The Invincibles: A season like no other

20 years ago, one of the most talented squads English football has ever seen immortalised itself in the game’s history. Their achievement in remaining unbeaten throughout a league campaign is unrivalled in the modern era, and two decades on, only grows in prestige.

The seeds for their success were sown at the start of 2002/03, when fresh off winning a second Double of his reign, Arsène Wenger suggested his players were capable of being unbeatable.

Many outsiders scoffed and swiftly poured scorn on Wenger when we fell to defeat 10 games in. But being the revolutionary that he was, our legendary manager was adamant the impossible was possible.

Ten games into 2003/04, we had claimed an infamous draw at Manchester United and beaten title rivals Newcastle United, Liverpool and Chelsea in consecutive matches. Momentum was snowballing, and gathered pace as autumn turned to winter.

February saw us smash our club record of 23 matches unbeaten from the start of a season, and another draw against Manchester United at Highbury saw us set a new English league record of 30, despite a crazy fixture pile-up that saw our dreams of a Treble slip away.

But spearheaded by the goals of the talismanic Thierry Henry, we kept our league form going with a thrilling win against Liverpool. Beaten in submission, our challengers faded away and we clinched the league title in the sweetest possible fashion - at the home of Tottenham Hotspur.

That put us within touching distance of a feat only Preston North End’s 1888/89 side could lay claim to - staying unbeaten all season, and Wenger’s prediction would come true as we ticked off the final four matches to record the first-ever 38-game undefeated campaign.

It had been inconceivable, but the feat was incredible. Forever, they will be Invincible.

Wenger: "At the start of 2003/04, the players said I had put them under too much pressure by asking them not to lose a game. But I said: 'I think you can do it, you just need to really want to do it.’ Sometimes you need to put the seed of an idea in the brain a year early, then be patient until it comes out."

A ROARING START

The campaign kicked off with us trying to wrestle the Premier League trophy back from Manchester United, but a new threat in Chelsea were also looming large, bankrolled by fresh investment from Roman Abramovich. Liverpool and Newcastle United had also been in contention in recent seasons, and we would have to face all four within the first couple of months.

GAME 1 • AUGUST 16, 2003

arsenal 2
everton 1

We began the new season in winning fashion in an incident-packed match. Despite seeing Sol Campbell red-carded in the 25th minute for a professional foul, we went ahead 10 minutes later when Thierry Henry converted a penalty.

Despite being at a numerical disadvantage, we continued to push forward in the second half and were rewarded when Robert Pires made it 2-0 despite a fine double save from our former keeper Richard Wright. 

But just as we seemed set to cruise home, Tomasz Radzinski thumped home a lifeline for Everton with six minutes left, but Li Tie’s late dismissal evened up the numbers and ensured an opening-day win.

Henry: "People forget it wasn’t an easy ride to open the season. I think you just want to start well – it doesn’t matter who scores."

GAME 2 • AUGUST 24, 2003

MIDDLESBROUGH 0
ARSENAL 4

We stormed to an emphatic victory at the Riverside Stadium to move top of the early Premier League table, and the game was all but over as a contest after 22 minutes. Thierry Henry put us ahead after just five when he latched onto a saved Freddie Ljungberg effort, and then Gilberto doubled the lead with his first league goal.

Sylvain Wiltord made it 3-0 and virtually game over on 22 minutes. Robert Pires found Henry on the left and he played an inch-perfect pass into Wiltord in the box who directed the ball home past Mark Schwarzer.

The fourth came 15 minutes into the second half. Sol Campbell's long pass from inside the centre circle picked out Ljungberg on the right side of the area. The Swede played an unselfish pass across the face of goal for Wiltord to hit high into the net to complete his brace.

Gilberto: "With players like Thierry, Robert Pires, Freddie, Dennis, Kanu, Wiltord – at some point you wanted to go to the playground as well!"

GAME 3 • AUGUST 27, 2003

ARSENAL 2
ASTON VILLA 0

We eventually broke down Villa with two goals in the second half. Thierry Henry came close to opening the scoring in the first half when he struck just wide of the post after receiving a magnificent ball from Kolo Toure, but it was goalless at the break.

Not long after returning to the pitch though, we made the breakthrough when Sol Campbell pounced upon a defensive error to score with a determined header 12 minutes after the restart.

