I’ve been wracking my brain for my all-time Arsenal line up, adding players dropping others, then remembering someone I’d forgotten and throwing them on. It’s all been very frustrating.
But I had an epiphany.
For me, sports is all about team chemistry, and that was at the core of what was holding me up. If I put Tony Adams in defense then I felt compelled to add Steve Bould because of the way they matched up with each other, but then that forced me to leave out Sol Campbell.
And that’s when it hit me. Which Arsenal squad had the single best chemistry ever?
It may not contain the best players in their respective positions, and it even includes a couple of players who wouldn't be on anyone else's list anywhere, but certainly no Arsenal side, no matter the components, can beat the collective might of the "Invincibles."
So that’s my choice for the all-time Arsenal XI. And here’s a refresher of what made them so good, in case you’ve forgotten.
Manager: Arsene Wenger. Only the season before, Wenger made the comment that it was possible for a team to go undefeated in the Premiership. He was widely mocked for his comments. But he proved his theory sound, made history, and cemented himself in the hearts and minds of all Gunners forever.
Goalkeeper: Jens Lehmann. "Mad Jens" was at his peak when he joined the Gunners for their magic season, and he was the perfect man for the job. A fearless ball handler and shot stopper, Lehmann was and is very much like England’s David James. When he’s good he’s very good, and when he’s not so good he makes laughable howlers. Lucky for the Gunners he was very good in 2003-2004.
Full Backs: Ashley Cole and Lauren. Arsenal have had exceptional full backs for a long time now. Today it’s Bacary Sagna and Gael Clichy, but when Arsenal were "Invincible" it was Ashley Cole and Lauren.
There is very little to separate today’s full backs with yesterday’s; all four are or were quick on the attack, strong in defense and capable of delivering cutting crosses, but Cole and Lauren have the edge in one important area -- they didn’t lose a single League game.
Center Backs: Sol Campbell and Kolo Toure. If Sol Campbell was the positional rock in defense, Kolo Toure, a freshly converted midfielder, was the speedy inspiration.
Certainly Tony Adams and Steve Bould were a better combination in the center of the backfield, but Campbell and Toure were inspired for at least this one season, finishing off a back five that had 14 clean sheets and, as already mentioned, zero losses.
This pairing also produced the only remaining regular member of the "Invincible" season; yet, somehow, Kolo Toure still isn’t Arsenal’s captain.
Right Midfielder: Freddie Ljungberg. This was the season Ljungberg started to show signs of slowing down. He wasn’t his old red-Mohawked self anymore. He scored four goals, making 27 appearances, and near the end of the season he gave way more and more often to Jose Antonio Reyes.
Still, he made seven goals, and was quick enough to continue causing defenders headaches. Like many of the Gunners in 2003-2004, it was not his best individual season, but he is a perfect example of how team performance was what mattered.
Arsenal chemistry was what this squad was all about, and even as his talent began to wane, Ljungberg was integral to that chemistry.
Central Midfielders: Gilberto Silva and Patrick Vieira. The presence of World Cup winning, “back passing,” Gilberto Silva in the side was integral to Arsenal’s season because his defensive mindedness liberated another World Cup winner, Patrick Vieira.
The gangly, powerful captain needed to have a strong partner so he could push further up the pitch, starting the moves that led to many of Arsenal's goals.
Patrick Vieira may have been the single most important component to Arsenal’s success (although another Frenchman makes an equally compelling claim), but he couldn’t have added all he did without Gilberto.
Left Midfielder: Robert Pires. 14 goals, ten assists, always a threat, always creative, Robert Pires was the free booting master of left sided surprise.
He was like Captain Jack Sparrow with grace, precision and unlikely speed. He looked like he didn't belong on the pitch, but he was a master, which consistently left 19 midfields and defenses shaking their heads.
Pires is often the forgotten member of Wenger’s French Connection, but when Arsenal lost him they lost something truly special.
Center Forward: Dennis Bergkamp. He was the perfect link man between the striker and the midfield. Known as the “Ice Man,” Bergkamp didn’t score many goals, but the goals he did score were beautiful.
His most important skill, however, was the quiet way he led by example. It is exciting for World Football that Bergkamp is spending this season at Ajax to carry out his coaching apprenticeship. He’s a man I'd love to see filling Wenger’s shoes at Arsenal someday, and I think he could.
Striker: Thierry Henry. The one man on this list who would make any Arsenal starting XI no matter the competition, Henry scored 30 goals, making him instrumental in the Gunners’ undefeated season. Really, what more can I say?
Substitutes: I skipped reserve keepers for this list since none of them played any role in 2003-04. Instead, I put together the subs Wenger used the most that season (their sub appearances are in parentheses).
Ray Parlour (9) & Martin Keown (7). The old boys of the squad, Parlour and Keown were the last of the Graham's boring, boring Arsenal. But their incredible fitness kept them in the side right into the Wenger years, insuring that they still had something to contribute to Arsenal's glorious season.
Pascal Cygan (8). My nerves were always frayed when the sketchy Frenchman hit the pitch, and he was a constant source of amusement and derision for Arsenal fans, but he made ten starts on top of his sub appearances, so Wenger must have thought he was doing something right. At least he didn't lose Arsenal any games.
Sylvain Wiltord (4). Little Sylvain Wiltord just edged out Nwankwo Kanu on my list due to his greater goal contribution, but neither striker really had a chance to sneak into the side with Henry performing at the world beating level he was. Wiltord was too talented to languish on our bench, however, and when Lyon called he had no choice but to leave.
Edu Gaspar (17). The finest sub of the season was Edu. Much like Wiltord, the Brazilian midfielder never got a fair shake at Arsenal. Stuck behind Vieira and Gilberto, Edu had to wait his turn for injuries and subsititions, and he was too talented for that. If not for his horrific leg injury after leaving Arsenal he may have had a truly excellent career instead of fading into relative obscurity at Valencia.