'A Target, Not an Obsession': What Does It Take to End a Season 'Invincible'?

Tom Williams@tomwfootballSpecial to Bleacher ReportJanuary 23, 2020

Lauren (R) celebrates with Thierry Henry and Robert Pires
Lauren (R) celebrates with Thierry Henry and Robert PiresGetty

It was not until he was hunched on a bench in the old Highbury changing room at half-time of the season's last game that Lauren started to appreciate what it would mean for Arsenal to finish the 2003-04 campaign unbeaten.

Crowned Premier League champions three weeks earlier following a 2-2 draw at archrivals Tottenham Hotspur, Arsenal needed only to avoid defeat at home to Leicester City in their final fixture to become the English top flight's first unbeaten champions in 115 years. Lauren, Arsenal's Cameroonian right-back, had not given much prior thought to the possibility, but with Leicester leading 1-0 at the break through Paul Dickov's 26th-minute header, the urgency of the situation became starkly apparent.

"I didn't think about being unbeaten. Honestly," he tells Bleacher Report. "But in the last game, we knew we could do something historic that had never happened in the Premier League era.

"We started that game very badly. At half-time we were in the dressing room. You go to your best mates, 'Come on, man. We're just 45 minutes away from making history. We can do this. Let's go, let's keep pushing.' That's when we realised we were close to making history—not before that."

Arsenal had already come back from losing positions on eight occasions that season, and in the second half against Leicester they did so again, with goals from Thierry Henry and Patrick Vieira securing a 2-1 victory that enabled Arsene Wenger's side to emulate Preston North End's "Invincibles" of 1888-89. Sixteen years on, with runaway Premier League leaders Liverpool having dropped only two points since the start of the season, there is a whiff of invincibility in the air once again.

The scenes that followed Arsenal's win over Leicester on that sun-soaked May afternoon—the team's bouncing huddle on the halfway line; the red and white ticker tape; Vieira triumphantly hoisting the trophy aloft—will never be forgotten by the club's supporters. But for the players, caught up in the giddy excitement of the moment, the full significance of the achievement did not hit home until later on.

"It takes time," Lauren says. "Straight away, it's like, 'We did it!' But you're not fully conscious of the achievement. When you go out in Highbury and lift the cup, you see the fans' happy faces, and you feel over the moon. But you appreciate it more now than when you're young and you're flying."

In the previous history of the English top flight, no team had ever gone more than 29 games without defeat from the beginning of a campaign, so from the moment Arsenal passed that threshold at the end of March, expectation began to mount. Within the camp, however, Lauren says the only objective was winning the title.

"I never had that conversation [about finishing the season unbeaten]," he adds. "I only cared about my game and about winning the next one. I think most of the players were like that. That's how we did it.

"If you have 22 players in the dressing room and 15 of them are thinking about finishing unbeaten in January, you'd end up with problems. Because sometimes subconsciously you relax a bit. 'OK, we're top, we're playing fantastically, it's almost done.' Slowly, if 15 are thinking like that, without wanting to, you start to drop mentally. The majority of the players in that dressing room were just thinking about the next game, not finishing the league unbeaten."

Wenger's 2003-04 side are one of only six teams to have finished a season as unbeaten champions in one of Europe's five major leagues, one of only three to have achieved the feat since the end of World War II and one of only two to have done it over a 38-game campaign.

The 2003/2004 Arsenal team have etched their name in history
The 2003/2004 Arsenal team have etched their name in historyClive Mason/Getty Images

Famously, Arsenal's unbeaten campaign almost ended before it had even begun, with only the width of the crossbar preventing Ruud van Nistelrooy from giving Manchester United victory over the eventual champions with a stoppage-time penalty in a stormy early-season encounter at Old Trafford. For the great AC Milan team that became unbeaten Serie A champions in 1991-92, the margins were every bit as fine.

In three successive matches in September 1991, Milan found themselves trailing 1-0 with five minutes to play, but on each occasion, they fought back to draw 1-1. Marco van Basten scored late penalties at home to Fiorentina and Genoa, while an injury-time own goal by Massimo Carrera ensured that Milan avoided defeat at title rivals Juventus.

