Football Features

How close the 2003/04 Arsenal side came to losing ‘Invincible’ status in each of their 12 draws

By Chris Smith

Published: 16:36, 25 April 2020

In 2003/04, Arsenal achieved the improbable by going the entire Premier League season without defeat.

All of the iconic Manchester United sides of the Premier League era, Pep Guardiola’s recent back-to-back title winners and even Jose Mourinho’s ruthless defensive unit of 2004/05. None of them could go a whole season unbeaten.

Even so, with 12 draws to their name, Arsene Wenger’s 03/04 history-makers are an unexpectedly popular target for detractors (the kind who’d be quick to remind you their 90-point total that season has been bested no fewer than five times over the 15 years since).

Even some of those involved freely admit they occasionally had to rely upon the rub of the green. As Jens Lehmann said, “At times, we were lucky as well.” Importantly, though, the former goalkeeper adds that –¬† and few would disagree – “you have to work hard to earn your good fortune.”

Earn their good fortune Arsenal certainly did. And it’s also true all title-winners need luck. But how much did Arsenal ever¬† come to falling short of one of the most iconic, unique feats in Premier League history? We took a look at each of their 12 draws to see how they played out.

1. Arsenal 1-1 Portsmouth (week 5)

Goals:¬†Teddy Sheringham 26′, Thierry Henry 39′ (pen)

Having taken 12 points from Everton, Middlesbrough, Aston Villa and Manchester City in the opening four games, conceding just two goals along the way, Arsenal were expected to stream roll Premier League newcomers Portsmouth in week five. However, Harry Redknapp’s side were unbeaten themselves at that point, surprising many with their adaptation to the top flight.

Rather than sitting deep and allowing Arsenal to dictate, Portsmouth went after the Gunners, pressing them deep in opposition territory and disrupting their normal, free-flowing rhythm. Redknapp used the energetic central midfield pairing of Amdy Faye and Nigel Quashie to full effect and this was exactly how his side found the opening goal.

In the 29th minute, Faye hassled Patrick Vieira deep inside the Arsenal half, forcing him to give up possession. Patrick Berger worked the ball to the right before Steve Stone was slipped in behind Ashley Cole, who had lost track of his compatriot’s run just inside of him. Stone delivered a dangerous cross into the six-yard box for Teddy Sheringham, who had lost his centre-backs and placed himself on right-back Lauren, to head home the opener.

If Portsmouth’s goal had come through excellent execution of a gameplan, Arsenal’s was a result of anything but. Shortly before half-time, Robert Pires linked up with Edu before charging into the Portsmouth penalty area and apparently being felled by Dejan Stevanovic. On closer inspection, the contact to bring Pires down was questionable at best, with the Frenchman leaving his leg in rather than being fouled, but referee Alan Wiley pointed to the spot. Thierry Henry converted but then had to retake with Wiley spotting encroachment from the Arsenal players; the France international held his nerve to fire into the opposite corner, bringing the Gunners level.

Were Arsenal lucky?¬†In the second half, the Gunners played far better and really should have found the winner through any one of Ray Parlour (x2), Dennis Bergkamp, Henry, Edu or Kolo Toure’s efforts. However, they were off the pace in the first half and only found themselves level via a very questionable penalty. So, in that sense,¬†yes, you could say they were very lucky in this one.

2. Manchester United 0-0 Arsenal (week 6)

Battle of Old Trafford

Just one game after drawing to Portsmouth, Arsenal were again held but this time under very different circumstances. Aptly named “the Battle of Old Trafford”, the 0-0 draw between Man Utd and Arsenal was a defensive, physical¬†affair.

Wenger dropped Pires and Sylvain Wiltord in favour of Parlour and Freddie Ljungberg to create a narrow, workmanlike midfield. Without the injured Paul Scholes, Sir Alex Ferguson was forced to do the same, naming Roy Keane, Phil Neville and Quinton Fortune in a robust, defensive midfield.

Arsenal didn’t manage a single shot on target throughout the match and were reduced to 10 men in the final 10 minutes when Vieira was shown a second yellow card for kicking out at Ruud van Nistelrooy following an aerial duel.

United were handed a late penalty when Diego Forlan went to ground under a challenge from Martin Keown, but Van Nistelrooy missed. What followed was one of the most famous moments in Premier League history, with Keown leading a charge of his Arsenal teammates in barracking Van Nistelrooy for his miss. They continued their provocation after the final whistle, but Van Nistelrooy kept his cool and was led away from the pitch by Keane.

Were Arsenal lucky?¬†This was a dogged defensive performance but there’s no getting away from the fact that,¬†yes, Arsenal got away with this one. Ryan Giggs hit the post with a free-kick long before Van Nistelrooy’s penalty rattled the crossbar and United totally dominated this encounter.

