The Key Games of The Invincible’s Season
The 2003/04 season will live long in Arsenal fans’ memories, and will also forever be written about in the annals of English football history. It may be repeated, but the likelihood is that, if it ever is, it won’t be until most, if not all of those who were involved, watched or wrote about it are long gone. Preston North End are the only other team to achieve the same feat, and that was in 1888/89. Look how much the game has changed in the intervening time.
Even today, Wenger’s achievement seems like it was from a different era, a different universe even; fantasy football in a fantasy season, something Gunner fan and author David Wardale knows about only too well. There are several aspects of that season that have become forgotten, ignored even, and it is those we will look at here, especially some of the games which, if the footballing gods had got out of bed on the other side, could have made that season oh so different.
One thing about the 2003/04 season which indicates just how much the game has changed in recent years, is that the team Wenger sent out onto the pitch every week was basically a good old-fashioned 4-4-2. Yes, you could argue that the way Bergkamp played meant that the formation was way more fluid, becoming a 4-2-3-1 or 4-4-1-1 as and when needs dictated.
That’s an indication of just how good the side was. It was a title won not through a reliance on tactics, but through brilliant attacking play and stout defending. A statistic that often gets overlooked in everyone’s desperation to talk about the attacking aspects of that team is that they only conceded a miserly 26 goals in the league. The 4-4-2 formation today has been consigned to the history books, so it’s surprising and refreshing to remember that this was how the greatest season ever was won.
The games where it all could have slipped through the team’s grasp almost all came against opposition that, on paper at least, Arsenal, a team that was famous for sweeping everyone away, should have had little or no trouble overcoming. Portsmouth, Charlton, Leicester, Fulham, Bolton and Birmingham (twice) all managed to secure a draw. The home draw against Pompey came courtesy of an Henry penalty, Ashley Cole was red carded in the Leicester game, while at the game at Fratton Park Harry Redknapp’s side were leading Reyes’ second half equaliser.
The start of the season was also crucial. Arsenal won the first four games, despite not firing on all cylinders. They went into the last of those games at Man City a goal down at half time. There was dissent among the travelling support, not just at the way the team was playing, but their actual quality. That half time was one of the most crucial 15 minutes of the season. On such fine margins greatness is achieved.
Likewise with the home game against Tottenham in early November. Arsenal were trailing until Pires netted in the 69th minute, Freddie Ljungberg grabbing the winner ten minutes later. That game showed that there was a steel to Wenger’s side, not just French flair and finesse.
Back-to-back games against Manchester United and Liverpool in late March to early April were the ones that were causing fans who were already whispering the chance of going unbeaten to get nervous. Arsenal were behind twice against Liverpool before coming away 4 – 2 winners, and it was after that game that most people really started to believe it was a possibility.
There were difficulties to overcome, however, as fatigue from a long season took its toll, and three consecutive draws against Tottenham, Birmingham and Portsmouth produced more nerves than fans would have liked. By then the title was all but in the bag, and it was just a place in the history books that was up for grabs.
The final game was at already relegated Leicester, but this being football, and this being Arsenal, even that was far from straightforward. A Paul Dickov goal sent the Foxes in at half time with their noses in front, but a Henry penalty and Viera strike put the icing on a wonderful and momentous season – Premier League winners, and unbeaten with a record of 26 wins and 12 draws.