The Best Premier League teams of all time
November 30, 2017
The Premier League era has seen some truly great teams, from Manchester United’s record-breaking treble-winning side to Jose Mourinho’s ruthless Chelsea outfit of 2005.
Then we have the Arsenal team that competed in the 2003/04 season, and became the first ever top-flight side to go through a 38-game campaign unbeaten. In doing so, they won the league at a canter by finishing 11 points clear of second place Chelsea, while beating the defending champions Manchester United into third.
In this post, we’ll look back at this season and the achievements of a team that are now known simply as ‘The Invincibles’.
Why being unbeaten may not have delivered the title to the Emirates
While the Gunners may have always been destined to go through this season unbeaten, this incredible achievement may not have actually yielded the Premier League title. In fact, the early part of Arsenal’s season was beseiged by too many draws, including a frustrating run of three in four games between the end of November and December 20th.
In contrast, title rivals Manchester United won 16 of their first 20 EPL matches, including a six consecutive games over the festive period and New Year. On 7th January, the Gunners fell three points behind their arch enemies, as they were held at home by Everton while Paul Scholes fired United to a 2-1 win at Bolton Wanderers.
Two turning points followed, however, which had the combined effect of driving Arsenal to the EPL summit and derailing United’s title charge. Firstly, influential Red Devils’ defender Rio Ferdinand received an eight month ban for missing a drugs test on 23rd September, ruling him out of action from the 12th January. In the final 18 league games that United played without Ferdinand, they won just seven and were beaten on six further occasions, while Claudio Ranieri’s improving Chelsea side also managed to dislodge them from second place.
In contrast, Arsenal’s seventh draw of the season against Everton proved to be the catalyst for nine consecutive wins, as the Gunners went 12 points clear of United at the top of the EPL by 28th March. In total, Arsenal won 13 of their last 18 league games to reach the 90-point mark and carve their own little piece of stunning top flight history.
The key games – where the league was won?
There were several key games in Arsenal’s run, not least a tempestuous clash with Manchester United at Old Trafford on 21st September. A typically tight and aggressive game, tempers boiled over in 80th minute when Patrick Viera was sent off for aiming a kick at Reds striker Ruud van Nistelrooy, with Arsenal’s players accusing the Dutchman of play-acting.
Incredibly, Van Nistelrooy then had the opportunity to win the game from the spot in the 90th minute, only for his fierce strike to hit the bar. A melee ensued at the end of the game as several Gunners’ stars confronted the Dutch forward, but it’s fair to say that only a lick of paint prevented Arsenal’s unbeaten run from ending after just six matches.
This type of luck was typical of Arsenal’s stuttering, early season form, with the November 8th clash with Spurs at Highbury offering another prime example of this. Tottenham were the better team for long periods, with Darren Anderton’s early goal threatening to end an 11-year barren spell for the club at Arsenal’s home ground.
Tottenham wasted several guilt-edged chances to make the game safe, before Frenchman Robert Pires scored a contentious equaliser (Thierry Henry had been found to be offside in the build-up to the goal) with 20 minutes to go.
Then, with Spurs tiring and Arsenal growing in confidence, Freddie Ljungberg struck a cruelly deflected winner 11 minutes from time to earn a fortunate but ultimately crucial win.
The Gunners’ defining game came against Liverpool on 9th April, however, at a point when their season was in danger of coming apart at the seams. After exiting both the FA Cup and the Champions League in the space of four days, their lead at the top of the table also came under threat as the Reds punished a nervy Arsenal side by racing into a 2-1 lead just after half-time.
A stunning solo goal by Thierry Henry and a Robert Pires strike turned the tide in favour of Arsenal, before Henry completed a stunning hat-trick to reaffirm the Gunners’ title charge and make the prospect of an unbeaten more realistic than ever before. Arsenal never looked back from this point, while rivals Chelsea and United continued to drop points.
The players and the tactics – How did the Gunners play?
Arsene Wenger’s 2004 side was unrecognisable from his recent teams, as he placed a far greater emphasis on pace and power rather than technique alone. In fact, the spine of the Invincibles side was incredibly strong and athletic, including England defender Sol Campbell and a robust midfield pairing of Patrick Viera and Brazilian World Cup winner Gilberto Silva.
Even flair players like Henry and the mercurial Dennis Bergkamp were over six feet tall, creating an imposing side that could dominate the opposition in more ways than one.
For the most part, Arsenal operated a 4-4-1-1 formation, with Bergkamp operating in a withdrawn role behind Henry in attack. The choice of wide players would occasionally mean that the Gunners could adopt a more fluid 4-2-3-1 system, however, with Pires and Ljungberg known to drive infield from the left and right respectively and alternate positions. In contrast, the experienced Ray Parlour and Edu would offer more rigid width when deployed on the flanks, enabling Arsenal to defend solidly and use their pace on the counter-attack against better opposition.
Blessed with a unique meld of outstanding technique, express pace and incredible power, Arsenal’s Invincibles boasted tremendous versatility and could win games in numerous different ways. In this respect, it’s little wonder that they enjoyed such incredible success during this season, although Gunners fans could be forgiven for thinking whether the team should have built an era of dominance within the English top flight.
Regardless, this remains a truly great EPL side and one which set a record that may never be matched again. Man City look the closest thing we’ve seen to Wenger’s 03/04 side. If you fancy comparing the odds on them taking the title, some of our recommended UK-based bookies are worth perusing.