Welcome to History’s Greatest Teams, our retrospective on, well, the greatest teams in soccer history. Did you know association football is over 150 years old? Somehow it is, and over that time, certain teams have risen to the top. Whether it’s a club or national team, The Center Circle thought it would be interesting to look back on those illustrious squads. If you’d like to see a team highlighted in History’s Greatest Teams, go ahead and comment below.
Since the inception of the modern day English Premier League in 1992, only one team has gone the entire 38-game season without a defeat. Arsenal completed this near impossible feat in the 2003-04 season, winning 26 games and drawing 12. Since that miraculous season over ten years ago, no other squad has matched this record, and with the high level of competition now present, it’s unlikely that any team ever will.
That Gunners’ squad will forever be known as ‘The Invincibles,’ and perhaps the most impressive part of this season was the lack of funds available to the London club. Due to the costs of construction to their new stadium, Arsene Wenger has very little money to splash on new players, and his biggest signings being German keeper Jens Lehmann for less than £2 million and Dutch striker Robin Van Persie fon £3 million. This was during the time when Chelsea’s billionaire owner Roman Abamovich bringing in players like Claude Makélélé from Real Madrid (£16 million), Joe Cole from West Ham (£6.6 million), Hernán Crespo from Inter Milan (£16.8 million). The Gunners, on the other hand, relied on the players already present at Highbury and this strategy paid off as Arsenal completed the greatest Premier League season to date.
Thierry Henry is without a doubt one of the greatest strikers to ever play the game. In his career, the Frenchman has scored 360 goals, but only once has he surpassed the 30-goal season mark in his career, the 2003-04 season. The Invicibles season was his fifth in the English capital, and by that time he had already established himself as one of the elite players in the league.
The then 26-year-old striker provided Arsenal with an almost unmatched pace and skill. It seemed like there was no way to stop Henry from shredding a defense apart. Even if the opposition managed to take away his shooting angle, Henry could just as easily thread the ball through the eye of a needle to find a teammate in the middle. You also don’t become one of the most feared attackers in the league without the strength, and Henry could go to shoulder to shoulder with the biggest defenders in the league.
At the conclusion of the season, Henry finished the season as the league’s top-scorer with 30 goals, eight above his nearest competitor in Alan Shearer. He also earned two player of the month honors throughout the campaign.
The £1.5 million that it took to bring Lehmann over from Borussia Dortmund would’ve felt like an absolute steal for Arsenal at the conclusion of the season. After spending four years with Dortmund, the 34-year-old keeper finally made the move over to the Premier League and was an instant fan favorite for the Arsenal faithful. His boisterous antics on the field, paired with his amazing saves made him a legend at the Highbury and his play helped push Arsenal to become the Invincibles.
In his first season in London, Lehmann was immediately made the starting keeper coming in as David Seaman’s replacement. The German shot stopper started all 38 league games in net for the Gunners and helped the Gunners post the best goals against record, which helped the squad also have the best goal differential in the league as well. Through the season, Lehmann and the Gunners allowed just 26 goals (0.6 goals/game) and Lehmann posted 15 clean sheets along the way.
Mad Jens would spend another four years in London after the Invincibles season and would appear just under 150 times for the Gunners. Even with this long stint in England, 2003-04 would be the only Premier League winners’ medal that Lehmann would claim.
From France with Love
As if the attacking potency of Thierry Henry wasn’t enough for Arsenal, alongside him they had his compatriot Robert Pires. The French winger gave the Gunners a dangerous bit of pace on the flanks, and his precise passing meant that he could spark an attack from nearly anywhere on the pitch. Despite his older age, Pires was still one of the key cogs in the Invincibles midfield.
In league play, only Henry surpassed Pires when it came to goals scored, but the 30-year-old winger still managed to sit second on the team with 14 goals. When it came to playing provider, Pires stood atop the Arsenal mountain, statistically, as he led the team with 10 assists. His double-digit assist tally was also good enough to be fifth-highest in the league, only two off the Muzzy Izzet for the lead. Just like Henry, Pires could seemingly score from just about anywhere around the box. It didn’t matter if it was a gritty goal in the six-yard box, or 30 yards away, there was always a chance the winger could find the back of the net.
The partnership between Pires and Henry accounted for a grand total of 44 league goals in that 2003-04 season. This depth in attack made it extremely difficult for opponents to try and completely shut down Arsenal’s offense, because there’s not really a way to completely contain players like Henry or Pires.
The start of this historic season began with a visit from Everton at the Emirates. The previous campaign, Everton were able to push their way into the top half of the table and finish seventh, so this was not going to be an easy game for Wenger’s men. It was nearly a nightmare start to the season, however, as Arsenal were sent down to ten men just 25 minutes into the match. Defender Sol Campbell was sent off early on due to a tough challenge, and even with the talented squad on the field for the Gunners, it’s hard to win playing a man short for so long.
