Arsenal’s invincibles – Why did they under achieve?

The recent book by Amy Lawrence and brilliant Tuesday Club podcast focusing on the unbeaten season has led a lot of people to reminisce about ‘the good old days’.

3 league titles in 7 seasons, 4 FA Cups in 5 seasons, a Champions League Final and teams filled with World Class talent playing exciting football. The early Wenger years were exceptional.

Or where they?

A recent discussion on the matter between myself and others resulted in us agreeing, the invincible side actually under achieved. We had assembled one of the best sides in football history (it went unbeaten) and at the time, one of the best sides in world football, yet it had 2 big failings:

  • No back to back titles
  • No Champions League win

Most people will agree, we should have won the league in 1999 and 2003. We should have dominated football for a generation, so why did we under achieve?

Failure to improve

One of the major reason’s we failed to win back to back titles is due to a failure to build on what we had.

Having won the title in 1998 by a solitary point, the difference between Manchester United and Arsenal was minute. There was nothing between them.

Over the next season (pre transfer windows), Arsenal signed David Grondin (18 year old left back), a 21 year old Swede call Karl Fredrik Ljungberg, the bright young hope of English football, Jermaine Pennant (who was just 15 at the time), and in January 2 strikers, Nwankwo Kanu and Kaba Diawara. Just over £10 million spent.

Meawhile, at Manchester, they made 2 big money signings – Jaap Stam and Dwight Yorke – both costing over £10 million. It gave them the defensive rock and the goals that were missing the previous season. They also added Jesper Blomqvist, giving them back up to the injury prone Ryan Giggs.

Manchester United strengthened more than Arsenal, and ended up winning the treble. Arsenal finished a point behind and were a penalty kick away from knocking United out of the FA Cup.

After the treble, Manchester United continued to strengthen, winning the next 2 league titles by 18 points and 10 points respectively.

In 2001/02 Arsenal were once more crowned Champions, with Manchester United finishing 3rd, conceding 45 goals.

The response? Manchester United broke the world transfer record for a defender signing Rio Ferdinand for £29.1 million. Arsenal signed Pascal Cygan. Yes, Arsenal also added World Cup winner Gilberto Silva, but the signing of Rio Ferdinand was a statement.

Once more, Arsenal had failed to build, and Manchester United capitalised on Arsenal falling apart due to lack of defenders to romp to the title.

Writing this, history has since continued to repeat itself. A failure to build and lack of defenders continually damaging our title chances…

I do not think it is up for argument that had Arsenal strengthened further in 1998 and 2002, we would have secured a further 2 league titles.

THAT penalty

Without blaming Dennis Bergkamp, I do sometimes wonder how different history would have been had he not missed that injury time penalty in 1999.

Had Peter Schmeichel not saved it, I am sure Arsenal would have won the FA Cup in 1999. I am also sure that the defeat would have broken Manchester United and we would have won the league. Manchester United probably would not have gone on to win the Champions League either.

Did this penalty change history? Manchester United won a historic treble and won 3 titles in a row. Arsenal struggled to recover from the heart break.

Wembley & Champions League Heartbreak

Firstly, Wembley messed Arsenal about. It was a decision made for commercial reasons and destroyed our early years in the Champions League.

2004 should have been Arsenal’s season to win the Champions League. We had the best team in Europe. Other giants in Europe (Bayern Munich, Barcelona, Madrid, Manchester United) were struggling. It was ours to lose. And we lost it. It was inexplicable.

There are no solid reasons for us losing. Were we too confident – a trait the unbeaten team suffered from – thinking it was only Chelsea, who had not beaten us in 17 attempts? Who knows. But the 2-1 home defeat was an arrow in the heart, and moves us on to the next reason for under achievement of the Invincibles. Chelsea.


Roman Abramovich took charge of Chelsea in 2003 and changed world football for ever. To misquote David Dein, he “parked his Russian tanks on the lawn and fired £50 notes at everyone”. That first summer, he spent over £120million on new players.

At the time, Arsenal were a settled side with World Class talent. The Invincibles were at their peak, and went unbeaten. We were nicely set up to dominate football for the next decade.

With World Class players in the first team squad (Pires, Henry, Vieira, Ljungberg, Campbell), mixed in with talented youngsters (Ashley Cole, Reyes, Toure), and a very promising youth set up (which included Clichy & Fabregas), the future looked bright.

But Chelsea changed all of that. By 2004, the players signed in their first summer of expenditure had settled. They then added a further £95million in playing talent and secured arguably Roman Abramovich’s best signing, Jose Mourinho.

A quick thought, had we beaten Chelsea and gone on to win the Champions League, would Mourinho have joined Chelsea? Perhaps not. Anyway, I digress.

Over £200million spent in 2 summers. Arsenal were about to dominate English football. We were all ready and set to go. We would have remained at the top of the tree, even with the cost of the stadium.

Instead, Chelsea caused the price of everything up. Squad players were suddenly getting £100k a week. In some cases, they were paying squad players more than what Henry and Campbell were on.

Chelsea went on to win the next two league titles. But more importantly, they ripped the heart out of Arsenal. Starting with the pursuit of Ashley Cole. Players begun to get their heads turned by money on offer at other clubs. At a time where Arsenal were able to offer a competitive salary and trophies, they were suddenly in a position to offer neither.

And where Chelsea led, Manchester City followed. Increasing salaries further, pushing Arsenal further down the food chain, and snapping up the majority of our top players.

Had Roman Abramovich not decided to enter the footballing would, would the Sheik’s at Man City? Or the PSG Oilmen? Would the game have become a rich mans play thing? Who knows.

Chelsea changed the landscape. They pushed Arsenal from the steps of greatness, back down the ladder.


Yes, the invincible squad (and what came a little before) was successful. But it could have, no it should have, with a little more investment, done so much more.

The worry is the trends have continued. Not strengthening. Losing top players (Overmars, Petit), problems with squad depth, all the issues from between our title truimphs are still present. The only difference is we are now much worse off so they are further exposed.

The invincibles, the greatest side I will see in my life time, but failed to become the greatest side anyone will see in their life time.




1 thought on “Arsenal’s invincibles – Why did they under achieve?

  1. David

    I have always said this to my many Arsenal friends, as good as we was we did not come out for the second half that night verses Chelsea. That was our year, 2006 although we got to the final we was not good enough to win it, although how many times did we see Henry finish those two chances for fun that he missed that night. Every big team when they where at their strongest won the big one, we did not and I think it is why Wenger just can’t give it up. Shame would have loved to have seen him do it.


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