Arsenal: From Invincibles to a club without a chance of winning the Premier League again

Jason Soutar
Former Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger looks dejected

The 2003/04 Arsenal side that went unbeaten in the Premier League was arguably the best group of players to grace English football. To go from that feat to not retaining their title was a surprise, let alone to never winning another championship. What has gone so wrong? And will they ever return to England’s summit?

After the finest season in the club’s history, Arsenal entered the transfer window and brought in Emmanuel Eboue, Mathieu Flamini, Manuel Almunia and Robin van Persie. But the issue was not what they were doing; it was what Chelsea were doing.

The Roman Abramovich era was underway and they brought in Champions League-winning manager Jose Mourinho. He signed Petr Cech, Tiago, Arjen Robben, Didier Drogba, Paulo Ferreira and Ricardo Carvalho, who joined Frank Lampard, Joe Cole and John Terry at Stamford Bridge.

Chelsea lost one league game and conceded a record 15 goals. That record still stands and probably will not be broken. At least Arsenal won the FA Cup. And they would be back in the Premier League, right?

But just two seasons on from an unbeaten campaign, Arsenal lost 11 times and finished fourth, two points above Spurs in fifth and 24 points behind the league winners – the biggest distance between themselves and the champions since 1994/95 when they finished 12th on 51 points, 38 points behind Kenny Dalglish’s Blackburn Rovers.

Notable signings that season were Theo Walcott, Emmanuel Adebayor, Alexander Hleb and Abou Diaby so a pretty positive season on the transfer front. The Gunners reached the Champions League final and went 995 minutes without conceding in the competition from September to May. Of course, they lost the final to Barcelona but were 14 minutes away from winning with ten men. Onwards and upwards, you’d think.

Arsenal had officially moved from Highbury into the Emirates Stadium. And this fact has a huge bearing on everything you will read on this page.

The club had to pay off that stadium debt, resulting in disappointing transfer windows which saw star players depart and other players join on the cheap. The first window of the Emirates era saw Arsenal spend £13.5m on Tomas Rosicky and Denilson, while signing William Gallas as part of the deal to sell Ashley Cole. Julio Baptista also joined on loan.

The Invincibles era felt like an eternity ago, and it was literally only three years before. Dennis Bergkamp retired, Jose Antonio Reyes was loaned to Real Madrid, Robert Pires and Sol Campbell left at the end of their contracts and Lauren and Cole were sold. By the start of the 2006/07 season, only a handful of Invincibles remained.

They finished fourth again, this time 21 points behind the champions, Manchester United. One point more than last season, and fewer points between themselves and first. #TrustTheProcess.

By the 07/08 season, Arsenal had lost the spine of the Invincibles. Thierry Henry left to join Barcelona and Reyes was permanently sold, as was Freddie Ljungberg. Kolo Toure, Jens Lehmann and Gilberto Silva were the only Invincibles left standing. The signings of Eduardo and Bacary Sagna were inspired, and the former’s leg break late on in the season derailed their title challenge. Yes, they actually mounted a title challenge, losing three games all season, the joint-least in the league. United won the title again, finishing on 87 points, four more than Arsene Wenger’s side. It was time to recruit over the summer and win it next season. On a side note, that is now three years without a trophy…

More Invincibles were off – Gilberto and Lehmann this time. The last immortal Gunner standing was eccentric centre-half Kolo Toure but this would be his last season. I’d apologise for the spoiler but this did happen 13 years ago. In terms of incoming names, Samir Nasri joined and was absolutely brilliant. Aaron Ramsey also arrived and went from a spotty teenager to a club icon.

Skipper William Gallas was stripped of the captaincy in November 2008 and succeeded by 22-year-old playmaker Cesc Fabregas after the French defender said some silly things in an interview. January addition Andrey Arshavin enjoyed that iconic performance at Anfield when he scored FOOOOUUUURRR times, and the Gunners were knocked out of the Champions League and FA Cup in the semi-finals, also finishing fourth in the league, right where they felt nice and cosy during this period. United won their third title in a row as they showed Arsene Wenger how to remain on top.

