Invincibles This Week: Boro and Villa seen off

Arsenal celebrate scoring against Middlesbrough 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 started our Premier League campaign with a 2-1 win against Everton at Highbury, but two more games quickly appeared on the horizon...

Setting the scene

Thierry Henry scores against Everton in 2003

Straight after beating Everton, the majority of our squad jetted off for midweek international duty before returning straight back to London Colney for two league matches in the space of three days.

First up would be a trip to Middlesbrough on Sunday, August 24, before we hosted Aston Villa the following Wednesday as the early season games came thick and fast.

Wenger’s words

Arsene Wenger in August 2003

With the transfer window nearing its completion, Arsene discussed the makeup of his squad and didn’t feel that any new faces were required as he was happy to continue moulding his youngsters.

“The transfer deadline is on August 31 but I don't think I'll be bringing anyone else in," he revealed. "I'm happy with the squad and I'm also in the position where I can bring young players forward. 

“Kolo had a fantastic pre-season, and the new boys Gael Clichy and Philippe Senderos are doing well. Jermaine Pennant also had an outstanding pre-season, perhaps a loan move to a Premiership club could benefit him.”

From the dressing room

Kolo Toure in 2003

Having begun his Arsenal career at right-back or in midfield, Kolo Toure was named alongside Sol Campbell in the heart of our defence to kick off the campaign. It would prove to be a masterstroke, and the 22-year-old was excited by the switch of position.

“I think this is an important year for me," he told the official club magazine. "I'm happy to be playing in the middle of the defence because I feel it's my best position. I feel it suits me more and, most importantly I think I can do more for the team in that position.

"Everybody who knows me in the Ivory Coast knows me for playing as a central defender. Whenever I went back home last season people would ask 'Kolo, why are you playing in midfield?' I just said that I'm young and I have to learn about English football.”

On the pitch

August 24, 2003

We stormed to an emphatic victory at the Riverside to move top of the early Premier League table, and the game was all but over as a contest after 22 minutes.

The hosts had the best chance in the opening exchanges but Szilard Nemeth blazed over, but within five minutes of the start Thierry Henry put us ahead. Patrick Vieira picked out Freddie Ljungberg who burst into the box before forcing a low save from Mark Schwarzer. The ball fell to Henry though who converted from close range.

Eight minutes later Gilberto doubled the lead. A fine move down the left ended with Robert Pires crossing deep into the box where the Brazilian was waiting to volley home his first league goal.

On his 100th appearance for us, Sol Campbell went close with a header from a corner before Sylvain Wiltord increased the lead on 22 minutes. Pires found Henry on the left and he played an inch-perfect pass into Wiltord in the box who directed the ball home past Schwarzer.

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

Line-up: Lehmann, Lauren, Campbell, Toure, Cole, Ljungberg (Parlour 75), Vieira, Gilberto, Pires (Edu 75), Wiltord (Bergkamp 75), Henry. Subs not used: Taylor, Keown.

"At 4-0 the game was over but we were always trying to improve," said Wenger post-match. "The desire is there within the team as well as solidarity and togetherness."

August 27, 2003

Sol Campbell scores against Aston Villa

We broke down Villa with two goals in the second half. Thierry Henry had a chance in the first five minutes to treat Highbury to its third goal of the season but was thwarted by an athletic Thomas Sorensen.

The Frenchman again was unlucky when next, on receiving a magnificent ball from Toure, he looped the ball over the 'keeper only to see it bounce wide of the post and into the Clock End. Later on in the half Ljungberg fooled the Aston Villa defence with a rising lob that beat the Danish stopper but not the crossbar.

Rejuvenated under David O'Leary, Villa were determined to mark their boss' return to Highbury with a goal and came close thanks to a low strike by Juan Pablo Angel late in the first 45 minutes.

Not soon after returning to the pitch we made the breakthrough. Campbell pounced upon a defensive error to score with a determined header 12 minutes after the restart.

Henry, however, 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.

Line-up: Lehmann, Lauren, Toure, Campbell, Cole, Ljungberg (Parlour 78), Gilberto, Vieira, Pires, Wiltord (Bergkamp 67), Henry. Subs not used: Taylor, Keown, Edu.

Post-match, Wenger was left frustrated we didn't kill the game off earlier: "We played some brilliant football at the start and could have been two or three up, but we didn't take our chances. After that it was less easy to move the ball so we had to keep going and show we are mentally strong."

What the press were saying

Kolo Toure playing against Aston Villa in 2003

"Arsene Wenger and Alex Ferguson have long disputed which is the Premiership's best side, but in the wake of games like these there seems no question which is the most beautiful." - The Independent

"What Arsene Wenger's side do better than anybody is demonstrate football at its finest and most exciting, taking the game into a dimension that few can even dream of copying." - Daily Mirror

"Ivory Coast star Toure, signed as an attacking midfielder, is revelling in his new job at the back. And he could turn out to be the discovery of the season - without the Gunners having to spend a penny." - The Sun

Elsewhere this week

Giovanni van Bronkhorst with the FA Cup in 2003

Giovanni van Bronkhorst joined Barcelona on a season-long loan deal. After the left-back would make 43 appearances for the Catalan side, the move would eventually be made permanent in May 2004.

Young centre-back Liam Chilvers is sent out on loan to Colchester United on a three-month deal, returning to the club where he had spent some time the previous campaign.

Steve Bould’s under-17 side lost 3-2 to Manchester United in their opening game of the season, while Neil Banfield’s under-19s suffered a 4-0 defeat to the same opponents.

Image of the week

Patrick Vieira playing against Aston Villa in 2003

As was his trademark, Patrick Vieira bulldozes his way past Aston Villa's Ulises de la Cruz and Lee Hendrie during the game against the Villans at Highbury. 

UK number ones

Official Top 40: Breathe - Blu Cantrell feat. Sean Paul (second week at number one)
Album chart: Escapology - Robbie Williams
Box office: American Wedding

In the news this week

Tony Blair in 2003

Prime Minister Tony Blair told the inquiry into the death of weapons expert Dr David Kelly he would have had to resign if claims in a BBC report that the government embellished an Iraq weapons dossier were true.

Having won a then-record 14 Grand Slam titles, Pete Sampras retired from professional tennis. He won his first title in 1990, and his last professional match saw him claim the 2002 US Open crown.

In one of Britain’s biggest robberies, a £25 million Leonardo da Vinci painting titled Madonna of the Yarnwinder is stolen from Drumlanrig Castle in Scotland. It was recovered and returned in 2007.

Find out what happened next in 2003/04 as we headed to Manchester City's new stadium for the first time

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