Wenger on inspiring his Invincibles to an unbeaten season

Tales from the Invincibles

ARSNE WENGER

Arsène Wenger became the first Arsenal manager ever to win three league titles when he guided the side to an unforgettable, unbeaten championship success in 2003/04.

He had already led us to the league and FA Cup double in 1997/98 – his first full season at the club – and in the process became the first-ever overseas manager to win the title.

He won another double in 2001/02, including a league season in which we remained unbeaten away from home. That planted the seed in the boss’s mind that his ultimate dream was achievable – winning the title without suffering a single loss.

When he revealed that ambition ahead of the 2002/03 season, he was derided in the media when we were beaten by Everton on matchday 10. But his prediction was merely a season early, and he was lauded far and wide at the end of the 2003/04 campaign, cementing himself into English football legend.

Wenger would go on to manage us for 22 years in all, achieving Champions League qualification 19 times, and winning a record seven FA Cups. He left as the most successful and longest-serving manager in our history, after taking charge of 1,235 games, at the end of 2017/18. Now FIFA’s Chief of Global Football Development, we caught up with him recently to reminisce on his crowning glory 20 years ago.

When you looked around the dressing room ahead of the 2003/04 season, what did you sense from your players?

First of all disappointment, because we could have won the league in 2003. In 2002 we had a good run away from home, we didn’t lose an away game that season, and that’s why I had asked them already to win the league unbeaten. I thought it could be done.

So at the start of 2003/04, I asked them why they thought we didn’t win the league last season in their opinion. They said I had put them under too much pressure by asking them not to lose a game. But I said again: “Look, I think you can do it, you just need to really want to do it.” That shows that sometimes you need to put the seed of an idea in the brain a year early, then be patient until it comes out. Then it's important to stick with it, and not back down.

On that day when they told me that, I could have said: “Yes, I agree, I’m sorry, let’s just try to win the league.” But I didn’t, I repeated it, because I knew they could do it. The difference between winning the league and winning it unbeaten is only mental – it’s not down to the potential of the side. I wanted to stick to what I believed, that we could do it, because for me the most difficult thing at the top level is consistency.

When you are a really top athlete, you want to do as well as you can. Also I thought why should you be able to beat Middlesbrough one week, then lose to West Ham the next week? Why should you accept losing a game?

“I thought why should you be able to beat Middlesbrough one week, then lose to West Ham the next week? Why should you accept losing a game?"

That summer your only major signing was Jens Lehmann in goal, though you also signed some young players including Gael Clichy. Were you confident in the strength of your squad, or had you tried to bring in others too?

No, I didn’t really try for anyone else. I wanted a goalkeeper because David Seaman had gone, and as always every year I took a young player of top, top potential to join the squad too. I wanted to bring them in to educate them, and to see if they have a chance to play.

Offensively, if you look overall at the options we had at that time – it was difficult to add much more! But what was one of the brands of that team was that it was a very cheap team. Hardly any players of that team had arrived as big signings, and that was the big characteristic of that squad.

People spoke a lot about the exceptional defence, but that defence – Ashley Cole, Lauren, Kolo and Sol Campbell – was very cheap. Even with Jens included, all together they cost less than £10 million.

Do you think that’s one of the reasons why the team spirit was so good, and that the individual ego was never put first?

I would agree with that, but I would also say that this team – they had an ego, a big ego, but they used it to improve themselves and to put their quality at the disposal of the team. They all wanted to contribute to the team.

Certainly the biggest brand of this team was that ingredient. They were all top-quality players, but also players who understood how necessary it was to put their qualities to use for the good and the service of the team. I would say that was definitely true for that side. The humility as well was incredible.

For me, the major qualities needed to achieve something like this are to put your individual talents to the service of the team, while also remaining humble after every game. That means whenever you win a big game, you come in to work again the next morning thinking, “OK, that has gone, we have to start it all again. What we did last night was good, but let’s continue.” You have to be ready not to demand any privileges, but turn up for training every day to try to improve again, and try to win the next game.

