Continuing to look back at the decade that was for Arsenal, we come to season 2003/04. The history books were rewritten as Arsenal reclaimed back the Premier League by remaining unbeaten throughout the entire campaign. This was virtually the same team that finished runners-up to Man United in the previous season, except for the replacement of David Seaman with Jens Lehman while Jose Antonio Reyes only joined in January 04. Lehman ended up playing every fixture in the league, an important aspect of the season that is shared by other members of the squad.
For 27 out of the 38 games, Arsene Wenger was able to field his first choice lineup, something that he was only able to do 19 times in the 02/03 season. When the players kept fit throughout the campaign, their performance on the pitch mirrored the ever increasing understanding of each other’s game. Everyone knew exactly where their team mate is and we played quite some spellbinding type of football that was applauded throughout the land.
It was again the brilliance of Wenger which allowed the unbeaten run to happen. Again, his expert judgement in identifying a player’s potential in certain area of the field which is not their normal playing position which is the key. Although we did reasonably well to finish in second place, Martin Keown, with all his experience, was identified as the weak link in the team. He was still able to be depended upon for a couple of games but to last the whole season would be too much to ask for. A masterstroke in Wenger’s part prompted him to switch the utility man, Kolo Toure into central defense to form an almost impenetrable partnership with Sol Campbell.
Toure did took his time to adjust to the position. Cruelly exposed by Inter’s Obafemi Martins in the Champions League, he grew in stature with every passing game and eventually made the position his own. Recovery pace was his ultimate strength. Even if an opposition managed to get pass him, we always knew that Toure would use his pace to regain ground. Following suit, Lehman was also initially a very suspect keeper. Also in early group stage of the Champions League, he made errors of rushing out of his goal and losing the ball to the opposition striker.
We basically steamrolled past all teams until the crunch 6th game away at Old Trafford. Although still very early in the season, this was the pivotal match that gave the team the push that they needed. Patrick Vieira was sent off due to play-acting from Van Nistelrooy and Keown was adjudged to have foul the same player inside the box in the final minute of the game. The Dutchman blasted his shot straight onto the crossbar, cue wild celebration. Most of which were directed at the instigator of events in the last couple of minutes. The FA deemed that as unsportmanlike behaviour and gave out suspensions to Lauren, Keown and Parlour for their part in the celebrations.
Inspite missing several key players due to suspension, Arsenal never once looked like they were going to lose any match. Wins after wins kept coming. Even Liverpool was defeated at Anfield, where Jeremie Aliadiere was given his first Premiership start of his career. The come from behind win inspired by Robert Pires’ wonderful winner which curled in the top corner from outside the box meant that we stayed top of the league in the beginning of October 2003.
The next important match came in February at Stamford Bridge. Chelsea was already making inroads in the league after heavy investment by their new owner, Roman Abramovich. They were the ones left to challenge Arsenal in the domestic league. Falling behind to a first minute goal from Eidur Gudjohnsen, we were under pressure to take something out of the game. Then in the space of only 7 minutes, we were in the lead. First, Bergkamp played a perfect pass for Vieira, so good that all Vieira had to do was to place a shot at goal. It went in, beating Cudicini in Chelsea’s goal but even that did not make us rest on our laurels. From a corner 7 minutes later, Edu slammed the ball home from a rebound.
Liverpool at home in April was another one of those tense moments. For the first time that season, we were staring defeat in the face. After crashing out of the Champions League, this was a very tough follow-up match for Arsenal. 2-1 down at half time and we needed to find inspiration from somewhere. Up step Thierry Henry. He went on a mazy, slalom run that saw him got past at least 5 Liverpool players to slot past Dudek. Henry got a hattrick that day as Arsenal won 4-2. Had we lost this match, I could imagine the title ending up somewhere else.
Arsenal have won the penultimate match to seal the league title at White Hart Lane before, in 1970/71 season. For me to witness history repeating itself was just wonderful. In essence, the first half more than summarized how our season have been. Quick on the attack with scintillating pace and accuracy. The first goal epitomize how quickly we turn defense into attack. From defending a corner, we scored via Vieira at the other end in just less than 20 seconds. The second goal showed the intricacy of our play. Passing it around in midfield, a through ball later, Pires sidefoots the ball into the bottom corner. Although Spurs equalised on the final minute of the game, it could not dampen the spirits of Arsenal faithfuls in the crowd.
The only left to do was to ensure that we remain unbeaten for the last 4 games to set a new Premier League record. Credit to the boys who could’ve just prance around having won the league, for maintaining their standard and form to seal a record breaking season by doing just that. When Vieira scored Arsenal’s last league goal of the season via another Bergkamp’s eye-of-a-needle pass, we were sure to finish the season as unbeatable League champions.
We did not add to the trophy list with any cup competitions though. Semifinal of both FA Cup and League Cup was the best the team could’ve done. Defeat to Chelsea in the Champions League in the quarterfinal stage was a bitter one to swallow. Just ten minutes away from the semifinal, with the way we’ve been playing all season, who would go against Wenger finally picking up a Champions League winner’s medal.
For all the ifs and buts, one thing’s for sure. In the league, Arsenal was just plain invincibles.