Invincibles This Week: The Battle of Old Trafford

Patrick Vieira clashes with Ruud van Nistelrooy in 2003

Each week, we'll reminisce about our incredible Invincible season 20 years on by looking back at what was going on at the club on and off the pitch, as well as remembering key news stories and the pop culture buzz at the time.

The previous week, we had drawn 1-1 with Portsmouth and suffered a 3-0 defeat in the Champions League against Inter Milan - hardly ideal preparation for a trip to Old Trafford…

Setting the scene

Sol Campbell is dejected during our 3-0 loss to Inter Milan in 2003

We travelled to Manchester United at a low ebb for our biggest game of the season so far, and arguably we’d face all campaign. Despite a poor week, we still sat second in the table, one point ahead of our arch-rivals. 

An opportunity lay in front of us to leapfrog Chelsea into top spot, and dent Sir Alex Ferguson’s champions’ confidence in the process as the title race began to heat up despite us only being in September.

Wenger’s words

Arsene Wenger

Having seen his side’s 100 per cent record end, Wenger was still satisfied with his team’s start to the campaign: 

“Despite the draw at the weekend there is no need for us to feel down at the moment,” he said. “We have got 13 points in five Premiership games which I'm very pleased with and we all would have taken that at the start of the season. Overall we are still in a good position.

"Last season I was always worried, even with that good start and big lead in the table. I was worried for one simple reason - we could not impose ourselves in the big games. We lost at Manchester United and drew at Liverpool after leading. However I would say at the moment, and I hope it continues, we are imposing ourselves more.”

From the dressing room

Sylvain Wiltord in training

Sylvain Wiltord had started the season with three goals in his opening five games, but felt there was more to come as he attempted to work out the secret to unlock more consistency. 

“I try to perform in every game - but it sometimes happens that I go three or four games, have the chances, and do not convert them,” he admitted. “I go through phases when I'm not as sharp. How can I explain that? I don't know.

“I love those little purple patches when you feel - even before the game - that, if you get a chance, you'll put it in the net. Physically, I’m fine, but maybe lacking a little bit of confidence, as I recently had some good chances that I would have buried if I'd been a bit more composed, or a bit more aggressive in front of goal.”

On the pitch

Sunday, September 21 2003

For a game that has gone down in Premier League history, the majority of it 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.

The match started well with both teams trying to exert their authority; United using Cristiano Ronaldo to good effect on the right and us patrolling the midfield with Patrick Vieira at the helm. As the game wore on, Ashley Cole began to get to grips with the young Portuguese winger and capped a fine first half performance with a rasping shot that beat Tim Howard but sadly not the American's post. 

Few more chances followed and it wasn't until the second-half that the game lived up to its billing. Dennis Bergkamp, playing deeper than usual in the midfield, allowed Thierry Henry to roam the final third on his own and the extra space almost profited when Freddie Ljungberg came close to breaking the deadlock. 

However, with 10 minutes to go, it all kicked off. Referee Steve Bennett ordered Vieira from the field of play for a second bookable offence after he kicked out following an incident wih Ruud van Nistelrooy, and started a 21-man scuffle.

Then in injury time, Martin Keown clashed with substitute striker Diego Forlan in the box and the referee had no hesitation in pointing to the penalty spot. Jens Lehmann did well to buzz along his goal-line and did enough to see van Nistelrooy blast his penalty against the crossbar, sparking wild celebrations from Keown and co, that spilled over following the full-time whistle as the teams confronted each other again. 

However, it was a point earned, a point proved and a place at the top of the league table at the end of a hard week. As Wenger put it himself post-match: "It was fantastic to get something out of the game. I wanted to see the character of the team. I have seen plenty today."

Line-up: Lehmann, Lauren, Toure, Keown, Cole, Ljungberg, Vieira, Gilberto, Parlour, Bergkamp (Edu 82), Henry. Subs not used: Stack, Cygan, Pires, Wiltord.