It was Henry who guaranteed the points, rounding the keeper after Dennis Bergkamp charged down Olof Mellberg's clearance, ensuring we stayed top of the table ahead of Manchester United - the only other team with a 100 per cent record after three matches.

Henry: "People forget it wasn’t an easy ride to open the season. I think you just want to start well – it doesn’t matter who scores."

“It seemed to be a culmination of “local” Arsenal and “global” Arsenal. A squad derived from many parts of the world but moulded into a side representing Arsenal fans everywhere.”

- Clive Palmer, supporter

GAME 4 • AUGUST 31, 2003

MANCHESTER CITY 1
ARSENAL 2

We recovered from conceding an extraordinary own goal to make it four wins from four. City's opener was as incredible as it was unexpected when Lauren swept the ball past Jens Lehmann under pressure from Trevor Sinclair, but we collected ourselves and set about trying to score past recent City recruit David Seaman.

We equalised on 47 minutes when Sylvain Wiltord found space after some clever inter-play by Robert Pires and Ashley Cole, and finished calmly by nutmegging our former legendary shot-stopper.

Our team spirit was in full view as we began to realise that with Manchester Utd losing the same day a victory would see us begin September with a three-point advantage, and with 18 minutes left Freddie Ljungberg grabbed a chance presented to him by some slack defending by scoring his first of the season.

Keown: "It was Kolo Toure's first season as a central defender, and I remember playing with him against City. He was literally running around me, like he was trying to protect me!"

GAME 5 • SEPTEMBER 13, 2003

ARSENAL 1
PORTSMOUTH 1

Our winning start ended at the hands of a side labelled as prime candidates for relegation, but Portsmouth showed that they could play their way to safety as Teddy Sheringham netted a header in the 26th minute.

Pompey’s other frontman, Yakubu was a constant menace for our back four and could have put his team in front a few minutes previously, but buried a shot into the arms of Jens Lehmann.

We then came to life and with five minutes remaining in the first half, Robert Pires was sent galloping into the box only to be felled by the outstretched leg of Dejan Stefanovic. Thierry Henry tucked in a re-taken spot-kick to send the teams into the interval level, but neither could find a winner.

Vieira: "The squad was full of quality, but I’d say the number one quality was the mental strength to believe we would always get back into a game."

GAME 6 • SEPTEMBER 21, 2003

MANCHESTER UNITED 0
ARSENAL 0

For a game that has gone down in Premier League history, the majority of the 90 minutes was a drab affair with both teams failing to land a glove on each other before the powder keg ignited with 10 minutes to go.

Referee Steve Bennett ordered Patrick Vieira from the field of play for a second bookable offence after he kicked out following an incident with Ruud van Nistelrooy, sparking a 21-man scuffle.

Then in injury time, Martin Keown clashed with substitute striker Diego Forlan in the box and the referee pointed to the penalty spot, but van Nistelrooy blasted his effort against the crossbar, sparking wild celebrations that spilt over following the full-time whistle. However, it was a point earned, a point proved and a place at the top of the league table.

Pires: "When Ruud van Nistelrooy missed the penalty everybody was very happy – especially Martin Keown! He looked ready to kill." 

Lauren: "My main memory is I got a huge fine! I’m still annoyed about that!"

Vieira: "When I look back at it, and see the images – it all makes me smile!"

Lehmann: "The managers were face-to-face - I had never seen anything like that in a tunnel. It described perfectly the rivalry."

Keown: "Every other team seemed to crumble at Old Trafford, but we were never going to do that. We saw it as an opportunity to show we were better than them."

GAME 7 • SEPTEMBER 26, 2003

arsenal 3
NEWCASTLE UNITED 2

In a match of great excitement that refused to be doused by the first-half torrential downpour, we managed to edge past a Magpies side who were title contenders going into the campaign.

We took the lead thanks to an opportunist goal by Thierry Henry. The Frenchman collected a cross swung in on the right-hand side by Lauren which looked to be cut out by Titus Bramble, and stabbed it in the net. However, Patrick Vieira left the field due to an injury and Newcastle took immediate advantage through Laurent Robert who converted a Kieron Dyer cut-back to bring the teams level.

The second half brought a halt to the rain not the pace of the game as a thunderous Gilberto header put us back ahead. Newcastle again responded with a wonderstrike four minutes later from Olivier Bernard, but after Jermaine Jenas handled rather than headed a Robert Pires corner with 10 minutes to go, Henry stepped up and cheekily chipped the resultant penalty past Shay Given.

