NARRATIVE. 20 years ago, the Arsenal “Invincibles” wrote Premier League history

There must have been many Arsenal supporters celebrating Watford’s victory on February 28, 2020 against Liverpool (3-0). For this 28th day, Jürgen Klopp’s Reds presented themselves at Vicarage Road with an almost immaculate record (26 wins, one draw). The crazy dream of an undefeated season then took on more and more weight and among Arsenal supporters, we slowly began to bite our nails. But a double from Ismaïla Sarr and a goal from Troy Deeney dashed the hopes of the Liverpuldiens… to the delight of the Londoners.

For one more season, the Arsenal Invincibles would remain alone at the top. They are the only teams in the pantheon to have completed a Premier League season without experiencing the slightest defeat, with a league title up for grabs. Liverpool had already come close the season before, in 2018-2019, conceding only one setback, against Manchester City, who would take the trophy by a small point.

Van Nistelrooy’s penalty, a first turning point

26 wins, 12 draws, 0 losses. In 2003-2004, Arsenal achieved the feat of finishing the season undefeated. A feat which nevertheless began… with a defeat. For their first pre-season match, the Gunners were surprised by Peterborough (1-0). Certainly, Arsène Wenger had, logically, rotated a lot and composed without Thierry Henry, Ashley Cole, Patrick Vieira or even Dennis Bergkamp. Without knowing it, Peterborough joined the very exclusive club of teams having beaten the Invincibles, alongside Chelsea and Inter Milan (in the Champions League) or Manchester United (in the FA Cup).

This pre-season tour, Pascal Cygan was on it. The tall central defender (1.92 m) had joined the Gunners the season before. “I arrived in the squad as a complementary player. In front of me, there was Sol Campbell, Kolo Touré, Martin Keown… I was there to fill in”, he explains. But the Frenchman nevertheless had a real role that season, playing 18 of the 38 championship matches, including 10 as a starter.

The Gunners have had a good start to the season. Arsenal started with four victories before being held to a draw by Portsmouth (1-1). The sixth day of the championship marks a first turning point. On the lawn of the hated rival, Manchester United, Arsenal comes very close to the correctional facility. Patrick Vieira sees red and, with ten men, the Londoners concede a penalty at the very end of the match. A shot on goal missed by Ruud van Nistelrooy (90’+3), the Dutchman sending his shot onto the crossbar of a beaten Jens Lehmann, to the delight of Martin Keown who did not hesitate to let it be known to the Mancunian.

Cygan on Henry: “As soon as he left, we could already raise our arms to the sky”

The train has started. With a certain Thierry Henry as the driving force. The number 14 scored eight times in the first ten days, notably against Newcastle, Chelsea and Aston Villa. He will do it again throughout the season. The former Monegasque will finish the year with 30 goals and 6 assists. “It was the tip of the spear, remembers Pascal Cygan. As soon as the ball was thrown deep and he had possession of the ball, it ended up in the back of the net. As soon as he left, we could already raise our arms to the sky. »

Henry will be elected PFA (players’ union) player of the season and won the Golden Goot top scorer. In its wake, a united group with a strong French accent. Patrick Vieira, Sylvain Wiltord, Gaël Clichy, Jérémie Aliadière, Robert Pirès and therefore, Pascal Cygan. “When you have Henry, Vieira, Wiltord or Pirès in your team… It makes the job easier. It helped us because we were together, it was easier for integration. »

Thierry Henry, top scorer and best player of the 2003-2004 season. | PHOTO: ODD ANDERSEN / AFP
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Thierry Henry, top scorer and best player of the 2003-2004 season. | PHOTO: ODD ANDERSEN / AFP

It must also be said that the rest of the squad did not lack talent either. “When you are accompanied by Bergkamp, ​​a magician, Ashley Cole or Sol Campbell, they are still considerable assets”, confirms the former Lille defender. The rest of the season unfolds like a dream. Arsenal are certainly experiencing hiccups, exiting in the quarter-final of the Champions League against Chelsea (2-3 aggregate score), losing in the semi-finals of the League Cup and the FA Cup. But in the championship, the crazy series extends again and again.

“We took Arsène a bit for a madman”

The English press quickly began to sense that an exploit was in progress. The idea of ​​an undefeated season is making its way to the Londoners’ locker room. “The more the series grew, the more it made headlines so it was difficult to miss that in England at that time, remembers Pascal Cygan. But we absolutely didn’t focus on that. I don’t remember us asking ourselves any questions, we knew that almost nothing could happen to us, even if a player were to get injured. There was such a united and strong group…”

A group led by Arsène Wenger, the architect behind the success of the Gunners. Because if the press smelled the historic season, it was not the only one. “Arsène said at the start of the year that he didn’t see why we couldn’t do it (to be undefeated). We thought he was a bit crazy at that moment. But we had the feeling that nothing could happen to us. Arsène must have probably felt it… It’s even difficult to talk about it now, in hindsight, because, at that moment, our eyes are wide open and we don’t think of anything else, we enjoy it. »

26-12-0, Arsenal finished the 2003-2004 season undefeated. | PHOTO: JIM WATSON / AFP
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26-12-0, Arsenal finished the 2003-2004 season undefeated. | PHOTO: JIM WATSON / AFP

The end of the season is not obvious. Between the 30th and 38th day, Arsenal conceded five draws for four victories. Thanks to Louis Saha, Manchester United snatch a draw at Highbury. Tottenham also saved a point thanks to a goal at the very end of the match from Robbie Keane (2-2). Portsmouth, again, holds the Gunners in check (1-1). But none of his teams managed to bring down Arsène Wenger’s group. “I had the feeling that in each match our opponents would be content with a draw against us or a small defeat”Cygan slips.

On May 15, 2004, in Highbury, Arsenal laid the last stone of its unshakable building. Against Leicester (2-1), Thierry Henry and Patrick Vieira completed a historic season. The Gunners become the Invincibles and receive their golden trophy. The British press is rave. The tabloid News of the World nickname them “Immortals” while The Independent estimated “that perhaps there is some truth in Arsene Wenger’s statement that Arsenal’s achievement was a greater triumph than winning the Champions League. »

READ ALSO. INTERVIEW. “I almost only stayed in Villarreal for an hour”: what has become of you Pascal Cygan?

20 years ago, the Invincibles made history forever. Their feat remains, even today, a benchmark in the Premier League. As a symbol, the 26 victories of this 2003-2004 season have just been beaten by Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal. Who can still mathematically be crowned champion despite the success of Manchester City at Tottenham (0-2). 20 years later, we can hardly dream of a better tribute to The Invincibles.

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