Invincibles! by Dan Smith
Forget the idea of not losing a game, many doubted Arsenal’s capabilities of challenging for the title in 2003.
The football landscape was changing. In what would change the future forever, Roman Abramovich bought Chelsea, who were rumoured to be in financial trouble.
Almost overnight our London rivals were able to pay fees and wages most of the world couldn’t compete with. Their policy would be like football manager; they recruited numerous talents even if they already had quality in that position.
As gooners we had the opposite worries. Yet again we faced the Vieira saga with his contract, meaning we couldn’t keep forcing him to stay. I remember being quite down that summer and vividly can recall seeing the yellow ticker come up on Sky Sports News that our captain wanted to sign a new deal.
While we were keeping our best players and were replacing experience for experience in goal (Seaman was changed for Lehmann) the question of ambition was raised.
In the first signs that paying off our new stadium could leave us left behind our rivals, how did Mr Wenger aim to fix our centre back issues which was seen as the main reason we threw away the title the year before? He asked Kolo Touré to learn the position.
As much as Touré had impressed with his versatility and enthusiasm gunners were concerned. How do you close the gap on Man United who have strengthened, and you haven’t, also considering the changes at Stamford Bridge? It would be one of our manager’s best tactical decisions.
Despite making a winning start, the feeling was our back 4 wouldn’t be able to cope against top level opponents. That seemed confirmed when Inter Milan scored 3 times at Highbury – making it the worse time to travel to Old Trafford that weekend. In the closest we came to a loss in the Premiership, Van Nistelroy crashed a penalty against the bar, leading to a famous reaction from Martin Keown. Even though we got players suspended and fined it was that ‘us against the world’ mentality which inspired us. Keown wasn’t just acting that way because he felt Man United had cheated for both a spot kick and Vieira’s red card, it was the anger of the previous campaign.
We generally felt we were better than them, clearly played the better football and had a point to prove (in the 2-2 draw at Highbury we had felt then that United had play-acted to get Sol Campbell sent off).
Outside of Highbury we were condemned, inside you felt there was a spirit among the players. Crucially as well, Mr Wenger wasn’t making any over the top predictions this time, happy for the media to talk up Chelsea. When they came to North London never before had they been talked up as much, almost like we were the underdogs. A 2-1 win to the Gunners kind of put them back in their place.
While the likes of Henry were at a level where some thought he was unlucky to finish 2nd to Nedved in the Ballon D’or, Bergkamp was spotting the runs of Ljungberg and Pires (who again got into double figures), the fringe players were crucial
When Viera was injured, Ray Parlour was inspirational as vice skipper, including famous wins at Anfield and the San Siro. Even though Henry scored 3 out of our 5 at Inter Milan, it was in my opinion it was Kanu’s best performance for us.
It was that result which convinced the world, and more importantly ourselves, that we could be contenders in Europe, if nothing else we could beat anyone on our day.
Despite the boss warning that our January recruit Reyes would need a few months to settle, he scored twice on his debut against Chelsea in the Cup, yet his best performances would be in the Champions League. We still had to face the Blues 3 more times.
A win in the league at the Bridge gave us a gap at the top of the League, but soon after we faced then over two legs in the CL, where the winner would be favourites. Days before the 2nd leg we lost the Semi Final of the F A Cup where we rested players for Chelsea. Going into extra time with the tie levelled, you sensed our players were tiring physically and mentally, like it was one massive match too far. The regret when Wayne Bridge scored was that we had been eliminated by a side we had already beaten 3 times, yet the worry short term was would it impact the title race? Within a few days we gone from a realistic treble, to talk now that we were bottling it again. In fact it was the most crucial moment of our season
Imagine losing a semi-final and then a quarter final, with all the negativity that brings from the papers, then you find yourself 2-1 down at Highbury to Liverpool?
We could easily have felt sorry for ourselves, but Henry picked us up and scored a hat trick. As he said, the old ground felt different that day, relief, fear perhaps what a loss would have meant. The Frenchman would score 4 the following Friday in arguably his finest hour. He just ran through Leeds. We knew we needed just a draw at the Lane to be Champions but were never going to play for a point, racing into a 2-0 lead. Spurs only managed a 2-2 draw because Lehmann threw Keane to the floor, giving them a spot kick (it is amazing that his temper didn’t cost us more).
The way Tottenham celebrated a result that made us champions on their ground was embarrassing, and convinced our players to ignore pleas from police not to celebrate ourselves. My only regret is Sol Campbell had enough class to save it for the dressing room, showing a respect his ex-club never showed him.
From there it was about; could we stay unbeaten? ç
Naturally it affected performances in nervy draws with Birmingham and Portsmouth (over the two games you could argue Pompey were closest to beating us?) Then after beating Leicester 2-1 we had made history.
At the time Mr Wenger said it was an achievement that maybe wouldn’t be appreciated till years later. In truth some try to downplay it. The likes of Adrian Durham will point to too many draws but that’s missing the point. It’s the mental strength it takes to go home and away, sun or rain, and get a result no matter if you’re not at your best nor no matter how many injuries you have.
We played beautiful football but if we had to battle at your Boltons or Blackburns, we could. He will say we failed to beat United yet somehow forgets that we beat Chelsea 3 times, Liverpool home and away. In other words we won the big games. He might mention a Pires dive at home to Portsmouth? Yet evaluate all 38 games, you will find times that decisions went against us.
Have other Champions had won with more points? Yeah but they could play with pressure off when they knew they had the league won. We didn’t, we had the pressure of staying unbeaten. And of course if it’s so simple, why hasn’t it been repeated? Man City and Liverpool both were predicted to better our feat yet never came close. It’s funny how it mattered when Liverpool had a chance, yet it wasn’t important the moment they lost to Watford.
The only big regret should be we that could have won the Champions League that year. Yes, we would get further but this time you could make the argument that we really were the best in the world.
If someone said 16 years later, we still be waiting for our next title, no one would have believed you…