On 7th May, 2003 Arsenal scored 6 goals over Wayne Bridge’s Southampton to start a run of 49 games unbeaten. A feat that has not been repeated in English Football since, despite the billions of dollars that teams like Chelsea, City, and United have spent trying to do so. It was remarkable not only in terms of the the longevity of the run or in the quality of the team but also in the fact that Arsene Wenger predicted it would happen and in that team’s ability to overcome the hegemony of Manchester United.
For almost all Arsenal fans this 49 game unbeaten run and the team which achieved that mark, The Invincibles, is the stick by which all other Arsenal teams are compared. All Arsenal forwards are compared consciously or subconsciously to Thierry Henry, the striker at the heart of the Invincibles’ dynamic, flowing attack. When you hear someone say that Arsenal aren’t flowing enough in the counter attack, what they mean is that Arsenal don’t have someone like Henry who can play a simple one-two exchange, and in an instant get into the right space to beat an entire team’s defense.
In a similar way, all midfielders are compared to the indomitable Patrick Vieira, whose imposing frame and meaty tackles often overshadowed his superlative touch, vision, and technique. So much so that when you hear someone say that they wish Arsenal would stop buying such small midfielders what they almost always mean is “I wish so and so was more like Patrick Vieira.”
And all defenders are compared to Sol Campbell, an alabaster statue of a man in the heart of Arsenal’s defense. The Arsenal supporters’ neurosis about set play defense stems largely from the day that Sol Campbell left Arsenal and most would agree that like Henry and Vieira above, he’s never been truly replaced.
Whenever you hear someone talk about the “spine of the team” or about how “so and so isn’t good enough” what they mean is that they aren’t good enough to displace those three players for The Invincibles.
And Arsene Wenger too, his entire tenure at Arsenal is defined by this one crowning achievement. It is both the ceremonial mace which people proclaim him “the best Arsenal manager ever” and the stick which people beat him with as “the worst Arsenal manager ever” because he has since failed to live up to his own high standard.
So, as Arsenal fans it always perplexed me why we remembered the Invincibles for the end of the run. Why remember Wayne Rooney’s ignominious dive at Old Trafford rather than the start of the run? Especially when the start of that run was full of a rich tapestry of mind-games, braggadocio, and featured two teams locked in what seemed like mortal combat. That’s why today, I choose to remember the start of the run, rather than just the end.
The first game of Arsenal’s famous unbeaten run came against Southampton and was what some folks now call “classic Arsenal”. It’s classic in that the destination of the title had been decided in the weeks earlier and there was nothing left to play for so the team turned on the charm netting two hat tricks; one from Jermaine Pennant and the other from Robert Pires, sweeping aside the opponents that Arsenal would face to win the FA Cup just 10 days later. But in the moment, it was only a consolation victory as Arsenal had thrown the title away in the previous fortnight when they drew 2-2 with Bolton Wanderers and then followed that up with a 2-3 loss to Leeds United, a game which would be the anus certatus¹ of my early years following The Arsenal.
That 2-2 draw against Bolton propelled Sam Allardyce’s career to the fore and contained many themes the modern Arsenal fan would fins all too familiar: Arsenal played a first half of insipid football which gave Bolton belief and the Wanderers eventually ended the match with 17 shots to Arsenal’s 8; right after half-time, Arsenal took a two goal lead, off some quality play by Robert Pires; then Bolton kicked Arsenal all over the pitch injuring Cygan, Ljungberg, and Lauren before eventually getting a red card, which they complained about; and Bolton scored two goals off set pieces, one an own goal.
I remember that own goal vividly. Arsenal were under a lot of pressure from Bolton when Martin Keown was subbed on for an injured Pascal Cygan. Here was a footballing legend coming on and I remember thinking that he was going to really shore things up for the Gunners. He ended up scoring that own goal and it was doubly devastating. I stood with my head in my hands for what seemed like an hour.
Arsenal tried to get back into the match but it was a case of too little, too late: a stolid first half followed by a shaky defensive performance had undone Arsenal’s title aspirations. Sound familiar?
