’t the case in the early part of his reign. The Invincibles were unafraid of physical confrontation and could hold their own in a battle if the game didn’t go as planned.

Typically paired with Gilberto Silva, Patrick Vieira was the heartbeat of the team. A dominant midfield general, his influence was underpinned by a fierce competitive streak. Behind him, Sol Campbell and Kolo Touré provided the foundations for a sturdy defence that kept 15 clean sheets and conceded the fewest goals of anyone in the division during their record-breaking 2003-04 season.

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Six months on from wrapping up the title and Arsenal’s unbeaten run was still rolling. Having won eight of their first nine league games, they were top of the table and looking well set to retain their crown. As they headed to Old Trafford in late October, they hadn’t tasted defeat in 49 attempts and were keen to reach the half-century against their great rivals.

Arsenal and Manchester United had dominated the Premier League for the previous nine years and nobody else had got their hands on the title since Blackburn Rovers in 1995. Tension was high around the stadium as the two powerhouses came face to face again, with an increasingly fractious relationship between Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger turning up the heat even further.

The previous meeting at Old Trafford had been arguably the most hostile of all, featuring nine yellow cards and one red. It could have been more as several Arsenal players, most notably Martin Keown, aggressively accosted Ruud van Nistelrooy after his late penalty crashed off the crossbar. It was a narrow escape and as close as Wenger’s side came to losing all season.

More than a year on and they were back again to renew hostilities, extend their unbeaten run and pull further ahead of the chasing pack. Ahead of kick-off, they were two points clear of second-placed Chelsea, while a transitional Manchester United team were much further back in sixth, behind the likes of Bolton Wanderers and Middlesbrough.

Tormentor-in-chief Roy Keane was missing for the hosts, but there was still no shortage of antagonists on either side. There were some notable fouls in the early stages too. Ashley Cole clattered into Cristiano Ronaldo within a minute and the tone was set. Gary Neville chopped down José Antonio Reyes as he skipped past him and van Nistelrooy caught Cole’s shin with his studs as he went over the top of the ball. Tempers flared once more.

Despite some crude attempts to interrupt their rhythm, Arsenal were in control and created the best chances after surviving a scare when Vieira’s mistake let in Wayne Rooney, whose shot was blocked. Roy Carroll was twice out quickly to deny Dennis Bergkamp and Thierry Henry.

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Decisions made by referee Mike Riley were at the centre of some of the game’s key moments. In the first half, he chose not to punish Rio Ferdinand for a professional foul on Freddie Ljungberg, who was barged off the ball as he ran through on goal. Then in the second came an even more significant turning point. A penalty was controversially awarded when Wayne Rooney tumbled in the box under pressure from Sol Campbell, leaving the burly centre half incensed by his England teammate.

The replays showed no contact as Rooney sprawled over an outstretched leg. It made no difference to Manchester United or Ruud van Nistelrooy, who gained a measure of revenge for granting Arsenal a reprieve with his penalty miss the year before. He made no mistake this time, sending Jens Lehmann the wrong way to make it 1-0 with 17 minutes to go. Arsenal pushed for an equaliser but were caught on the break, Rooney sweeping home from close range to condemn them to defeat.

As the final whistle was blown on a tempestuous encounter – a classic of incident and intrigue rather than quality – the drama was just beginning. On the pitch, Arsenal players surrounded Riley and his fellow officials to rail against some unfavourable calls that had contributed to their downfall. Back in the tunnel, a pizza was infamously thrown at Ferguson by Cesc Fàbregas as a fight broke out between the two teams that was later dubbed the Battle of the Buffet.

Arsenal didn’t recover from the defeat. Although they were unfortunate to lose, the damage was done. They won just one of their next five league games, including another loss and surrendered top spot in the process. The Gunners were unable to reclaim it, finishing 12 points behind Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea, who prioritised efficiency over excitement to great success.

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Elite football was heading in a different, more pragmatic direction and Arsene Wenger didn’t heed the warning. Hidebound by idealism, he became even more wedded to his vision. Star players and strong characters would leave and not be adequately replaced. His team became purer but less potent. They were technically excellent yet mentally fragile, enduring nine years without a trophy and mounting just one credible title challenge in the rest of Wenger’s reign.

The strain of moving to a new stadium contributed to this fallow period. A lack of investment in players sent Arsenal into managed decline just as an influx of wealth enabled Chelsea, and then Manchester City, to overtake them. Wenger has moved on, but the situation remains the same. A victim of circumstance and brutal economic reality to a large extent, his reputation still suffered as a result.

Arsenal’s Invincibles: How one defeat triggered the downfall of Wenger’s legends
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