Lauren: "My seat in the dressing room was next to the window that looked out into the street. You could feel the crowd two or three hours before the game. They gave you everything you needed to perform."

GAME 8 • OCTOBER 4, 2003

LIVERPOOL 1
ARSENAL 2

We performed a smash-and-grab operation at Anfield to extend our unbeaten league run to eight games, thanks to a wonderful strike from Robert Pires midway through the second half.

Recovering from a Champions League trip to Moscow, we started the match in apprehensive fashion and allowed the hosts time and space, and Harry Kewell capitalised on our generosity by firing a volley past Jens Lehmann 14 minutes in. The Reds had further chances to put the game beyond reach but fortunately, the scoreline remained the same.

We went into the break level after equalising through a Sami Hyypia own goal. Then with 22 minutes remaining, Edu won possession outside the Liverpool penalty area and squared to Pires. The Frenchman shifted the ball across to a central position before letting fly with a right-footed shot from 25 yards which gave Jerzy Dudek no chance, curling into the top corner.

Pires: "At the time my private life was very difficult. That’s why I was so emotional when I scored, and you see it in the celebration. I needed that goal."

“There was a particular sense of privilege watching the team that year. Trying to find the right words to chronicle something historic was a fascination and a pressure.”

- Amy Lawrence, journalist and supporter

GAME 9 • OCTOBER 18, 2003

ARSENAL 2
CHELSEA 1

For the fourth game in a row we took on a title challenger, and this dramatic London derby moved us a point clear of Manchester United. Our start was as bright as the sunshine in which Highbury was bathed in. Thierry Henry nearly profited from Sylvain Wiltord's cutback in the second minute, and three minutes later, Edu saw a free-kick deflect off Ray Parlour to beat Carlo Cudicini.

The lead lasted only three minutes. A perceptive ball from Claude Makelele put Hernan Crespo in behind Lauren. The Argentinian cut back to get the ball onto his right foot and produced a curling shot that arced past Jens Lehmann into the top right-hand corner.

The winner arrived with 15 minutes left, courtesy of an error by Cudicini. Robert Pires squared a pass from the right into the middle of the penalty area, and the Italian keeper rushed out to beat Henry to the ball but, in stooping to collect, it slipped through his fingers and hit the knees of our striker before bobbling into the unguarded net.

Edu: "If you are asking me about my big memories from that season, it’s not a goal, game or specific moment – it’s the way we were together, and the spirit we had in the team."

tHE title fight

Two months in and it looked as though it would be a three-horse race for the silverware. We led the table after nine games, with Manchester United a point behind, with Chelsea also within touching distance despite their first defeat. All three would hit top spot before the turn of the year as they jockeyed for position and searched for form.

GAME 10 • OCTOBER 26, 2003

CHARLTON ATHLETIC 1
ARSENAL 1


Having been knocked down to second the day before, we reclaimed top spot in the Premier League thanks to a classic Thierry Henry free-kick at Charlton.

The Addicks made the early running but, for all their territorial advantage in the opening exchanges, they never called Jens Lehmann into action until on 27 minutes when Paolo di Canio chipped a spot-kick over the keeper after Lauren was harshly adjudged to have tripped Matt Holland.

Henry almost levelled with a fantastic 25-yard effort which crashed against the post but he found the target from a similar range five minutes before the interval, leaving Dean Kiely helpless with a trademark curler into the top corner, and earned a hard-fought point that kept our unbeaten record intact.

Aliadiere: "When we weren’t performing particularly well, we’d still find a way to grind out results. We just believed we wouldn’t be beaten."

GAME 11 • NOVEMBER 1, 2003

LEEDS UNITED 1
ARSENAL 4

In this win Arsène Wenger’s team were at their fluent, flowing best, allowing Leeds possession in areas of the pitch where they posed no threat before devastatingly catching them on the break, which is how Thierry Henry and Robert Pires put us 2-0 ahead after 16 minutes.

Henry added another before half-time when Ray Parlour sped up the right and found Dennis Bergkamp who prodded a shot goalwards which beat Paul Robinson, smacked off the base of the post and fell to Henry who fired in his second from a tight angle.

Five minutes after the break, Pires sent in a low cross which Sol Campbell mis-kicked, however the ball fell to Gilberto at the far post who calmly slotted his shot into the net to make it 4-0, with Alan Smith netting the merest of consolations.

