The last time Arsenal avoided defeat in the first eight games of a Premier League season was back in 2007/08… when they ended up finishing third behind Manchester United and Chelsea (despite losing only three times all season!). It was a similar outcome in 2004/05 when the Gunners got off to a blistering start, only to lose out in the title race (this time to Chelsea).
However, if we go back just one more season, to 2003/04, we come to one of the greatest Arsenal sides in history: the Invincibles. Arsène Wenger’s men didn’t stop at eight games unbeaten… they went the whole campaign without losing a single match in the Premier League. The question is, could the Gunners do it again in 2023/24?
Okay, we don’t want to get too far ahead of ourselves. After all, at the time of writing Arsenal have only played eight games in the league. They’ve won six of them and drawn the other two so far, including a hard-fought 1-0 victory at the Emirates over champions Manchester City.
Also, at present, they are not the only unbeaten side in the top flight, with Spurs also making it eight games without a loss and matching Arsenal in drawing two (one in the north London derby) and winning six. But we’re focusing on the Gunners here. And as we assess their chances of becoming The Invincibles 2.0, let’s look back to how they achieved it the first time around. We’ll also take a brief glance at the only other side to have achieved it.
How Arsenal Became the Invincibles in 2003/04
With Arsène Wenger in the dugout, Patrick Vieira as captain and a team that included the likes of Thierry Henry, Robert Pires, Freddie Ljungberg and Dennis Bergkamp, the Gunners took the 2003/04 Premier League by storm. One of the biggest factors in Arsenal winning the league without defeat was undoubtedly Henry’s plentiful and often timely goals. He bagged 30 in total in the league, the highest tally of his career. But at the other end of the pitch, Arsenal were rock solid, with Jens Lehmann in goal for every Premier League match and Ashley Cole, Sol Campbell, Lauren and Kolo Toure ensuring opponents never found a simple route to goal.
In the end, Arsenal finished on 90 points (11 clear of runners-up Chelsea) after winning 26 of their 38 games and drawing the other 12. Indeed, they drew five of their last nine games and there was a sense that sometimes the Gunners were playing not to be beaten as they eyed not only the title but also going the full season unbeaten.
How Close Did the Invincibles Come to Losing a Game in 2003/04?
If we ignore the victories (as the Gunners would have required at least two-goal swing against them to lose any of those), there were 12 games over the course of the season which could have scuppered Arsenal’s unbeaten record if they’d conceded just one more goal. But which of these matches came closest to wrecking the Invincibles’ party?
Well, the match against Manchester United at Old Trafford on 21st September, 2003 is certainly a contender. It was ill-tempered (as many clashes were between the sides at the time) and Patrick Vieira got sent off with around 10 minutes left with the match still goalless. Then in injury time, the Red Devils were awarded a penalty that was innocuous at best (in a time when VAR was a mere dream!). Arsenal fans feared the worst… but Ruud van Nistelrooy smashed the spot-kick against the crossbar and Arsenal lived to fight another day.
The Original Invincibles: Preston North End
Of course, technically the Arsenal side of 2003/04 were not the Invincibles, but rather the New Invincibles as another side had got there before them. Long before them, in fact. We have to look right back to the inaugural season of the Football League way back in 1888/89 when Preston North End won the league with 18 victories and four draws from their 22-game campaign.
It’s fair to say that things were easier then, partly because there were fewer games, but also because many of the teams in the division were only just finding their feet in terms of competitive matches, and Preston were a cut above their rivals. They proved that by going on to win the FA Cup and followed up with a second league title the following year.
Arsenal’s Chances of Going Unbeaten in 2023/24: Slim at Best
Football is a highly competitive sport and that’s one of the main reasons it’s so popular. On any given day in the Premier League, if things go their way, any side can beat any other. And there are shock results almost every weekend in the EPL.
The fact that only two teams have completed a full top-flight season unbeaten (and only one in the Premier League era) goes to show how darn tricky it is. Even in leagues that are generally thought of as much less competitive, going all season unbeaten is a rarity. For instance, Celtic (1897/98, 2016/17) and Rangers (1898/99, 2020/21) have only achieved the feat twice each in Scotland.
Looking further afield, there have been occasional unbeaten seasons in the top leagues of Europe, with recent examples including Porto going unbeaten in Portugal in 2012/13, Juventus in Italy in 2011/12, and Ajax in Netherlands in 1994/95. But no side has achieved it in Spain since the 1930s, the only side to do so in Germany was Dresdner SC during World War II, and no French side has ever managed it, despite the cash splashed by PSG!
So what we’re trying to say here, albeit in a rather roundabout way, is that despite having a great start to the 2023/24 season, the chances of Arsenal emulating their achievement of 2003/04 is not high at all. Of course, you never can tell with football, and Arsenal fans will live in hope that the current crop can become The Invincibles 2.0 – time will tell!