Any fear that the Arsenal faithful would have had after Campbell’s dismissal was washed away just ten minutes later when Henry slotted home from the spot after an Alan Stubbs handball in the box. This would end up being the first of many many goals for Arsenal’s French striker that season. Less than 20 minutes into the second half, it was Pires who netted Arsenal’s second when he found himself with an open net in the six-yard box from a rebounded Patrick Viera volley.
Everton managed to make a game of it late, however, as they finally took advantage of their man advantage to knock one goal into the net in the 84th minute. The man-advantage wouldn’t much longer as the goal scorer Li Tie was dismissed just three minutes later for receiving a second yellow card. The late drama ended there, as Arsenal secured their first three points of the season.
Van Nistelrooy Misses
On September 21st, Arsenal faced off against the team that had nicked the title from them the previous campaign: Manchester United. The Gunners travelled to Old Trafford after winning their first three matches, but most recently drawing with a Portsmouth side that would go on to finish 13th in the league. There had always been a tense relationship between these two historic clubs and it appeared as if this would be the most difficult test on the way to an unbeaten season.
Again, Arsenal nearly got off to a disastrous start, this time courtesy of a Ryan Giggs’ free kick that beat Jens Lehmann but couldn’t beat the far post. The first half offered no more real chances for either side, and they entered the dressing rooms deadlocked at 0-0. The action didn’t really start to pick back up again until the 81st minute. A long ball to Ruud Van Nistelrooy resulted in a 50/50 ball between the Dutch striker and Patrick Viera at the back. A collision between the two ended with what appeared to be Viera kicking out at the United player and earning himself a second yellow and an early trip to the showers.
The final ten mintues were a cagey affair, and it appeared that Arsenal’s short unbeaten run into the season was finally going to come to an end when Martin Keown dragged down Diego Forlan in the box competing for a Gary Neville cross. The man responsible for Viera’s sending off stepped up to take the penalty, but Van Nistelrooy’s effort smacked against the underside of the crossbar and back into play. The final whistle came shortly after the miss and Arsenal’s run continued.
Clinching the Title
With five games left in the season, Arsenal had racked up a record of 24 wins, ten draws and zero losses. Going into their match against fierce rival Tottenham, the Gunners needed just one point to secure the Premier League title as they held a commanding ten-point lead over second-place Chelsea. For some Arsenal fans, the only thing better than winning the title at home would be winning it against Tottenham at White Hart Lane and that’s exactly the opportunity they had on April 25th.
In the 134th North London Derby, it was Patrick Viera who opened up the scoring in just the third minute of play. Thierry Henry started the counterattack after a Tottenham corner and found Dennis Bergkamp on the wing. The Dutch striker cut into the box and smartly found an onrushing Viera running free in the middle of the box. A sliding effort from the defender put the Gunners up 1-0. It was Robert Pires who added on the misery a little more than a half hour later, with Viera providing the assist on this occasion. It was all Arsenal for the first 45 minutes.
Twenty minutes into the second half, however, Tottenham fired back. An absolute thunderbolt from Jamie Redknapp 25 yards out left Lehmann with no chance and now the game was back on. Pires nearly scored his second of the game just 15 minutes later, but his shot beat Kasey Keller only to smack off the crossbar. Going into stoppage time it looked like Arsenal would leave with more than the draw they needed, but a hold from Jens Lehmann on Robbie Keane during a corner put the Irish striker on the spot with the chance to equalize. Keane made no mistake and scored Tottenham’s second to earn back some pride for Spurs. Even with the disappointing result, Arsenal still claimed the league title that day, and the legend of the Invincibles grew.
When an owner cannot give a manager new names over the summer, and the manager is still able to win the league, let alone go undefeated, chances are he’s something special. Arsene Wenger’s tactical influence on the squad allowed this Arsenal squad to meld into a seamless unit that could play some of the most attractive and attacking soccer that has ever been seen in the Premier League.
The French manager is currently the longest-tenured boss in the Premier League having been with the Gunners since 1996. His ability to properly utilize players like Thierry Henry, Patrick Viera, and Dennis Bergkamp is a main reason why he’s been able to stay at such a big club for such a long period of time. Even when it appears that half of his fan base wants him to be relieved of his duties, Wenger finds a way to win matches and prove to the world that he is still one of the best managers in the sport.
After that Spurs draw, Arsenal would go on to draw their next two games, but ended the campaign on a two-game winning streak. The unbeaten run established late in the 2002-03 season, and carried on during this title-winning year, would run its path all the way to 49 games, only to be ended by who else but Ruud Van Nistelrooy and Manchester United.
Since their league triumph in 2004, no other Arsenal team has managed to find its way back to the top of the Premier League. No players from that historic squad remain with the club today, but their accomplishments at the Highbury will never be forgotten. After 2004, the club have gone on to win two more FA Cups, and a Community Shield. The stadium construction that limited their spending then is now a thing of the past as players like Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez have come to London in the pursuit of the Gunners’ 14th English League title.