What the press were saying

Patrick Vieira is shown a red card against Manchester United in 2003

"The entente cordiale that seemed to be growing between the Premiership's foremost teams only last Friday went up in the closing minutes of a mostly stupefying dull game." - Daily Telegraph

"Arsenal went for this match with the chippiness of the underdog: that's how they summoned up the will." - The Times

"Gunners chief Wenger felt his team were out-muscled when they lost the Premiership clash here last season and warned he did not want a repeat. And United had taken up boxing training, so it was a potent cocktail." - The Sun

Also this week

Juan playing for Arsenal

Following the game, the FA charged Lauren, Keown, Cole, Lehmann, Ray Parlour and Vieira with a total of 11 counts of misconduct.

Brazilian left-back Juan returned from a loan spell at Millwall where he made four appearances at The Den, which would prove to be his last in English football.

Henry was announced as the winner of the PFA Fans’ Player of the Year award for the 2002/03 season, having already won the PFA Player of the Year accolade.

Image of the week

Martin Keown yells at Ruud van Nistelrooy

In a now-infamous photograph, Keown roars at van Nistelrooy after the Dutchman's penalty miss.

Years later, our legendary defender would reflect: "We felt that Van Nistelrooy played a huge part in that sending-off, and we felt cheated. So, yes, my behaviour was not acceptable from an Arsenal point of view, but you can't take that back.

"I rang my wife after the game, and she's usually very supportive, but she said 'I think you've gone and done it now'. It was the first time she'd ever said anything like that."

UK number ones

  • Top 40: Where Is the Love? - Black Eyed Peas
  • Album chart: Permission to Land - The Darkness (second week at number one)
  • Box office: Calendar Girls

In the news this week

David and Victoria Beckham in 2003

David and Victoria Beckham took the extraordinary step of issuing a statement to deny press speculation that their marriage was in trouble following the England captain’s summer move to Real Madrid.

Plans were announced for 122 million new credit and debit cards to be distributed across the UK as chip and PIN was rolled out nationwide after a successful trial in Northampton.

David Hempleman-Adams becomes the first person to cross the Atlantic Ocean in an open-air, wicker-basket hot air balloon.


Invincibles This Week: A thriller against the Toon

Thierry Henry celebrates scoring against Newcastle

Each week, we'll reminisce about our incredible Invincible season 20 years on by looking back at what was going on at the club on and off the pitch, as well as remembering key news stories and the pop culture buzz at the time.

Last week, we went to battle in more ways than one against Manchester United, and while we retained top spot in the table, a three-match winless run had caused some concern.

Setting the scene

Patrick Vieira clashes with Ruud van Nistelrooy in 2003

Following the events at Old Trafford, the eyes of the footballing world were fixed upon us, and the big games kept coming as title contenders Newcastle United headed to Highbury for a then-rare Friday night clash.

That would be to help facilitate our trip to Russia to tackle Lokomotiv Moscow in the Champions League the following Tuesday, as we aimed to put the opening game loss to Inter Milan behind us.

Wenger’s words

Arsene Wenger

Despite two massive matches on the horizon, all the talk surrounding us stemmed from the events in Manchester the previous week, which Wenger addressed in his programme notes. 

“Firstly, I think we didn't react how we should have done at the end of the match and we want to apologise for that, and to rectify it,” he wrote. “We know we should not have done what we did.

“Considering what happened on Sunday and compared to what I've seen happen on football pitches before, I think the response we got was out of proportion and we need to put it in perspective. But I do recognise that we do need to change our behaviour and keep control in every situation.

“We want the supporters to be proud of our club and the way we behave - that's very important to us, so l apologise to you all for our behaviour that was not right on Sunday.”