After the match Sam Allardyce taunted Arsene Wenger (Daily Record, April 28, 2003) by reminding him of his own bragging earlier in the year:
There was a stage when Arsene Wenger said he wouldn’t be surprised if they went through the season unbeaten because they were so good and powerful and so far in front of everybody. It looks like that has caught up with them now.
A few days later, Arsenal’s title hopes were truly dashed when they fell to a Leeds United’s late comeback, which is an entire article unto itself. But with that defeat in mind, they headed into the Southampton match looking to set the tone for the FA Cup final which the two teams would contest 10 days later.
What’s extraordinary about Allardyce’s quote is that he brought up a statement by Arsene Wenger from earlier in the season. Something Wenger had said in August of 2002. That summer the Gunners were fresh off Arsenal’s incredible double-winning season in which they clinched the title at Old Trafford. Arsenal beat United at home despite the use of some of the most cynical tactics I have ever seen in a football match, the same tactics that Allardyce would use at Bolton a little less than a year later to thwart Arsenal’s title hopes. The BBC described Fergie’s Felons thus on the day:
Arsenal kept their composure in the face of a fierce early physical assault from United as Ferguson’s side relinquished their crown in graceless fashion… United were fortunate to survive the first half without losing at least one player to a red card.
Ferguson’s three-time champions were intent on knocking Arsenal out of their stride, but occasionally crossed the line into illegality. Paul Scholes was lucky not to be sent off for a wild challenge on Edu and Phil Neville was again shown leniency by referee Paul Durkin for a senseless lunge at Sylvain Wiltord. Roy Keane got in on the act by flattening midfield rival Patrick Vieira as temperatures threatened to boil over
To fully grasp what Wenger would say next, you have to understand the context of that game above. Here, Arsenal, a “foreign team”, a Southern team, who played a totally new brand of football, had gone to the home soil of the English Football champions, the team who played the most English of English football and taken the lumps and beaten them 1-0 to cap off an extraordinary away run of form which saw the Gunners go 19 away games unbeaten. It was as if the French had invaded England all over again and King Fergie had been struck down with an arrow to the eye.
In that context, Arsene was feeling his oats when responding to Fergie’s jibes that Arsenal wouldn’t repeat their title tilt of the season before:
Sir Alex Ferguson says he doubts whether we can have as good a season as last, with no defeats away from home. But we can be better. Unbeaten? It wouldn’t surprise me. When I said at the end of last season we would go on winning, then it probably came across as arrogant.
What I didn’t want was for our success to be seen as a unique event. Until we won the title last season I felt we had maybe accepted the domination of Manchester United. The previous two years had been frustrating but winning has changed that. We are at the same preseason level and have the same attitude as then, but with the addition of knowing we are champions
That 2002-2003 season Fergie was right, Arsenal didn’t repeat their performance of the season prior. They didn’t find that same form and worse, they were beaten at the end by one of Fergie’s knights, the man who emulated the Battle of Old Trafford tactics that United used to try to upset Arsenal’s title tilt the season before, and the title went back North to Manchester.
Wenger and Arsenal suffered the slings and arrows of the press that summer. If the balance of power had shifted one year to the south, this defeat was a tsunami shifting football back into the safe hands of its Scottish caretaker. Fergie spent a record sum and purchased Rio Ferdinand in that summer and was once again hailed as a genius for winning the title under such difficult circumstances.
But that Arsenal team which had faltered at the final hurdle, who had one hand on the unthinkable achievement of back-to-back double-doubles (no team had won the double two years in a row, and Arsenal were 45 minutes from that feat, 2-0 up against relegation form Bolton), would turn that failure into the ultimate victory.
In the context of that failed title challenge, Fergie’s mind-games, Allardyce’s taunts, and the FA Cup final win 10 days later, Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal would double-down and begin a streak of 49 games unbeaten.²
A feat that no team in world football has bested since.
¹I don’t actually know Latin, obviously.
²A streak which United would end when Wayne Rooney took a dive.