2003–04 Arsenal F.C. season

Arsenal
2003–04 season
ChairmanPeter Hill-Wood
ManagerArsène Wenger
StadiumHighbury
FA Premier League1st
FA CupSemi-finals
League CupSemi-finals
FA Community ShieldRunners-up
UEFA Champions LeagueQuarter-finals
Top goalscorerLeague: Thierry Henry (30)
All: Thierry Henry (39)
Highest home attendance38,184 vs Manchester United
(28 March 2004)[1]
Lowest home attendance27,451 vs Rotherham United
(28 October 2003)[1]
Average home league attendance38,078[2]

The 2003–04 season was the 109th in the history of Arsenal Football Club. It began on 1 July 2003 and concluded on 30 June 2004, with competitive matches played between August and May. The club ended the Premier League campaign as champions without a single defeat – a record of 26 wins and 12 draws. Arsenal fared less well in the cups, eliminated in the FA Cup and League Cup semi-finals to Manchester United and Middlesbrough respectively, and at the quarter-final stage of the UEFA Champions League to Chelsea.

Arsenal did little business in the transfer market early in the season due to the financial demands that came with the club's new stadium project. The main addition to the first team was goalkeeper Jens Lehmann for £1.5 million; striker José Antonio Reyes was later purchased in the winter transfer window. Arsenal retained their best players and successfully negotiated new contracts for captain Patrick Vieira and midfielder Robert Pires. The stability of the squad meant Arsenal were considered front-runners for the Premier League title, along with Manchester United, and Chelsea who were taken over by Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich.

A strong start to the season saw Arsenal top the league table after four matches. The team's draw at Manchester United in September marked an unsavoury episode between both clubs: several Arsenal players were charged and fined accordingly by The Football Association for their part in a mass brawl that occurred after the match. In November, Arsenal beat Dynamo Kyiv by a single goal and more impressively scored five against Inter Milan at the San Siro – two results which kick-started their Champions League campaign. At the turn of the year, the team won nine league matches in a row to consolidate first position. In the first week of April, they were eliminated from the FA Cup and Champions League, but by the end of the month had secured their status as league champions, with a 2–2 draw against local rivals Tottenham Hotspur.

34 different players represented the club in five competitions and there were 15 different goalscorers. Arsenal's top goalscorer for the third year running was Thierry Henry, who scored 39 goals in 51 games. The Frenchman was given the accolade of PFA Players' Player of the Year by his fellow peers and the FWA Footballer of the Year by football writers. Although the Arsenal team were unsuccessful in cup competitions, their dominance in the league was regarded by many commentators as a standalone achievement. They acquired the nickname "The Invincibles", much like the Preston North End team that went unbeaten in the inaugural Football League season. The club was awarded a golden replica trophy by the Premier League once the season concluded and they remained unbeaten for 49 games, setting a new record. In 2012, the Arsenal team of 2003–04 won the "Best Team" category in the Premier League 20 Seasons Awards.

Background

A coloured photograph of Arsène Wenger, who managed Arsenal for his eighth season
Arsène Wenger, manager of Arsenal

Arsenal had finished the previous season as runners-up in the Premier League, overhauled by Manchester United in the final ten weeks of the season.[3] The club did, however, retain the FA Cup, with a 1–0 win against Southampton.[4] Such was Arsenal's effective start to the 2002–03 campaign, manager Arsène Wenger suggested his team could remain the whole season undefeated in all competitions:

It's not impossible as A.C. Milan once did it but I can't see why it's so shocking to say it. Do you think Manchester United, Liverpool or Chelsea don't dream that as well? They're exactly the same. They just don't say it because they're scared to look ridiculous, but nobody is ridiculous in this job as we know anything can happen.[nb 1][6]

The team lost to Everton a month after Wenger's proclamation; teenager Wayne Rooney scored the match winner, which ended a run of 30 league games without defeat.[7] By February 2003, Arsenal moved five points clear of Manchester United at the top of the league table, but injuries to key players, not least captain Patrick Vieira, had destabilised the team.[8] Draws in April, coupled with a defeat to Leeds United at home, mathematically ended Arsenal's chances of retaining the title.[3] Wenger refuted opinions from the media that their season was a failure and said:

Of course we want to win the league, but I think the most difficult thing for the club is to be consistent and we have been remarkably consistent. We lose the league to a team [Manchester United] who spends 50% more money every year – last year they bought a player for £30 million when they lost the championship. They will do the same next year and we [have] done miracles just to fight with them.[9]

In the close season, Chelsea was sold to Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich for £140 million, the biggest takeover in British football history at the time.[10][nb 2] The takeover was welcomed by journalist Daniel King, who commented the club were better able to "break the Manchester United-Arsenal duopoly" in the league.[12] Arsenal vice-chairman David Dein however was displeased, and quipped that Abramovich had "parked his Russian tanks on our lawn and is firing £50 notes at us",[13] Abramovich was said to have placed a bid for Arsenal striker Thierry Henry, which was turned down at once.[14]

League finish predictions
Source No.
The Guardian[nb 3] 3rd[15]
Guardian Unlimited 1st[16]
The Independent 3rd[17]
The Independent on Sunday 5th[18]
The Observer 1st[19]
The Sunday Times 3rd[20]
Sunday Tribune 2nd[21]

Arsenal's transfer activity in the summer was relatively quiet, given the financial constraints that came with the club's new stadium project.[22][nb 4] The club were able to keep the core of its team, successfully negotiating new contracts for Vieira and winger Robert Pires.[25] German goalkeeper Jens Lehmann was the only major addition to the first team; he replaced David Seaman who joined Manchester City.[26] Ukrainian defender Oleh Luzhny ended his four-year association with the club by joining Wolverhampton Wanderers on a free transfer, while striker Graham Barrett moved to Coventry City.[27] Striker Francis Jeffers, who found opportunities limited in the first team, joined his former club Everton on a season-long loan.[28] Giovanni van Bronckhorst moved to Barcelona on a similar deal, with a view to a permanent transfer at the end of the season.[29] Several young players were acquired from academies abroad, namely Gaël Clichy from Cannes and Johan Djourou, formerly of Étoile Carouge.[30] In January 2004, Arsenal signed Spanish striker José Antonio Reyes from Sevilla and in April agreed a deal with Feyenoord for winger Robin van Persie.[31]

Wenger at the start of the season prioritised regaining the league title: "I feel it is very important in our minds to do this and I know the hunger is strong to do it," and named Newcastle United and Liverpool, along with Manchester United and Chelsea, as Arsenal's main rivals for the Premier League.[32][33] Former Arsenal midfielder Paul Merson asserted that his old club were favourites because they had the "best players … If they all remain fit week-in week-out then they will not be beaten."[34] Glenn Moore of The Independent wrote of Arsenal's chances: "They will be thereabouts, but unless Wenger finally puts his faith in youth, and the likes of Jérémie Aliadière, Jermaine Pennant and Phillipe Senderos repay him, they may lack the depth to sustain a title campaign."[17] Defender Sol Campbell however believed the squad was "strong enough for the league and FA Cup", but doubted their chances of winning the UEFA Champions League.[35]

The club's home strip remained unchanged from the previous season; a red jersey with white sleeves, shorts and socks.[36] The new away kit, a retro yellow jersey with a blue collar trim and shorts, was based on the Arsenal strip worn in the 1979 FA Cup Final.[37][38]

Transfers