Breaching the Golden Glass Ceiling: Arsenal and The Invincibles

David Dein and Arsène Wenger first met during the 1988-89 season, a relationship embarked upon through “chance conversations and spontaneous invitations”, as detailed in Amy Lawrence’s fantastic Invincible: Inside Arsenal’s Unbeaten 2003-2004 Season. At the time, George Graham and his young Arsenal wizards were in a season that would explode on its last day, with that match at Anfield, crowning them with the title.

Dein had immediately sensed something prophetic during that meeting in London and, by the time Graham left and was replaced by Bruce Rioch, the wheels had already been in motion to bring Wenger to English shores. The stars finally aligned in the 1996-97 season, ushering in what would be a period of monumental change and success for the club, culminating in Arsène’s Invincibles. All of this at a time when there was no precedent for a foreign manager to succeed in the PL, much less leave the kind of impact Wenger has, both on Arsenal and the modern game.


The Invincibles was originally coined for Preston North End’s 1888-89 squad which won the domestic double when a league season was 22 games, bringing their unbeaten run to 27 games with the FA Cup. When Wenger envisioned this “not normal ambition”, the season was 38 games long and it was actually, funnily enough, the George-Graham-managed Arsenal team of 1990-91 that had come closest, a 1-2 loss to Chelsea their only defeat in a league-winning season.

Even a semi-regular football fan knows that all it takes is one unfortunate deflection to wreck the ship. In fact, Arsenal’s Invincibles campaign opened with Sol Campbell getting sent off in the 25th minute as they trailed to Everton, forcing an immediate dive into the depths of their resilience. Just over a month later came the sternest test till then at the fortress of Old Trafford, in a fixture never quite far from ignited tempers during the height of the Wenger/Arsenal and Ferguson/Man United rivalry. It was 0-0 when Patrick Vieira got sent off in the 81st minute. Two minutes into stoppage time, Ruud van Nistelrooy earned his team a penalty. Surely that was that for the Invincible dream? I remember agonised anticipation the likes of which I’d never experienced, and even later would experience but a handful of times. And then, the Dutchman’s shot hit the crossbar!

But I’d argue that nothing tested Arsenal that season as acutely as one particular, fateful week at the start of 2003-04’s penultimate month. We were league leaders, remaining in contention in three competitions. Our next three fixtures? Manchester United at Villa Park in the FA Cup semi finals on April 3, then Chelsea at Highbury on April 6 in the second leg of the Champions League quarter finals, and, finally, Liverpool in north London on April 9 in the league. As it happened, we lost the first to a solitary Paul Scholes goal, before losing the second 2-3 on heartbreaking aggregate courtesy of a very late Wayne Bridge goal. Looking back, every single member of this squad expresses a regret that’s never healed; that this ridiculously talented bunch of players in the form that they were, playing the sublime football they were playing, never won anything in Europe. Wenger himself tells Amy that he wishes he had “sacrificed the FA Cup” and rotated a jaded core group better in that Man United clash. 

Back then though, in the immediate aftermath, it was far more important to pull together a strong response against Liverpool. Chelsea, after a league win during the FA Cup weekend, were only 4 points behind. At halftime, Arsenal trailed Liverpool 1-2, Henry the only one on the Arsenal scoresheet. Whatever conspired in that dressing room would reverberate across the remainder of our season.

A beautiful move four minutes after halftime fell to Robert Pires who, having scored a stunning winner already in this reverse fixture in October, added another to his career Liverpool tally. 2-2. And then, mere seconds later, ten Liverpool players were no match for Thierry Henry’s lethal elegance. Henry, who would go on to complete his hat trick in the 78th minute, calls his second the “one goal that was more than a goal […] We didn’t know where we were at that particular moment. We were kind of losing our way, and then we went [with his hands he forms blinkers around his eyes] and finished the season like this.”

Artwork by Anita Sambol Baniček

There is always some element of fate at times like these and this one was no different. Why else would he have been hanging back so uncharacteristically deep at this “essential moment of this essential game of this essential season”? 

Sol and Jens have their own thoughts on these glimpses of perfection, which were as present and essential to their eventual achievement as the almost moments. “You’ve got to have the right team and things like that, but the situation chooses you. I truly believe that,” says Sol. For the German, “The environment always determines if something like that could happen or not.”

