Despite the disappointment of losing out on the Premier League crown to Manchester United, Arsène Wenger only made one significant change to his squad for the 2003/04 campaign. In came feisty Borussia Dortmund stopper Jens Lehmann to replace the departing legend David Seaman, who left to join Manchester City on a free transfer.
The other major news of the summer was Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich’s takeover of Chelsea. From the outset, it was abundantly clear that the west London side were poised to become major players on the European football stage, and their ability to buy top players at will would impact massively on the Gunners over the forthcoming seasons. But the blue tidal wave was held at bay for one glorious season at least.
The previous year, Wenger had openly discussed the possibility of Arsenal going through a league campaign unbeaten, but despite the glut of attacking options at his disposal, an ‘invincible’ season appeared highly unlikely. The Gunners began brightly, swatting aside Everton, Middlesbrough, Aston Villa and Manchester City. They then drew two matches which they might so easily have been lost.
At home to Portsmouth, Robert Pires won a fortuitous penalty which Thierry Henry converted to secure the Gunners a 1-1 draw, and at Old Trafford, where Arsenal players looked on in despair as United were awarded a last-minute penalty which Ruud van Nistelrooy smashed against the crossbar. After the miss, the Dutchman was jostled by furious Gunners, including Martin Keown, Ray Parlour and Lauren, who were enraged at the way he had slumped to the turf to win the spot-kick in the first place. Although the Arsenal players were fined, the whole incident showed the team’s fighting spirit, and crucially, Arsenal escaped with a goalless draw.
The team picked up pace into the autumn, sometimes displaying a taste for the spectacular (Pires’s sensational winner at Liverpool for instance) and sometimes with a slice of luck, courtesy of Henry’s winner against Chelsea after Cudicini’s error.
Henry hit top form in February; his strikes against Aston Villa and Southampton a mixture of the sublime and the (practically) unbelievable. By the time the Gunners drew 1-1 at home with Manchester United, they appeared almost impregnable at the top of the table, although the team faced a test of their nerves in early February when United and Chelsea knocked Arsenal out of the FA Cup and Champions League respectively. Wayne Bridge’s late winner at Highbury was greeted with hysteria by their fans at the Clock End, but the Blues were powerless to stop the Gunners romping towards the title.
Henry calmed Arsenal nerves on Good Friday by scoring a hat-trick against Liverpool to give his team a 4-2 home win, despite trailing early on, and a week later he netted four times in Arsenal’s 5-0 destruction of relegation-bound Leeds. The team wrapped up the title at White Hart Lane, when goals from Pires and Vieira gave the Gunners the required draw they needed to secure Wenger’s third title at the helm.
Three weeks later, goals from Henry and Vieira led Arsenal to a 2-1 win over Leicester to confirm that Wenger’s “dream” had come true. Basking under the Highbury sun, fans and players were able to celebrate the fact that in 2003/2004, Arsenal were truly unbeatable.
With a nod to the future, Wenger added Dutch striker Robin van Persie to his squad at season’s end, and the Gunners began the following campaign in sensational style, racing ahead in the league before losing at Old Trafford in October under controversial circumstances having gone 49 league games unbeaten.
From that point on, Arsenal began to surrender the advantage not to traditional foe United, but Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea. The Gunners finished runners-up to the Blues at season’s end. Ultimately, two draws in league matches against Chelsea and two defeats to United cost Arsenal their title. There was better news in the FA Cup with a penalty shoot-out victory over Manchester United in the final. Without Henry and with their backs to the wall for most of the match, Wenger's side somehow kept it to 0-0, and skipper Vieira won the cup for Arsenal with a spot kick past Roy Carroll in the shoot-out.
It proved to be Vieira’s last kick in an Arsenal shirt, as he was transferred to Juventus in the close season. With Ashley Cole also linked strongly with a move to Chelsea, it was evident that not only was Wenger having to deal with a new set of economic rules in football, but that the unbeaten side of 2004 was in danger of being dismantled.
In the Club’s final season at Highbury, league form slipped, with Arsenal confirming Champions League qualification (and pipping Tottenham to fourth place) after a highly-emotional 4-2 win over Wigan in the final game at the ground which had been home since 1913. The team missed Vieira’s midfield presence, although his departure enabled Cesc Fabregas to flourish, and with Pires, Dennis Bergkamp, Sol Campbell and Cole also due to depart, the Club was poised to enter a new era.
Despite often patchy league form, Arsenal reached the Champions League Final in Paris, dispatching Real Madrid (Henry’s memorable away goal burns brightly in the memory), Juventus and Villarreal en route.
Although Arsenal led in the final courtesy of Campbell’s header, the game hinged on the early sending off of ‘keeper Jens Lehmann, which meant that Arsenal had to sacrifice Pires when Manuel Almunia came on as substitute goalkeeper. Two late Barcelona strikes broke Arsenal’s hearts, although at least Henry announced his intention to stay at the Club.
The team was changing rapidly; Emmanuel Adebayor, Theo Walcott, Tomas Rosicky and Abou Diaby were among the (newish) faces for Arsenal’s first season at Emirates Stadium in 2006/2007 and although there were some stellar moments in that campaign with a league double over Manchester United, Wenger’s side was never realistically in with a shout at the title.
Their best chance at glory came with a League Cup final appearance in Cardiff. Arsenal took the lead courtesy of Theo Walcott’s strike, before two Didier Drogba efforts proved enough for Chelsea to wrap up the match.
These were challenging times for Arsenal fans. Having been used to success in the early noughties, they were having to accept that playing second fiddle to the likes of Manchester United and Chelsea was becoming the new reality. Despite Henry bowing out that summer and signing for Barcelona, Wenger promised that his new crop of Gunners would come good over the next few seasons.
- Defensive legend Martin Keown bowed out of Highbury with a farewell game versus an England X1 in May 2004
- “It was the one moment I thought we might lose in the league,” admitted Sol Campbell, after he watched Pompey striker Yakubu bear down on Arsenal’s goal at Fratton Park late on with the scores tied up at 1-1. Fortunately, the Nigerian’s shot was saved
- Thierry Henry’s hat-trick against Wigan on the final day of the 2005/06 season, in the last game at Highbury, was described as “one of the best things I’ve ever seen in football” by Ian Wright