3. Charlton Athletic 1-1 Arsenal (week 10)

Arsenal’s Thierry Henry scores the equalising goal from a free kick against Charlton Athletic

Goals:¬†Paolo Di Canio 27′ (pen),¬†Thierry Henry 39′

Arsenal impressively put away Newcastle United, Liverpool and Chelsea following the Battle of Old Trafford, but were once again held in week 10 away at Charlton Athletic, who were also searching for their fourth consecutive Premier League win.

Scott Parker was at his destructive best for Alan Curbishley’s men, while right-back Radostin Kishishev tore down the flank to effectively pin back Ashley Cole and Paolo Di Canio dropped deep to link play and construct counter-attacks. This, coupled with a sluggish start from Arsenal, made for an intense, fast-paced first half.

Just like the Portsmouth game, Arsenal saw a contentious penalty awarded, only this time it went against them as Matt Holland went down in the penalty area while running across Lauren, although there appeared to be no contact. Lauren was booked for his protests and eventually, Di Canio was able to chip the ball home in typical, theatrical style.

However, while Arsenal felt hard done by, the penalty only served to wake them. Pires pushed inside to link with Henry, who had previously been operating on a different plane of existence to his teammates, and Charlton were pushed back. Henry struck the post with a wonderful effort, cutting inside onto his left foot but just moments later, he placed a wonderful free-kick into the far corner beyond Dean Kiely to level it up.

Were Arsenal lucky? No. Charlton once again pressed Arsenal after the break and although the Addicks came close to scoring on a couple of occasions, Wenger’s men were good value for a point, showing great resolve and defensive discipline away from home.

4. Arsenal 0-0 Fulham (week 14)

Another three wins — including 2-1 in the north London derby against Tottenham — followed Arsenal’s stalemate with Charlton before they were held by another capital club, this time Fulham at Highbury. It was the first time in 47 home matches that Arsenal had failed to score in the Premier League.

However, it certainly wasn’t for the want of trying as Arsenal thew numbers forward time and again in search of a winner. The Gunners repeatedly worked the ball to the left to get Pires and Henry into one-on-one situations with former Arsenal right-back Moritz Volz, who was simply unable to cope with the French duo’s pace and trickery.

Time and again, Arsenal had joy in this area of the pitch, while their long diagonal passes pulled Fulham’s backline apart at will. But an inspired Edwin van der Sar ensured it was a frustrating day at the office for Wenger, despite the incredibly one-sided nature of the game.

Were Arsenal lucky?¬†Although Steed Malbranque should have headed Fulham ahead in the 65th minute,¬†no, Arsenal certainly weren’t lucky here. If anything, they were incredibly unlucky to run into Van der Sar in top form, with the Dutchman making seven saves in the first half alone. On another day, the Gunners could have run up a cricket score against their London rivals.

5. Leicester City 1-1 Arsenal (week 15)

Goals:¬†Gilberto Silva 60′,¬†Craig Hignett 90+3′

Arsenal were held to a second successive draw when travelling away to Leicester City in week 15 but whereas their draw with Fulham was thanks to goalkeeping heroics, this was a much more well-balanced affair. 

Wenger was without captain Vieira and the talismanic Henry and it really showed. Their passing was slow and laboured and they suffered greatly without Henry’s movement up-front.

Leicester had little appetite to respect their unbeaten opponents and instead closed down Arsenal’s sluggish midfielders with intensity, while an ageing Les Ferdinand showed all of his experience with clever movement up-front and could have opened the scoring on a number of occasions. Nevertheless, Arsenal were able to finally edge ahead on the hour mark when Gilberto Silva powered home a Bergkamp cross after the Dutchman had skipped past a few weak Leicester challenges.

Even with a Cole red card, that looked to have sealed things for the Gunners, but they were punished for not extending the lead deep into second-half injury time when James Scowcroft beat Gilberto in the air and nodded down to Craig Hignett, who poked the ball home having slipped between Arsenal centre-backs Sol Campbell and Pascal Cygan.

Were Arsenal lucky?¬†Although they were far from their best, Arsenal created a number of chances to win this one and were only denied by some fantastic goalkeeping from¬†Ian Walker.¬†No, they weren’t lucky. Rather, they were unlucky to see their defence breached in injury-time having played out the final 20 minutes with 10 men.

6. Bolton Wanderers 1-1 Arsenal (week 17)

Goals:¬†Robert Pires 57′,¬†Henrik Pedersen 83′

Henry was back but Arsenal were still really struggling for goals, narrowly beating Blackburn Rovers 1-0 at home in week 16. Week 17 saw them travel to the Reebok Stadium to take on Sam Allardyce’s famously robust Bolton Wanderers.