For Arsenal that season, it did happen, over and over, even when it looked like it wouldn’t. But many of what appeared to be strokes of good luck were carefully planted seeds over seasons. As soon as he arrived, Wenger cultivated an environment of support where every player could grow, thrive, and be their best. A “friends team”, as Bergkamp calls it, with deep mutual respect and admiration that wasn’t afraid to be honest with each other, push each other, and demand the best. And above all, community over individual—pass it, without exception, to the guy in the better position. Henry sums it up. “It’s difficult to fight against glory […] but the point is not you scoring. Arsenal has to score.” Never mind that he would go on to score 30 goals out of 73 that season regardless!

This culture, in a team as full of staggering individual brilliance as that Arsenal squad, facilitated the equally important underrated, unremarkable moments crucial to keep the dream alive. The “ground-out results when it was so tough, so close, so imperative, to plough on”. Not to mention how much it bolstered the players outside of the regulars, like Martin Keown and Jose Antonio Reyes, with their assured vital contributions exactly when needed, including in the very last stretch when it was imperative the team didn’t wobble on tired legs or minds.

If that week in April had tested them, the next, final, test would come in the four games after clinching the title at White Hart Lane. By this point, everyone was fully invested in their manager’s seemingly outrageous dream. But what was it, truly, that they were fighting for? In the absence of the knowledge that there would be a gold trophy specially commissioned, Henry calls it wrestling with an “abstract goal”, whereas for Amy, it’s the “Invisible Prize”.

On May 15, Highbury held its breath as the almost Invincibles went behind to Leicester in the season’s final game—before a penalty from Thierry Henry and a fitting, season-defining goal by captain fantastic Patrick Vieira pushed them over that jubilant sun-lit finish line. 

26 wins, 12 draws, 0 losses.


The insight that this achievement could perhaps have happened only when it did isn’t new but has strengthened with each season since gone by. Because even as Le Prof and his men were creating history, a certain Russian oligarch was biding his time; if an already impressive Chelsea qualified for the Champions League, he’d buy it. They got second, and English football was forever altered. 

Exactly a year later, they lifted the Premier League trophy with a manager who had come to England after just having led Porto to a Champions League trophy (incidentally, defeating AS Monaco, Wenger’s former employers, in the final). Arsenal did beat Manchester United to the FA Cup that season—on penalties, with Vieira securing victory with what would sadly end up as his final kick for the club—but it would be their last for nine long and turbulent years.

Patrick Vieira was sold to Juventus in the summer; a ten-man Arsenal went on to lose a heartrending Champions League final to Barcelona in May 2006; and the club moved to their new home at the Emirates stadium for the 2006-07 season, heralding the start of financial frugality and Project Youth which would, sadly, never succeed like it could have. For multiple reasons, even though, to everyone’s sheer frustration, trophies were at times within tantalising reach. On one hand the foreign and billionaire investment pouring in to “damage football’s fundamental sense of possibility”, to quote Wenger, and create a very wonky playing field; on the other the increasing demands of a rapidly modernising game, something that the Frenchman himself had helped bring to England. 

Today, the permitted margins of error for PL title success are smaller than miniscule, the fairytales few and far and often at great long-term cost. In fact, I’d argue that, at the present moment, the perfection of the alchemy to achieve the impossible back then, is required simply to challenge the ominous defending champions machine that is Manchester City. And even then it might not be enough. With their win over Manchester United on Sunday and just one more game to come, Arsenal surpassed the club’s most league wins in a season record of 26 set by the Invincibles. But, save for a miracle, Pep’s City will still win an unprecedented fourth consecutive PL title on May 19.

However, for 20 years now, Invincibles Day (the day each season when every team in the Premier League has lost a game) has arrived; despite the doubting questions, the “overrated” and “but 12 draws” dismissals, despite multiple records set and broken, 49 Undefeated is undisputed.

Henry, in Amy’s book, talks about the importance of truly soaking in the glowing moments before they are cut abruptly short by the relentlessness of the football calendar; the achievements of one season, no matter how sparkling, erased in current consciousness as soon as summer business begins.

The gold trophy remains a physical testament that some achievements will forever glow in the annals of Premier League history.

What does it mean to be unbeaten?

King Titi said it best. “When you’re first. You’re first. The first team who did it in the modern game was us. Whoever does it now, they’ll only be second.”

Anushree Nande

Published writer and editor. Hope is her superpower (unsurprisingly she's a Gooner), but sport, art, music and words are good substitutes.