Arsenal’s Invincibles: Why They Weren’t As Great As You Remember

During the 20 seasons of Premier League awards back in 2012, Arsenal’s famous 2003/2004 side, more commonly known as the ‘Invincibles’, were voted as the best Premier League side in history.

It’s easy to see why, with top scorer Thierry Henry at the peak of his powers, Sol Campbell bossing proceedings from the back, and the pairing of Patrick Vieira and Gilberto Silva dominating midfield, the spine of the team was unparalleled. Frenchman Robert Pires and maverick Freddie Ljungberg tormenting full backs across the country, no one could stop the Gunners.

This is how they are remembered by the vast masses, but not quite how they should be remembered.

Arsenal ended their 2003/2004 campaign with 90 points, which is no doubt a very impressive points haul for the season. Just 12 months later, however, Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea side finished their title-winning season with 95 points – five more than the Gunners.

So, if just 12 months after Wenger’s side finished with 90 points, Chelsea racked up more points then Arsenal, over the same amount of games, playing a lot of the same sides, Arsenal’s ‘Invincibles’ side were not as good as the champions that followed them.

In fact, Arsenal’s total of 90 points during their famous season is only the sixth-highest points total in Premier League history. With Chelsea ending the league season with more the 90 points on three separate occasions, and Manchester United doing it twice.

Now, moving away from points and onto goals, to be precise, how few goals Arsenal scored during the season. During the 2003/2004 season the North London club had, at their disposal, one of the greatest striking partnerships in the league’s history: Thierry Henry and Dennis Bergkamp.

Henry finished the season as Golden Boot winner with 30 league goals, and with the Frenchman leading the line Arsenal ended the campaign with 73 goals which, when put into context, is incredibly low for a title-winning side. In fact, in the 13 seasons that have followed the ‘Invincibles’, only on four occasions have the champions failed to score less then 73 league goals, and only twice in the last decade.

With such attacking power how did Arsenal only manage 73 goals?

Wenger and his side played out the end of the season to avoid defeat. Now, throughout most of the season, Arsenal went out to play and they went out to win. But it was later on in the season where this point comes into play.

Four draws from their last six games shows two things: going unbeaten was firmly on the minds of the players, the coaching staff, everyone who was involved with the club – going unbeaten was the priority. It also shows that playing entertaining football and sending the fans home happy was not at the forefront of the thinking for the men in charge.

In fact, in the last six games of the campaign Arsenal, with Thierry Henry leading the line, only managed six goals. That’s an average of one goal-per-game; to put that into context only one side in the ENTIRE division had an average of one goal-per-game that season. That side was Wolverhampton Wanderers and they finished bottom.

Invincible means, too powerful to be defeated or overcome. Despite playing our their league season unbeaten, in all competitions Arsenal found themselves on the losing side in some of their biggest games.

During the course of the campaign, Arsenal actually lost to three Premier League sides. Starting with defeats home and away to Middlesbrough in the Carling Cup semi-finals – Arsenal came into the game with their eyes on the first piece of silverware of the domestic season.

The opportunity was there for Arsenal to send out a message to the other top sides in England; that the Gunners meant business. It was clear that Arsenal were looking past Steve McClaren’s side, and the underdogs walked away 3-1 victors on aggregate.

FA Cup semi final vs Manchester United, another massive game for Arsenal. But unlike in their league fixtures, the game had to have an outright winner. Arsenal really went for broke during this encounter with their old rivals. But without frontman Thierry Henry the red half of North London lacked that cutting edge. That same cutting edge their opponents had in abundance and Paul Scholes scored the only goal of the game to send United to the final.

What was to follow was Arsenal’s biggest game of the season; a Champions League quarter-final against Chelsea. After a 1-1 draw at the Bridge, Arsenal welcomed Chelsea to Highbury – firmly in the driver’s seat with an away goal to their name.

Wenger’s men faced their biggest task of the campaign on the biggest stage, and only days after falling out of the FA Cup to Manchester United the chance was there for Arsenal to really show their class. And a victory against Chelsea would have given them a huge opportunity to capture their first ever European Cup.

On the night, however, everything that had come before in the league meant nothing. Wayne Bridge scored the winner for Chelsea as Arsenal exited their second competition in the space of a week; when push came to shove, Arsenal lacked something.

Arsenal did manage to go the entire league season without suffering defeat, an incredibly accomplishment; this was achieved with some rather dubious methods. Portsmouth travelled to Highbury in September 2003, and took an early lead against the Gunners.

While driving into the box, Robert Pires dived to win a penalty, which Henry slotted away to equalise. In the years that followed the manager himself openly admitted to Pires’ dive, whereas after the game the man involved came out and denied the dive. The French wide man said it was:

“…not the way he played and that he was not a cheat.”

Because they did not lose a game, the Arsenal Invincibles are seen as the greatest Premier League side in history. They went unbeaten, that fact is not debatable – but do the maths for one moment. You could go an entire season unbeaten, and still go down, finishing on 38 points – two off the magic 40-point target sides battling the drop aim for. Football is about winning, not avoiding defeat and the 2003/2004 Arsenal side played to avoid defeat throughout much of the key stages of their season.

Arsenal and Arsene Wenger simply took advantage of what was a poor season in terms of standard of football to achieve what they did. Much like Leicester City in 2016, they won the title without being a truly remarkable team.

It’s unlikely that another side will ever go an entire Premier League season unbeaten. This is not because no side could ever do it, but because the very best sides don’t need to go unbeaten to be seen as the very best.