Pires did put Arsenal ahead just before the hour but there’s no denying Bolton dominated this one. In typical style, the Lancashire side repeatedly hammered the ball forward to Kevin Davies, who had positioned himself on suspect centre-back, Cygan. The Frenchman had no hope of winning aerial duels against Davies, was repeatedly bullied by the physical striker and found himself dragged out of position on a number of occasions, leaving huge chasms in the Arsenal defence.

This method paid dividends in the final 10 minutes when Davies once again beat Cygan in the air, nodding the ball down to Henrik Pederson, who fired home a superb and deserved equaliser from the edge of the box.

Were Arsenal lucky?¬†Jay Jay Okocha hit the woodwork shortly after Pires’ opener, while Jens Lehmann had to be alert to stop a number of Bolton efforts. Pedersen’s equaliser was deserved when it arrived and Arsenal were largely dominated from start to finish in this one so,¬†yes, they were lucky to take a point — even if they had taken the lead.

7. Everton 1-1 Arsenal (week 20)

Goals:¬†Kanu 29′,¬†Tomasz Radzinski 75′

Arsenal were still picking up results going into the new year, but they were far from convincing and were struggling to keep hold of their lead at the top of the table. Draw number seven came at Goodison Park in week 20, when the Gunners were held 1-1 by David Moyes’ Everton.

Wenger’s men took the lead largely against the run of play in the 29th minute when Kanu got himself between centre-back David Unsworth and left-back Gary Naysmith, before being found by a wonderful Ljunbjerg through-ball — the Nigerian striker finished coolly beyond Nigel Martyn.

After the break, Arsenal sat in and invited Everton onto them and could have caught the Toffees out with a number of counter-attacks with Henry ever-alert, but Moyes’ side were just about able to keep a lid on their defence.

Furthermore, as Everton’s line moved higher, Arsenal found it harder to break out and finally succumbed to the pressure in the 75th minute. Much as Davies had done for Bolton, Duncan Ferguson tempted Cygan out of his centre-back position and into an aerial duel he was never going to win. The ball was flicked on and when Cole failed to clear his lines, Francis Jeffers — on loan from Arsenal — found himself in on goal. Lehmann saved but the rebound found its way to Tomasz Radzinski, who fired home despite the best efforts of Lauren as he was overstretched thanks to Cygan leaving his position.

Were Arsenal lucky? Once again an opposition manager had pitted his physical target man against Cygan and it again caused havoc in the Arsenal defence. Wayne Rooney missed a number of chances in this one and although Arsenal themselves could have extended their lead, yes, they were rather lucky to leave Goodison Park with a point.

8. Arsenal 1-1 Manchester United (week 30)

Goals:¬†Thierry Henry 50′, Louis Saha 86′

Following their draw with Everton, Arsenal went on the rampage with nine wins in a row in a run which gave them a stranglehold on the title. Predictably, that run was finally ended by none other than Manchester United at Highbury in week 30.

Tempers were still clearly high from the season’s earlier meeting and although fireworks were at more of a premium, the game lost none of its intensity as both sides went at each other in search of goals, while Wenger and Ferguson were involved in a number of touchline exchanges.

It took until the 50th minute for Arsenal to finally find the opener, with Henry crashing home a long-range effort after some neat interplay with Jose Antonio Reyes. Moments later, United were denied a penalty as referee Graham Poll was unmoved after Campbell clumsily challenged Giggs in the box.

But United did eventually level in the 86th minute with Louis Saha finishing an Ole Gunnar Solskjaer cross at the far post.

Were Arsenal lucky?¬†No. As much as the likes of Van Nistelrooy wasted good chances to win the game and United were wrongly denied a penalty, Arsenal could also have found a winner through any one of Henry, Reyes or Ljungberg. In a game which tilted just as much in Arsenal’s favour as it did United’s, accusing the Gunners of being ‘lucky’ not to lose would be quite harsh.

9. Newcastle United 0-0 Arsenal (week 32)

Arsenal impressively saw off Liverpool 4-2 following their draw with United and backed that result up with a valuable 0-0 draw away at Newcastle.

In reality, it could have been so much better for Wenger’s side, who dominated the Magpies from start to finish and saw Henry denied by the post having rounded Shay Given.¬† That was one of a host of Arsenal chances in a game they really should have won comfortably, even with Lehmann forced into a superb save to deny Craig Bellamy.

Nevertheless, the point moved Arsenal that much closer to clinching the title, and that much closer to sealing their unbeaten season.

Were Arsenal lucky?¬†Given that this was their fourth game in eight days, Arsenal would probably have taken the point beforehand. That said, they created more than enough chances to win this one on another day and,¬†no, they certainly weren’t lucky in claiming a draw.