Bergkamp: "That feeling you have when you know you are stronger than your opponent – that’s magical. We knew we were going to win, it was just a question of by how much."

GAME 12 • NOVEMBER 8, 2003

ARSENAL 2
TOTTENHAM HOTSPUR 1

Two goals in nine minutes late in the second half saw us come from behind to beat Spurs and take the derby day spoils, but just five minutes in Darren Anderton stole in to poke a shot past Jens Lehmann.

Tottenham's lead would last for over an hour, but just as patience was turning into frustration, our equaliser arrived. Ray Parlour's raking ball allowed Thierry Henry to beat Tottenham's offside trap, and a shot from the striker squirmed its way to Pires at the far post who slotted home.

We fancied a winner and in the 78th minute, Nwankwo Kanu found Freddie Ljungberg advancing down the left. He made it to the edge of the area and, with little on, fired goalwards and his shot hit Stephen Carr's outstretched foot, ballooned over Kasey Keller and fell into the net to claim victory.

Pires: "I don’t know why I scored a lot of goals against Spurs. It’s strange, but for me, Tottenham were always the perfect victim!"

GAME 13 • NOVEMBER 22, 2003

BIRMINGHAM CITY 0
ARSENAL 3

We set a new Premier League record of failing to lose any of our first 13 games of a season, and were in front after just four minutes. Dennis Bergkamp dispossessed Kenny Cunningham and found Thierry Henry on the edge of the box. He slipped a cute pass through to Freddie Ljungberg and the Swedish midfielder beat Maik Taylor with ease.

With 10 minutes to go we were bracing ourselves for an anxious finale, but we were spared that inconvenience by Bergkamp who did what we had regularly threatened to do - scoring on the break. Henry was the architect, receiving the ball inside his own half and releasing the captain, who raced in on goal and produced a sumptuous finish, lifting the ball calmly over Taylor.

Robert Pires then secured the three points with a simple strike after Bergkamp again turned provider to register the 500th league goal of Wenger’s tenure

Clichy: "When I look back at being part of that starting XI, I am grateful for how lucky I was to be on that teamsheet with probably eight or nine of the best players in their position."

“One game that always sticks in my mum’s and my memories was our win at Birmingham. It was Bergkamp at his majestic best. For me he is the greatest ever to wear the red and white.”

- Lois Langton, supporter

GAME 14 • NOVEMBER 30, 2003

ARSENAL 0
fulham 0

We slipped to second spot in the Premier League thanks to this goalless draw with Fulham at Highbury, as Chelsea took possession of the all-important top spot.

It would be easy to put this disappointing result down to complacency after beating Inter Milan 5-1 in the San Siro in midweek, but the primary reason was the excellence of the Cottagers' giant goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar.

The Netherlands international stopper made a string of fine saves in the first half as we dominated. Wenger's side continued to pick the Fulham lock after the break but arguably the clearest opportunity came to Steed Malbranque midway through the second period, but fortunately he nodded an inviting cross wide of Jens Lehmann's upright with the goal at his mercy.

Lehmann: "I was consistent and made saves when I had to. I can’t say there was one game where I made a lot of saves or saved us – because we weren’t outplayed that season!"

GAME 15 • DECEMBER 6, 2003

LEICESTER CITY 1
ARSENAL 1

Craig Hignett scored with virtually the last kick of the game to deny us victory at Leicester, after Gilberto had put us in front on the hour mark.

Dennis Bergkamp found space on the left flank and clipped over a cross to the far post where the Brazilian planted a firm header high into the net, and the pair combined again to force Ian Walker into an excellent save from a Gilberto volley.

The game turned in the 72nd minute when Ashley Cole was dismissed for a challenge on Ben Thatcher, and just when you thought Arsène Wenger's side had secured a win to go back to the top, in injury-time James Scowcroft nodded it down a long punt into the box and Hignett popped up to tap past Jens Lehmann.

Gilberto: "For me, preparation was everything. I knew when I got onto the field, I had to be up and ready to face any opponent. I had to be sharp."

GAME 16 • DECEMBER 14, 2003

arsenal 1
BLACKBURN ROVERS 0

We made hard work of beating an industrious Blackburn side, yet still came away with the three points that elevated us above Chelsea to the top of the Premier League.