From the dressing room

Jens Lehmann

Jens Lehmann divulged the techniques that he felt helped Ruud van Nistelrooy miss the infamous penalty the week before. “In match situations, I have moved along the line on four occasions in Germany and now once in England, and I can tell you that on all five occasions, nobody has scored,” he said. “I have to say though that I didn't save any of them, they either went wide or hit the crossbar.”

He was also a bit bemused at our supporters cheering along to his warm-up routine before games as he went through a series of mid-air splits and roly-polys. 

“In Germany nobody noticed. I've done it for the last few years now. Before the start of the second half, I need to loosen up after being in the changing room. It's really funny that the fans like it, and I'm pleased they like me, but it's just part of my game and I don't want to put on too much of a show.”

On the pitch

September 26, 2003

Despite their championship credentials, Newcastle arrived in the bottom three and having played 48 hours previously but they still played their part in a match of great excitement. The visitors harried and hustled while we were stoic and strong in a match in which the excitement and tempo refused to be doused by the first-half torrential downpour.

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 goal to the delight of the Clock End. 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 but not a stop to the pace of the game as a thunderous Gilberto header put us back ahead. But Newcastle again responded with a wonderstrike four minutes later from Olivier Bernard which brought parity to proceedings.

With the match finely balanced at two apiece, we took it by the scruff of the neck. When Jermaine Jenas handled rather than headed a Robert Pires corner in the box with 10 minutes to go, Henry stepped up and cheekily chipped the resultant penalty into the back of Shay Given's net.

Although Freddie Ljungberg, Ashley Cole and Vieira picked up injuries it was a productive night for Wenger, who said post-match: “We dropped points against Portsmouth and then went to Manchester United, played well, but got a point there too. To have got three points from three games would have been a little bit too short."

Line-up: Lehmann, Lauren, Toure, Keown, Cole (Cygan 51), Ljungberg, Gilberto, Vieira (Edu 24), Parlour (Pires 61), Henry, Wiltord. Subs not used: Stack, Aliadiere.

What the press said

Gilberto Silva celebrates scoring against Newcastle

"Arsenal met the challenge with fortitude to open up a four-point gap at the top of the table. Smiles rather than snarls greeted the final whistle on a night when Arsenal showed the right sort of fight." - The Times
"The relief that flooded around Highbury after Thierry Henry took full toll of a defensive blunder for the second time to put Arsenal four points clear told its own story." - Daily Mirror
"Arsene Wenger hailed the unbelievable character of his Arsenal team as they charged four points clear at the top of the Premiership." - The Sun

Elsewhere this week

Ray Parlour wins a header against Lokomotiv Moscow

Following the game at Highbury, we jetted off to Moscow for our second Champions League group game, but without Vieira, Ljungberg, Dennis Bergkamp and Sol Campbell we couldn’t find the net as the game remained goalless.

With a full treatment room, youngsters David Bentley and Justin Hoyte were included on the bench for the game against Lokomotiv, but Wenger didn’t utilise any of his substitutes.

We were drawn against Rotherham United in the third round of the League Cup.

Image of the week

Freddie Ljungberg in pain during the win against Newcastle

Ljungberg writhes in pain during the game against Newcastle, but having made all of our subs, he was forced to limp on until the end, meaning we were virtually playing with 10 men. His injury was a blow as it would cause him to sit out the next few weeks, including further crunch matches against high-flying Liverpool and Chelsea.

UK number ones

  • Official Top 40: Where Is the Love? - Black Eyed Peas (second week at number one)
  • Album chart: Permission to Land - The Darkness (third week at number one)
  • Box office: The Italian Job

Elsewhere this week

Wimbledon playing in Milton Keynes

Wimbledon FC relocated to Milton Keynes, initially retaining their name and playing at the Milton Keynes Hockey Stadium while their new ground was being built.

Addicted to Love singer Robert Palmer died of a heart attack in Paris aged 54.

16 million viewers watched Dirty Den's return to BBC soap EastEnders, after seemingly being killed off 14 years previously.

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