In 2004, the Arsenal of Arsène Wenger became immortal when they stormed into the Premier League title without suffering a single loss.
It was a revolutionary accomplishment, mastered by a revolutionary boss and implemented by a revolutionary group of players dedicated to attacking free-flowing football. It was a special sport brand that pulled people out of their seats and pulled the breath away.
This crop of players won 26 matches, drew 12 and lost zero in the 2003/2004 season, and their entire unbeaten run spanned 49 matches in total, a campaign either side of that title triumph.
There were moments when the unbeaten record looked under threat, however. Arsenal equalled Nottingham Forest’s all-time League record sequence of 42 unbeaten matches at the time with a pulsating 5-3 win over Middlesbrough, a match they trailed 3-1 with just over half an hour to play. The late, great José Antonio Reyes brought the teams level at 3-3 and Robert Pires and Dennis Bergkamp added the gloss to guide the Gunners to an astonishing win.
On matchday 31, Thierry Henry’s virtuoso hat-trick dug Arsenal out of a hole against Liverpool to preserve the unbeaten run. It was a welcome win after a week in which Arsenal was dumped out of both the FA Cup and the Champions League. The Gunners needed their main man to deliver and he duly obliged.
Exhilarating attacking football
Arsène’s Arsenal played with pace, power and precision. Blessed with quick and technical footballers in almost all positions, The Gunners vintage of 2004 could sting teams on the counter-attack to devastating effect but weren’t averse to hogging possession and frustrating their opposition that way either. Arsenal produced moments of individual brilliance, and they also strung together passing moves exhibiting their team chemistry on a regular basis. Words don’t really do their football justice, so here’s a look at them in action.
World-class players throughout the spine
The attacking partnership of Thierry Henry and Dennis Bergkamp, widely regarded as the two best players to ever represent the club, was founded on a telepathic mutual understanding with Bergkamp’s awareness and precision perfectly complemented by Henry’s jet-heeled explosiveness and sublime finishing. Wide players Freddie Ljungberg and Robert Pires added industry and panache, as well as a handful of crucial goals and assists, in support of the two main men. José Reyes, a marquee signing from Sevilla halfway through the campaign, chipped in with two goals, most memorably an equalizer against Middlesbrough in a thrilling 5-3 win. His left-foot was quite a thing to behold, although the stunning strike against Boro came off his right. Arsenal fans will never forget the talented Spaniard.
Skipper Patrick Vieira, a World Cup winner in 1998 with France, was the physical embodiment of the team. He was their heartbeat, a player that combined aggression, heart and silky skill to make him a truly complete midfielder. PV4 was partnered in the centre of the park by Gilberto Silva, also a World Champion with Brazil in 2002. Silva was nicknamed “The Invisible Wall” because of his subtle, unselfish defensive work and brilliantly astute positioning that allowed his more creative colleagues to flourish higher up the pitch.
The back four was all about aggression and athleticism. Cameroonian Lauren took absolutely no prisoners with left-wingers dreading 90 minutes up against his tough-tackling approach on Arsenal’s right flank. Englishman Sol Campbell and Ivorian Kolo Touré formed the bedrock of Arsenal’s defence that only conceded 26 goals in 38 matches, while controversial figure Ashley Cole was a fierce competitor that bombed forward from left-back to great effect.
In goal, the eccentric Jens Lehmann produced stunning saves when it mattered most for the Gunners, and he also got under opposition skin with his time-wasting antics and gamesmanship.
Winning spirit and mean streak
The Invincibles didn’t always play pretty football. There were times when they had to dig in to get results, and they certainly had the personnel to do so. That steel was on show for the world to see when the Gunners escaped “The Battle of Old Trafford” with a point when Manchester United striker Ruud van Nistelrooy crashed his controversially-awarded penalty against the underside of the crossbar deep into stoppage time. The Dutchman was mobbed by yellow jerseys as the referee’s whistle sounded, with Arsenal’s players feeling that justice had been done. 0-0 wasn’t a typical Arsenal scoreline but it was proof that this group of players was the real deal and capable of getting the job done with their backs against the wall.
What a pleasure it was to be entertained by Arsène Wenger’s Invincibles as they wrote themselves into history books and hearts around the world. This was a team in the truest sense of the word, playing a version of the beautiful game that had never been seen in England before.
These words are dedicated to the loving and invincible memory of José Antonio Reyes (1983-2019).