This is the latest in a series of posts looking at the history of Arsenal Football Club.
When last we left our intrepid heroes, they had just lost the 2001 FA Cup final and finished second in the league, 10 points behind Manchester United. But, as all sports teams must do, they picked themselves up, brushed themselves off, and won themselves the championship in 2001-02. Despite scoring the most goals in the Premier League in 2002-03, Arsenal again finished second behind Manchester United, halving the gap to five points this time around.
Going into 2003-04, then, Arsene Wenger didn't make any sort of wholesale changes to his squad; he brought in Jens Lehmann to replace the aging David Seaman, and he signed Jose Antonio Reyes, but other than that Arsene's moves were small, for young players, like Cesc Fabregas arriving on a free. Fabregas barely featured (three cup appearances, one goal), while Reyes seemed really promising and talented, but returned to Spain after three years because he never settled in England, which was too bad; I really rated him as a player and would have loved to see him thrive in north London.
So anyway, the 2003-04 Arsenal side, more than any other, combined the best of the Arsenal old guard with the best of Arsene's new way of playing; at the back you had Seaman and Lehmann in goal, there was Ashley Cole, Sol Campbell, Martin Keown, Kolo Toure, and the underappreciated Lauren to choose from at the back. There was a midfield of Pires/Vieira/Parlour/Ljungberg, and up front you had Bergkamp lying in the hold behind Henry, making things happen. Look at that lineup and tell me where the weak spots are. Go ahead, look again. You don't see one, do you? Good, because you shouldn't.
It would be a lie to say that going in to the 2003-04 season I knew this was going to be a special team; unlike my other favorite sports team season of all time, after the first few months of the season Arsenal were winning, but so were Manchester United and Chelsea. This is how tight the league was - despite only dropping six points between August and December 2003 in 19 league matches, at one point in December the only reason Arsenal were top of the league was because their club name starts with A, as they were tied with Chelsea on points, goal difference, and goals scored.
Once the new year started, though, Arsenal kept playing as consistently well as they had up to that point, but both Manchester United and Chelsea started to flag a bit. Arsenal had become deadly on the counterattack, and Thierry Henry was a true two-way player at that point, drifting leftward when Arsenal didn't have the ball (giving Arsenal a left flank of Cole/Pires/Henry, which...wow) which allowed Bergkamp to press high and take one opposing central midfielder out of the equation.
One of the most fun things to watch about that team was how goals could realistically come from any one of Arsenal's outfield players - Henry and Pires were the obvious threats, with 44 League goals between them, but Vieira, Reyes, Bergkamp, Ljungberg, Wiltord, Edu, Silva, Kanu, and Jeremie Aliadiere (!) all scored multiple goals, and even Ashley Cole and Sol Campbell got into the act by each scoring a goal. Arsenal were the complete package, and come February, they started playing like it, at least in the league.
Their league form was not quite matched in the Cups - they played well in the FA and League cups, losing both in the semi-finals (to Manchester United in the FA Cup and Middlesbrough in the League Cup), and they were also knocked out of the Champions League quarterfinal by Chelsea.
They drew their first match of 2004, with Everton, but then they turned on the afterburners, ripping off a string of nine consecutive wins in the league which all but sealed the title for them, a title that was made official in April at White Hart Lane, when Arsenal drew 2-2, giving them the point they needed to put themselves beyond reach, with four games still left in the season.
With nothing officially to play for in those four games, Arsenal could have easily mailed it in, but they didn't; the first game after the title decider was a flat, drab 0-0 against Birmingham City, the next was a 1-1 with Portsmouth, but then Arsenal closed out in style with wins against Fulham and Leicester City to complete the first - and still only - unbeaten season in modern English football history (Preston did it in the 19th century).
Arsenal made more history at the start of the 2004-05 season, winning their first two games to extend their unbeaten streak to 49 games, but the streak would come crashing to an end at Old Trafford with a 2-0 loss featuring a severely dodgy penalty. But I'm not bitter.
There have been seasons with more points than Arsenal's 90-point total that year - Chelsea's 95 the very next season, Manchester United's 91 in 1999/2000 - but there has been no better season by a First Division team since the turn of the 20th century, and it was amazing and fun to watch it unfold. The Invincibles' achievement was such that the Premier League commissioned a special trophy for the champions that year - normally the Premier League winners' trophy is silver, but Arsenal's from 2003-04 is gold, just like their season.