Arsène Wenger’s team were lucky not to fall behind in the time it took some supporters to find their seats when Dwight Yorke prodded wide from just inside the box, and the travelling Lancastrians were made to rue that miss when on 11 minutes a run from Kolo Toure saw him cut the ball back to Dennis Bergkamp to slot home with characteristic panache.

The second half saw the visitors push forward, their attacks orchestrated by the Turkish midfielder Tugay, in search of an equaliser, however our defence, and Toure in particular, were imperious.

Toure: "Every week I gave my best so I could stay in the team. I always had the feeling that every single time I played, I had to prove to the manager I was able to do it."

GAME 17 • DECEMBER 20, 2003

BOLTON WANDERERS 1
ARSENAL 1

Substitute Henrik Pedersen crashed home a half-volley with seven minutes remaining to deny us victory at the Reebok Stadium.

Sam Allardyce's side held the upper hand in the first half and Jens Lehmann saved well to deny Kevin Nolan, but we scored while on top in the 57th minute. Freddie Ljungberg got away a shot which was saved by Jussi Jaaskelainen, but Robert Pires was on hand to convert the rebound.

Few could deny Bolton deserved their point who enjoyed long periods of pressure, and just when it seemed we had stolen a draw, Pascal Cygan's clearing header fell to Pedersen on the edge of the area and the Trotters striker drilled a shot into the top corner to earn a share of the spoils.

Parlour: "We drew 12 times because we managed to squeeze a draw when we should have lost. That was because of how strong the squad and the bench was."

GAME 18 • DECEMBER 26, 2003

ARSENAL 3
WOLVES 0

Arsène Wenger wanted three points for Christmas and his wish was granted as we beat Wolves in a game that emphasised the gulf in class between the top and bottom of the Premier League.

Scrooge-like defending was the order of the day but poor Jody Craddock was more Santa than Ebeneezer as he played a crucial role in our first two goals. 13 minutes in, Thierry Henry curled in a dangerous corner and Patrick Vieira's faint touch was helped over the line by the Wolves man.

Seven minutes later Vieira caught Craddock in possession and raced in on goal. The captain cut inside the hapless defender and set up Henry, who made no mistake from 10 yards. That was effectively game over but the home fans were treated to another Henry special when he jinked past his marker and slammed a shot into the corner in the final minute.

Pires: "At that time Thierry was the best striker in Europe."

“I remember telling my two sons at the time: ‘Enjoy every minute of these games because you may not see another season like this for quite a while.’”

- David Miles, former club secretary

GAME 19 • DECEMBER 29, 2003

SOUTHAMPTON 0
ARSENAL 1

We started 2004 one point behind leaders Manchester United after grinding out a hard-fought victory at Southampton. Robert Pires grabbed the all-important goal 10 minutes before the break from Thierry Henry's astute pass, but victory was no more than Arsène Wenger’s team deserved.

We were superior for long periods and, had Southampton keeper Antti Niemi not made a superb save from Freddie Ljungberg at the start of the second half, we would have cruised home.

Given that we had let in late equalisers at Leicester and Bolton in the last two away games, one hoped that we would hold on for the final 20 minutes. Henry did his best to put daylight between the two sides by driving across the edge of the area and thumping a shot wide, and Niemi then denied the French striker the goal he deserved with a low save nine minutes from the final whistle.

Cygan: "In that unbeaten season we had a feeling of strength. That translated into fear in the eyes of our opponents before we even entered the field."

GAME 20 • JANUARY 7, 2004

EVERTON 1
ARSENAL 1

We lost ground at the top of the Premier League after Everton snatched an equaliser 15 minutes from time at Goodison Park.

Nwankwo Kanu had put us ahead in the 29th minute, skipping past Nigel Martyn and tucking away a shot after Freddie Ljungberg's fine pass. After the first goal we pressed forward in search of that all-important second and Ljungberg went close as did Thierry Henry.

It failed to come though and Everton were rewarded late on for their persistence as they grabbed a share of the points. Arsenal loanee Francis Jeffers latched onto a miscue by Ashley Cole, and while Jens Lehmann saved the striker's drive, Tomasz Radzinski slid home the rebound and, in all honesty, it was difficult to begrudge the Toffees a draw.

Henry: "We were a collective. You can’t win anything without a Lauren, a Ray Parlour, an Ashley Cole, an Edu, Kanu, Sylvain – everyone."

ON A WINNING STREAK