It has passed without too much attention that Arsenal’s ‘Invincibles’ of 2003/04 were last week named the best team of the Premier League 20-year awards. A fine achievement considering some strong opposition down the years, but also very much deserved, with the team of Vieira, Pires, Bergkamp and Henry playing possibly the finest football this land has seen on the way to their unbeaten title triumph that year.
While I was fortunate enough to see that great team remain undefeated for the season, and indeed for a record-breaking 49 games in the league, I didn’t think we’d see anything like it again for a long time. For that reason it is also somewhat surprising that Juventus’ recent unbeaten title win of their own has gone relatively unnoticed on these shores.
How do the teams compare?
Looking at their respective records in the league, Arsenal’s Invincibles won three more games than Juve, with 26 wins to 23. For much of the season it looked like the Italians were drawing too many to distance themselves significantly from reigning champions AC Milan. It took a strong run of form at the end of the season to do it, and in the end Juve finished four points ahead of their rivals. Arsenal’s great side finished 11 points ahead of big-spending Chelsea at the end of the 2003/04 season, so were arguably the more dominant team in their title triumph.
However, there could be cause for argument that this season’s Serie A had a wider range of strong teams as competition. In 2004 Liverpool, who finished in fourth, were a massive 30 points behind the Gunners, closer to the relegated teams than to the champions, whereas in Serie A this year Udinese, Lazio and Napoli were all closer to 20 points behind. Teams as good as Inter and Roma ended up 6th and 7th respectively after relatively poor campaigns.
Having both scored and conceded slightly less than Arsenal, Juve edged the Gunners on goal difference, 48 to 47. Not surprising perhaps, as while Arsenal had one obvious main source of goals in Thierry Henry, who led the league that year with 30, Juve have no player in the Serie A top ten scorers chart, with an even contribution coming from each of their strikers, and double figures from midfielder Claudio Marchisio.
Arsenal went into their unbeaten season looking to make amends for missing out on the title the previous year. Having been the best team in the country for most of the season, a poor run towards the end resulted in an 8-point lead being lost to Manchester United. However, it was a quiet summer at the club as only about £2million was spent on bringing in low-key signings such as Jens Lehmann and Gael Clichy. Robert Pires and Patrick Vieira signing new contracts were the biggest boosts for Arsene Wenger as he quietly set out to make up for the disappointment of the previous season. While written off by some, it wasn’t the biggest surprise when the team finished where they should have done in 2003.
Juventus, however, have had a spell in the wilderness in recent times. Their last league titles came in 2005 and 2006, but both were taken away from them after the infamous calciopoli match-fixing scandal. Juve were then relegated to Serie B for the 2006/07 season, but came straight back up despite the added pressure of a points reduction. Keeping hold of key players such as Gianluigi Buffon and Alessandro Del Piero certainly proved a big help in that regard.
But with no official title since 2003, and a 7th placed finish last year, it took some rebuilding to turn the famous ‘Old Lady’ into champions again. Following the example of Barcelona, they hired a young, inexperienced club legend, Antonio Conte, to be their manager. And like Pep Guardiola at Barcelona, his first season in charge has been better than could have possibly been expected.
Unlike Arsenal, some big name signings were made in the pre-season: the likes of Fabio Quagliarella and Alessandro Matri had their loan deals made permanent; Mirko Vucinic arrived from rivals Roma, exciting midfielder Arturo Vidal came in from Bayer Leverkusen, and perhaps most importantly of all, Andrea Pirlo signed on a free from Milan. The reigning champions clearly felt the 33-year-old was finished at the top level, but he has been re’juve’nated in Turin, leading the Serie A assist charts with 13 at the end of the season.
When Arsenal went unbeaten in the Premier League, it was only the second time it had ever happened in English football. Preston had achieved this feat in the 1888/89 season, but playing only 22 games as opposed to 38.
In Italy, this is the first time a team has gone unbeaten in a 38-game season. Milan did it in a 34-game season in 1991/92, which coincided with their record-breaking 58-game unbeaten streak (Juventus are currently on 39), and Perugia did it in a 30-game season, but incredibly finished in second place to Milan, due to winning only 11 games and drawing 19.
Juventus were actually on an impressive 44-match unbeaten run in all competitions before losing the Coppa Italia final to Napoli. This may have been helped by their not being involved in any European competition and so having fewer games, but their run to the cup final was impressive and the eventual defeat to Napoli again shows the strength of the league they were up against.
Another interesting comparison with Arsenal is that Juventus, too, have moved to a new stadium. This was their first season on their new ground and they delivered the title, while Arsenal are yet to bring silverware to the Emirates since their move six years ago.
Hopefully this reminder of Arsenal’s achievement eight years ago can show the club that it is possible to move to a new stadium and remain competitive. There’s also hope for us all if a team can go from 7th to 1st in just a year.
And for some Arsenal fans who say there’s no one who could do better with this team than Wenger – think again. The success of young, relatively untested managers like Guardiola, Conte and now Roberto Di Matteo, shows that there are talents out there waiting to be given their chance at the big time.