Fabio Capello had succeeded Arrigo Sacchi as Milan head coach in the summer of 1991, and defender Filippo Galli believes the resilience shown by the Rossoneri in those three matches was an early reflection of the new man's impact.

"Capello was really good at pushing all the players beyond their limits," Galli tells Bleacher Report. "Their technical skills were not in doubt, but what was in doubt at that time was the ability of the players to work hard for every ball. I think that Capello was really good at giving this to the players."

A subsequent run of 12 wins in 14 games put Milan in control of the title race. After claiming the Scudetto with a 1-1 draw away to Napoli with three matches to go, Capello's side thrashed Foggia 8-2 in their final game—Van Basten, Paolo Maldini and Ruud Gullit among those on target—to become Italy's first unbeaten champions. (Perugia had previously avoided defeat in the 1978-79 season, but too many draws meant they finished second behind Milan.)

Galli recalls that once Milan had secured the title, finishing the season unbeaten became "the new target," but it was something that was of more interest to the country's football journalists than to him and his team-mates. "It was a target, but it was not an obsession," he says.

In hindsight, what gives Galli the greatest sense of pride is the knowledge that Milan succeeded in going unbeaten during a time when Serie A was widely seen as the strongest domestic championship in world football.

"To reach the end of the season unbeaten was something important because every coach was very well prepared tactically, especially in defending and counter-attacking," he says. "Even if you were stronger than the opposition, you'd keep attacking and attacking, and then with a counter-attack, the other team could beat you. That's why it was not so easy to get to the end of the season unbeaten."

(R to L) Demetrio Albertini, Ruud Gullit, Frank Rijkaard and Marco Van Basten—members of Milan's iconic 1991/92 team
(R to L) Demetrio Albertini, Ruud Gullit, Frank Rijkaard and Marco Van Basten—members of Milan's iconic 1991/92 teamChris Cole/Getty Images

Twenty years later, another freshly appointed coach would lead an Italian team to unbeaten title glory when Antonio Conte's Juventus reeled off 10 wins in their final 11 games to dethrone Milan as Serie A champions. They became the sixth team from one of Europe's five major leagues to have finished a season as unbeaten champions after Preston (1888-89; 22 games), Athletic Bilbao (1929-30; 18 games), Real Madrid (1931-32; 18 games), Milan (1991-92) and Arsenal (2003-04).

With the 2011-12 campaign lasting 38 matches, as opposed to the 34 matches of the 1991-92 season, Juve's feat was statistically even more improbable than Milan's, prompting Conte to proclaim that "no one will ever be able to beat what we've done." But despite the risk of seeing his own team's achievement matched, Galli felt no sense of unease as Conte's side closed in on their moment of history.

"I was not so worried about the fact that Juventus might reach that target," says the 56-year-old, who won five league titles and three European Cups with Milan. "It's sport, it's football. Records are there to be beaten, no? It was no problem at all."

Lauren is not prepared to be quite so philosophical. At least not yet. Albeit with 16 fixtures still to fulfil, Jurgen Klopp's Liverpool are on course to emulate Arsenal's 2003-04 vintage by winning the title without losing a game. Although Lauren is full of admiration for the football played by Virgil van Dijk, Mo Salah and Co.—"I love the way Liverpool play," he says—he is tightly crossing his fingers that they taste defeat before the season is out.

Lauren is hoping Mo Salah's Liverpool eventually suffer a defeat
Lauren is hoping Mo Salah's Liverpool eventually suffer a defeatMichael Regan/Getty Images

"I'm not worried, because I'm not competing now, but I will be happy if they lose, of course," he says with a laugh.

"I definitely want them to lose because I would love to still have that record. It's a unique achievement. Liverpool are very concentrated on the Champions League, and if they keep playing the way they play, without rotation, at some point I believe they're going to lose a Premier League game."

At the very least, with Liverpool due to visit the Emirates Stadium for their third-last fixture of the season, Arsenal fans can reassure themselves that, if necessary, their side will have an opportunity to preserve the status of the "Invincibles" as the only unbeaten champions of the Premier League era. But as so many great teams have discovered, there is a long, long way to go before that.


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