We faced Manchester United on matchday six. did you think it was early to go to Old Trafford? Would you have preferred those huge matches to be later in the season?

Yes, I thought it was a bit early to be playing that game, and ideally you would have it later. Looking back now that was certainly the game that had us most on the edge of invincibility! One kick could have completely decided a different fate for us. You could say we were lucky in that game, when we saw the penalty missed. You could also say we were unlucky to concede the penalty, but then maybe we were lucky to get away with it.

The stakes were always so high in those fixtures. Even without the red card and penalty, did you think there would have been a flashpoint anyway?

Yes, you expected it in those games! You always knew that something would happen when we played Manchester United, they were emotional games. It could have been before the game, during the game, or after the game, but always something like that would happen. So you had to prepare for that.

You want to focus just on the football. You knew that there would be distractions at some stage, the tensions would be high so you always tried at the start to get the players to focus on absolutely keeping control of their nerves. You remind them to be focused just on the game, and in the end it was not always the case! It is harder to do it when you are on the pitch.

The club and players were hit with fines and suspensions after that, how did you respond to that as manager? Did you punish the players?

No, I just tried to calm them down and speak to them. I remember Martin Keown coming to me the next day and saying: “Boss, the reaction is terrible for me.” I said: “Martin, don’t worry, you have done nothing wrong.” So I wasn’t angry with my players, not at all, because it was what I liked to see – the reaction of winners.

I wasn't angry with them, I was just trying to reassure them. First of all I was just happy that we did not lose the game, so my judgement of the players was a bit more comprehending than it should have been maybe, because we hadn’t lost. That was one of those situations when what I said publicly and in the media about it was different to what I was saying in the dressing room to my players – but that’s not the only time that happened!

Overall what I liked in that reaction that day, was the solidarity of the team. You could really feel it. Maybe I could smell, at that point, that this incident would be very important for the team for the rest of the season. They came all together against Ruud van Nistelrooy. Martin, Ray Parlour, Lauren and all the rest, so it was a real Arsenal spirit. We just spoke about team spirit, and maybe as well that reaction at Old Trafford contributed to the team spirit for the rest of the season.

“what I liked in that reaction that day, was the solidarity of the team. You could really feel it"

In January you signed Jose Antonio Reyes, did you see it as a risk to add somebody to the group at that stage?

In 2002 we had that ACL injury to Robert Pires, and I felt that if something happened like that again, we would need something on the left. Pires was born in 1973, so he was approaching 31 in that season, and you knew that in one or two years you would need to do something there. Dennis Bergkamp was older as well, so I was looking at the future too when I brought in Reyes.

I thought he could offer us something – either on the left and move Pires more central when Dennis wasn’t playing. Reyes could play up front too. He was branded as an exceptional talent by our scout, Francis Cagigao, who saw him play in Sevilla. I thought he could even play on the right as well, and I thought: “Yes, let’s add something more.” He was still a young boy, so it was for the future, as well as adding something that season.

Make sure you pick up your copy of the Arsenal v Everton programme for the second half of Arsène's interview, where he recalls the big decisions he had to make as the fixtures piled up, his regrets in the Champions League, what it meant to clinch the title at White Hart Lane, whether he would have sacrificed the unbeaten record for European glory and what similarities he sees with the current side.

Video

Learn more about our Invincibles with our A-Z

If you're new to our Invincibles, take a look back at some of their best moments from the 2003/04 season with our A-Z guide!

Our most memorable campaign ever came to its undefeated conclusion 20 years ago, and was packed with highlights that any Gooner lucky to witness at the time will never forget.

If you're a new supporter, were too young to see them in action or just want to relive the glory again, all the best goals, pieces of skill and incredible moments are included in this handy video, helping to get you up to speed on what our players achieved that no other team in the modern era can lay claim to.

Press play on the video above to enjoy the majesty of our unbeaten side.

 

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