Some football teams come out of nowhere to stamp their mark of authority on the Premier League. Think of Manchester City. Before their coffers were injected with Sheik Mansour’s billions, they were used to bouncing between relegation and promotion.
Other teams in the Premier League era were on the cusp of greatness before finally tipping over the edge and achieving that level. The Arsenal team that went unbeaten in the 2003/04 season are one of those.
Of course, to say the gunners went unbeaten the entire season would be a falsehood, as they lost games in the F.A. Cup (defeated at the semi-final stage by arch-rivals Manchester United) and League Cup (Middlesbrough winning at the semi-final stage, winning both legs at Highbury and The Riverside). Arsenal lost two of their first three games in the UEFA Champions League, too, and would eventually depart that competition meekly at the quarter-final stage to Chelsea, losing to a goal by Wayne Bridge at Highbury. But it was in the league that Arséne Wenger’s team achieved immortality.
The league campaign came on the back of a defeat in the 2002/03 title race that was to bitter enemies Manchester United, after the Red Devils won nine of their final 10 league games to snatch the title away from North London. That was not going to happen in 2003/04.
Arsenal’s set-up for the 2003/04 season was notoriously simple. They played an expansive 4-4-2, relying on the fluidity and pace of their attacking options, with two protective defensive midfielders sitting in front of a back four who all knew their jobs to a tee.
The season started with a successful pre-season, which featured the curate’s egg of Yaya Toure making an appearance for The Gunners in an away stalemate at lowly Barnet. The younger brother of Arsenal’s defensive lynchpin at the time Kolo, Yaya didn’t impress and would eventually sign for Barcelona, and then dominate midfield battles for years with Manchester City. One that got away, perhaps.
While the unbeaten season would have tough games elsewhere along the way, as it turned out, one of the most important draws of the dozen that Arsenal piled up during the season was the 0-0 they got at Old Trafford. Ruud Van Nistelrooy missed a last-minute penalty after Arsenal captain Patrick Viera was earlier sent off for a kick out at the Dutchman. Arsenal players were incensed at the perceived overreaction and their behavior at Van Nistelrooy’s missed penalty and the final whistle earned them a collection of fines, but no suspensions. Looking back across the season, that decision was one of the most important of their year.
As Martin Tyler said at the time on Sky Sports, “For 75 minutes it was a football match, then it became a feud.”
After the ‘Battle of Old Trafford’, Arsenal won six of their next seven, including vital single-goal wins at Anfield and against Chelsea and North London neighbours Tottenham Hotspur.
Into the new year, Wnger’s team were even more consistent, with an easier run of teams seeing The Gunners win nine in a row against teams such as Southampton, Wolves, Charlton Athletic, Blackburn Rovers and Bolton Wanderers.
With another draw against United (1-1 at Highbury), Arsenal as good as had the title in the bag, and could prioritise remaining unbeaten at any cost. A draw at Tottenham was followed by a home stalemate against Birmingham City and another draw at Portsmouth.
Arsenal’s final game saw them down at half-time to a Leicester side who opened the scoring through Paul Dickov. But a crucial penalty for Thierry Henry and a Viera strike shortly after the hour sealed a comeback win to put the ribbons on the trophy in style.
While other teams have won the Premier League with more points – indeed, Liverpool finished as runners-up in 2019 with seven more points – and many more have done so scoring more goals that the 73 that Arsenal managed (less than two goals per game), no-one else has gone through the Premier League season unbeaten.
Until that happens, Arsenal will always have a unique record of invincibility as the team built around speed and guile and that simple refused to lose. With 26 wins and dozen draws, it remains a phenomenal achievement that no-one has replicated in the Premier League era.