George Graham showed the way in 1991
It couldn't be done
2003 - 2004
Was Arsene Wenger a fool of a manager, in 2002-2003 when he unwisely said we could go the whole season unbeaten? The media loved it, taking every opportunity to laugh at him. We lost 6 times in the league and came second. Only in the early days of the league was it possible when Preston won in the first ever league campaign unbeaten in 1888-89. However, it was a much smaller league with only 22 matches and they had, a bit controversially, brought down a load of Scottish players to boost their team. None of the great teams after that could do it, Ourselves in the 1930’s, Huddersfield earlier, Wolves, Manchester United, Liverpool and many other great teams tried, but it never happened.
The league had expanded to 42 matches although the Premier League knocked that down to 38, and the difficulties of travelling long distances, playing on cold, wet, muddy pitches, injuries, loss of form, bad luck, bad refs, sendings off, and a myriad of factors contributed to it taking mythical status. Few teams had even got close, with 5/6 losses quite normal for champions. George Graham did show the way though in 1991 with only one defeat.
But Wenger said it could
Wenger argued that he sent out his teams to win every match, and, as they were pretty much better than the rest, it should be possible.
Manchester United never really came close, 3 defeats in 2000 being their best under Ferguson. Particularly as in parts of the 90’s, they were clearly better than the rest, but, of course, you have to play your close rivals twice and cope with trying to motivate players once the season is won, which it often was with matches left to play.
Jens Lehmann: A good buy
Lots of defeats
But Wenger had said it. And didn’t even win the league let alone go undefeated. Manchester United had come back at him again so now could he take down old red nose again? Honestly, the transfer activity didn’t inspire much belief. Players were brought in who would turn out to be very significant, Van Persie, Fabregas, Clichy, Senderos and Djourou would all go on to claim first team spots but not this season. Only Jens Lehmann, and to a much lesser extent, Jose Antonio Reyes, would get much of a chance this time. Lehmann, taking over from David Seaman, was an ever present, but as Seaman was top class, it was hard to make a case that the team had improved much. Kolo Toure, though, emerged as Sol Campbell’s partner and they just worked so nicely together. It was a partnership that performed really well, Campbell dealing with his defensive duties superbly but Toure reminded me of Bobby Moore as to how he would win the ball and distribute it very well. He was mobile, flexible and a good ball player.
In fairness to Wenger, we had top players, all, with the exception of Bergkamp (who anyway was rested), still with plenty of miles left on the clock, and he was never one to buy for the sake of it. The quality of our players was not a barrier to going undefeated as we had shown we could beat Man Utd home and away and they were the best of the rest.
We really only worried about Manchester United
Chelsea had been moving steadily upwards and this season Roman Abramovich had taken over, promising a Blue revolution with an unlimited war-chest to spend, but surely that was unlikely to happen straightaway? Liverpool, Newcastle and Blackburn were also close but for a few seasons now, it had been Arsenal and Man Utd as the biggest rivals. We did expect to come at least second.
Around this period, under Wenger, we would play close to 60 matches a season, and if you were to win all your matches, it would be closer to 70. I am going to say that winning all matches is never going to happen, the different demands of the various trophies mitigate against that. So could we really go undefeated in the League, which I feel is what Wenger was talking about? Was comical Wenger right? I feel that he, having said it, felt it as a pressure that started to build the longer the run went on. Ray Parlour, in his autobiography, said that the players didn’t really feel pressure about this for a long time. They didn’t really feel it was possible and they had other trophies to worry about.
Could we win all trophies?
So how did we do in the other trophies? The Charity Shield and Manchester United gave us our first defeat although it was only after penalties. In the league cup we came close although we struggled against Rotherham in our first round scraping through 9-8 on penalties after extra time. Then much easier against Wolves in the next 5-1. Then 2-0 against West Brom before the 2 legged semi-final against Middlesbrough. We were beaten home and away despite playing quite well for an aggregate 3-1. 3 defeats.
We were taught a lesson at Highbury against Inter
The Champions League was a bit of a disaster. We were beaten first time out against Inter 3-0 at Highbury, then a draw against Lokomotiv Moscow in Moscow before another defeat against Dynamo Kiev away 2-1. Our poor European form was a true puzzle to me, it never made any sense. Wenger was from continental Europe, he had an encyclopaedic knowledge of the teams, he had players that most teams craved but somehow couldn’t put them away. But maybe he was stung by these defeats as we won our next 3 to top the group including destroying Inter in Milan, 5-1, and, a match I was at, Dynamo Kiev at home where Ashley Cole got a late goal to give us a chance as that was the first game of the second half of the group.
Ashley Cole gave us hope against Dynamo Kiev
Then Celta Vigo 5-2 over the 2 legs of the first knockout round. Then Chelsea, doing really well under Roman Abramovich, beat us in the quarter finals with 1-1 at Stamford Bridge and 2-1 at Highbury with Wayne Bridge scoring very late to send us crying back to North London. 3 defeats in total in the Champions League.
No, we couldn't
And the FA Cup? Our trophy? Leeds first and dispatched 4-1. Then Middlesbrough 4-1. Then Chelsea 2-1 and Portsmouth 5-1 to leave us Man Utd in the semi’s. But they beat us 1-0 thanks to a Paul Scholes goal. 1 defeat.
Scholes scores for our old enemy
Which left us with 3 defeats in the first half of the season and 4 in the second. It only left us the league to be undefeated. Could we do it there and prove that Arsene Wenger was not stand-up comedian material but instead soberly looking at his team and saying “We can do it”? Some good results in those other trophies aside, there weren’t a huge amount of reasons to have that idea. I don’t remember having much belief myself. In October, I was in a pub in Dublin watching Arsenal draw with Charlton 1-1 and was talking to a random stranger who opined that Arsenal are not so good this year, too many draws. It was hard to argue. Next week I will take a look at what happened in the league in what was maybe our most momentous season.