Arsenal's Invincibles: The 49ers from Highbury, and a slice of Old Trafford trouble

Oleh John Skilbeck 24 Oktober 2020 52
Arsenal's Invincibles: The 49ers from Highbury, and a slice of Old Trafford trouble

How it started: With a Jermaine Pennant hat-trick against Southampton, in a "farcical" game.

How's it going? Try asking Britain's most decorated football manager, standing at the heart of his Manchester United kingdom, smeared in mozzarella, tomato and pepperoni.

It's October 24, 2004, and Alex Ferguson needs a change of outfit before heading to post-match interviews.

His United team have halted Arsenal in their tracks, a 2-0 victory at Old Trafford ending the Gunners' record 49-game unbeaten run in the Premier League.

And while Ferguson might be smarting as the victim of what would become known as 'pizza-gate', just moments ago he was rejoicing while Arsene Wenger was seething.

For the Scot, the next day's dry-cleaning bill would be a small price to pay.

But even Ferguson must have felt a grudging admiration, for he and United never scaled the heights that Wenger and his Invincibles reached in their greatest year.

Who were the Invincibles and how did their run begin?

Arsenal had already won the Premier League twice already under Wenger, in the 1997-98 and 2001-02 seasons, and they were hot favourites for the 2002-03 crown when a 2-0 victory over Charlton Athletic on March 2 gave them an eight-point lead over Ferguson's United.

They blew it from there, ultimately surrendering the last lingering hopes of the title when losing 3-2 at home to Leeds United on May 4, Mark Viduka striking a super late winner for Peter Reid's visitors to Highbury.

Manchester United, with whom Arsenal were waging a bitter rivalry, scooped the silverware.

But that loss to Leeds was the trigger point for the longest unbeaten run in English top-flight history, and three days later Arsenal crushed Southampton 6-1 in what would prove to be game one of their historic achievement.

The BBC reported it as "a slightly farcical" victory for Arsenal against Southampton that night, with both sides resting a host of players ahead of their meeting later in the month in the FA Cup final.

Pennant hit a treble and so did Robert Pires. Only one of that pair played an integral role for the duration of the Invincibles' run. Reader, it was not Jermaine Pennant.

Arsenal signed off their 2002-03 league campaign with a 4-0 win at Sunderland, where Freddie Ljungberg helped himself to a hat-trick too, but it was the following campaign where Wenger's men were truly sensational.

Unstoppable Gunners

Arsenal began 2003-04 in the Premier League with four straight wins before a draw with Portsmouth checked their charge ahead of a trip to Old Trafford on September 21 - a game that stoked the tension for what that occurred 13 months later.

Down to 10 men after Patrick Vieira saw red for kicking out at Ruud van Nistelrooy, Arsenal conceded a 90th-minute penalty. Van Nistelrooy stepped up with the chance to win the game - only for the Dutchman to smack his spot-kick against Jens Lehmann's crossbar.

Arsenal stars, including Martin Keown, playing the big man, confronted Van Nistelrooy at the final whistle, amid unsavoury scenes that saw the Gunners fined £175,000 by the Football Association, with short-term bans scattered among the unruliest of the players.

Arsenal escaped that day with a draw and never looked back. A 1-1 draw with United at Highbury in March left Arsenal seven points clear of second-placed Chelsea, and Thierry Henry's hat-trick in the next home game sealed a 4-2 win over Liverpool, proving a soothing result after FA Cup and Champions League exits.

United ended their FA Cup run and Chelsea eliminated Arsenal from Europe - sore losses, both.

Yet a 2-2 draw at Tottenham secured the title, with Arsenal grandstanding at White Hart Lane, home of their great north London rivals, and still their Premier League aura remained.

How it ended

Eight wins from nine at the start of the 2004-05 campaign pointed to Arsenal being prime contenders for another title. For how long would they stay unbeaten? Could the Invincibles repeat the trick?

United had won just three of nine by the time Arsenal arrived at Old Trafford on that fateful October day, when Van Nistelrooy this time made no mistake with a second-half penalty before Wayne Rooney marked his 19th birthday by sealing the home side's win late on.

If that was the main course, the tasty afters were reserved only for those with behind-the-scenes access, with word trickling out of chaos in the tunnel, by the dressing rooms.

Ferguson, in his 2013 book My Autobiography, wrote that Wenger "was livid" after the game.

"His fists were clenched," Ferguson claimed.

Soup was thrown. Or was it pizza? Maybe it was both, as many reported at the time - pea soup or tomato soup, depending on your newspaper of choice.

Ferguson would know, and he wrote in his book: "The next thing I knew I had pizza all over me."

The players were at loggerheads, and in admitting his guilt as recently as 2017, Cesc Fabregas said he had ventured out of the Arsenal dressing room to see punches being thrown.

The 17-year-old Fabregas, a slight figure not built for dust-ups, decided the pizza would be his tool of war, and off it went into the throng, unwittingly finding what some might consider the bullseye of all bullseyes.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Which one brings you the best memories? 

A post shared by Cesc Fàbregas (@cescf4bregas) on

Invincibles never die, and nor do their statistics

Arsenal went past the previous record of 42 unbeaten top flight games, set by Brian Clough's Nottingham Forest from 1977 to 1978, when they thumped Blackburn Rovers 3-0 at Highbury on August 25, 2004.

The third goal that day was scored by Jose Antonio Reyes, a January acquisition who shone brightly at Arsenal for a while, played for Spain at the 2006 World Cup and also appeared for Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid and Sevilla. In June 2019, Reyes died in a car accident.

In their famous run, Arsenal won 36 times and drew 13 matches, scoring 112 goals and conceding just 35, with 20 clean sheets.

Thierry Henry and Kolo Toure each appeared in all but one of the games, with goalkeeper Lehmann playing 47 times and winger Pires next on the list with 45 outings, ahead of Ashley Cole and Lauren (both 41), Dennis Bergkamp, Ljungberg and Gilberto Silva (all 39) and Sol Campbell (38).

Henry was at his magnificent peak, plundering 39 goals across the run, along with 19 assists, with Pires scoring 23 and Ljungberg 10. Reyes bagged eight and Bergkamp seven, the Dutchman adding 13 assists.

It meant that Henry had an involvement - putting the ball in the back of the net or setting up the chance - in 52 per cent of Arsenal's goals in those 49 games.

Pires, also in his pomp, was next, playing a part in 29 per cent of the goals, with Bergkamp (18 per cent), Ljungberg (17 per cent) and Reyes (12 per cent) rounding off the top five contributors at the sharp end.

Could anyone go 50 unbeaten now?

Liverpool got to 44 before Watford stopped them in their tracks earlier this year, and the truth of it is that footballers are imperfect and will have bad days.

Manchester City reached 30 unbeaten before Liverpool beat them 4-3 in January 2018.

Arsenal's Invincibles remain held up by many as the benchmark team of the Premier League era.

Pep Guardiola's Manchester City reached 100 points, Liverpool hit 99 last season, but they both had slips along the way. Arsenal completed a full season unbeaten in the league, and then some.

Wenger's third Premier League trophy was also his last, but his greatest Gunners regiment, from field marshals Henry and Bergkamp down to lance corporals Pascal Cygan and Jeremie Aliadiere, will not be forgotten in a long time.

And 'pizza-gate' might carry different connotations in the modern world, but there was no conspiracy theory surrounding the Old Trafford flying slice.

It happened all right. Perhaps somewhere there are still the stains to prove it.

Tentang Penulis

John Skilbeck

Komen