10. Tottenham Hotspur 2-2 Arsenal (week 34)

Goals:¬†Patrick Vieira 03′,¬†Robert Pires 35′, Jamie Redknapp 62′, Robbie Keane 90+4′ (pen)

A 5-0 thumping of Leeds United meant Arsenal headed to White Hart Lane in week 34 needing just a point against rivals Tottenham to seal the title. For a long while, it looked like they’d take so much more.

The Gunners took the lead after just three minutes in familiar fashion — with Henry tearing away on the break and Bergkamp squaring it for the assist. This time, however, it was Vieira on hand to finish inside the box. Those two combined again inside the Spurs penalty area, this time to tee up Pires, who slotted home to double the away side’s lead and bring the title tantalisingly close.

But Spurs were in no mood to roll over for their north London rivals and when a long-range Jamie Redknapp effort found the back of the net just after the hour mark, it was game on. Robbie Keane proved a menace up-front for Spurs, probing across the pitch to find holes in the Arsenal defence and dropping between the lines to intelligently link with his teammates.

Pires hit the crossbar in the 78th minute but Spurs finally found an equaliser in stoppage time, with Keane converting a penalty he’d won after Lehmann had climbed on top of him trying to deal with a cross.

Spurs had restored some pride, but it wasn’t enough to stop the agony of Arsenal sealing the title on their home patch.

Were Arsenal lucky?¬†Spurs were far better in the second half but in all honesty, Arsenal should have had things wrapped up by half time having taken an early 2-0 lead. No, the Gunners weren’t lucky to escape with a draw, rather, they let the lead slip having taken their eye off the ball with title glory looming.

11. Arsenal 0-0 Birmingham City (week 35)

The title was sealed and for Arsenal, the final few weeks were all about holding on to their unbeaten status. “Holding on” seems like quite an apt description of their efforts against Birmingham City. The Gunners were quite simply terrible against the Blues, not matching the party atmosphere in the stands.

Birmingham constantly pounced on sluggish Arsenal build-up play, seeking to win the ball and quickly counter the out-of-sorts champions, and were only denied by a string of impressive saves from Lehmann. Clinton Morrison was also harshly penalised for a foul on Lehmann as the German dropped the ball just in front of his own line.

But, somehow, the Gunners did hold on, relying more on defensive grit from the likes of Toure and Campbell, rather than the attacking finesse of Henry and Bergkamp.

Were Arsenal lucky? There was bound to be a title hangover, especially after sealing it at White Hart Lane, but yes, Arsenal were rather fortunate not to lose this one. Wenger’s side were off the pace and on another day, Morrison wouldn’t have been penalised and Lehmann may not have saved former Spurs midfielder Stephen Clemence’s effort.

12. Portsmouth 1-1 Arsenal (week 36)

Goals:¬†Yakubu 30′,¬†Jose Antonio Reyes 50′

In a run of three straight draws, Arsenal were once again suffering from a post-title hangover when they travelled to Portsmouth in week 36, with the south coast side joining United as the only sides not to lose against the Gunners in 2003/04.

Yakubu this time started up front with the more energetic Lomana LuaLua and the two dovetailed brilliantly, with one dropping off to draw out a centre-back and the other charging into the space behind. This was especially effective on the counter-attack and unlike their meeting earlier in the season, Pompey were happy to sit in and invite Arsenal onto them.

It was Yakubu who fired the home side in front after 30 minutes, with Quashie dragging Toure out of position on the left, allowing the Nigerian space to connect with a long ball over the Arsenal defence. Despite the best efforts of the recovering Toure and Campbell, Yakubu was able to chip the ball over Lehmann and into the net.

Henry awoke after the break and often drew two or three Portsmouth players to him with his teasing runs down the left, creating space for his fellow forwards. Reyes — who had rattled the crossbar in the first half — was able to drill a low volley to equalise in the 50th minute at the end of one such move.

And although Reyes could have put Arsenal ahead shortly after, Yakubu undoubtedly should have brought the Gunners’ unbeaten run to an end, once again combining with LuaLua late on to race clear of the defence. With only the ‘keeper to beat, he fired straight into Lehmann’s grateful chest, squandering a golden chance to halt Arsenal’s history makers.

Were Arsenal lucky?¬†Arsenal had chances of their own in this one, but¬†yes, you can’t deny they were lucky to see Yakubu uncharacteristically lose his cool in front of goal. Lehmann deserves credit for staying on his feet and narrowing the angle, but Yakubu’s effort was fired straight into the German’s chest, rather than placed in the bottom corner — there would have been little time for Arsenal to find an equaliser after that.