Now Invincible-less, Toure and Adebayor jumped ship and joined stinking-rich Manchester City. Dealing with the pricey stadium transition, Wenger brought in Thomas Vermaelen. This is now getting slightly redundant as Arsenal didn’t mount a proper title challenge, again, and finished third. At least those pesky Manchester clubs had a rough time of it. United lost their crown to Chelsea and City missed out on top four…to Tottenham. #MindTheGap.

A few interesting things happened in 08/09. Adebayor did that celebration after scoring against Wenger’s side, Ramsey broke his leg from that tackle by Ryan Shawcross and after a great run of form, Sol Campbell returned for a bit and Arsenal dropped their arses and lost three and drew one of their last five league games. It was another year without a trophy (if you don’t count the ‘finishing in the top four trophy’ that Wenger was relentlessly mocked for winning season after season). Ah, how times change.

Emmanuel Adebayor celebrates in front of the Arsenal fans

Wenger went into his 15th season in charge and was still working off a limited budget. He lost a few semi-important players and the £8.5m signing of Laurent Koscielny ended up being a superb piece of business.

Ending the trophy drought was a huge priority. They hadn’t won a piece of silverware since the season after losing zero out of 38 Premier League games, which was ridiculous. They finished runners-up in the League Cup after Koscielny and Wojciech Szczesny handed Obafemi Martins a tap-in as he proceeded to do a cartwheel and two backflips after Barry Ferguson gave Koscielny a friendly tap on the head during Birmingham City’s celebrations. Arsenal did bugger all in the league or any other cup and were officially a meme and not a serious club. Wenger out?

Fans were growing restless as their club did nothing serious in the transfer window and the cycle of losing top player after top player was really beginning to kick in. City were becoming a huge threat with their spending, United and Chelsea were consistently throwing money around, and Liverpool and Spurs were showing more ambition than Arsenal. Fans weren’t just restless, they were nervous.

2011/12 saw the departures of Gael Clichy and Nasri to City, and club captain Fabregas was off to boyhood club Barcelona. Thierry Henry returned for a brief spell, which was lovely, but third in the league and no trophy was not ideal. An 8-2 loss at Manchester United was a particularly low point in this timeline of events. The less said about that, the better. For me anyway.

Two more valuable players would leave. Van Persie joined United in an unprecedented signing as Arsenal sold to a direct rival yet again and Alex Song too joined Barcelona. Santi Cazorla arrived and became an Emirates hero, but their business was overshadowed by the sale of RVP, who was probably the best player in the country at the time of his exit.

Not only were Arsenal struggling on the pitch, but they became a laughing stock off it. Selling to rival teams and not recruiting with much ambition meant they were not taken seriously. They had a reputation for being soft and their trips to Stoke City were dreaded by the players, who would be genuinely scared to travel to the Britannia. Bloody Stoke. What had happened to this club? From Steve Bould, Tony Adams, Sol Campbell and Patrick Vieira to players who would s**t themselves when faced with a long throw-in. They weren’t just full of brutes many moons ago, but they were full of winners. Eight years without a trophy is unacceptable and fans wanted Wenger gone, the man who brought them that precious Premier League trophy made out of gold.

2013/14 was a turning point for Arsenal; they signed Mesut f***ing Ozil from Real Madrid. Arguably the best playmaker in the world, Ozil signed for a club-record £42.5m fee and instantly made the team title challengers. Say what you want about the player, but his signing was a huge lift and he made everyone around him far better.

An ambitious signing, beautiful Wenger-ball; it was a good, positive season, filled with a couple of very depressing losses. 6-3 at City, 5-1 at Liverpool – who were getting better and better – and a 6-0 defeat at Chelsea in Wenger’s 1000th game in charge was a particularly bitter pill to swallow. The north Londoners were pretty much excellent against the teams they should beat, but spineless in the big games, and Ozil was a media scapegoat. He apparently went missing in big games (along with every other Arsenal player).

Eight years on from winning the FA Cup, they did it again and ended the trophy drought. Thank f**k. Wenger could leave on a high with his contract expiring, right?

Wrong. Three-year contract for Le Professeur, which split the fanbase even more.

So, City just beat Liverpool to the title and Arsenal spent longer on top of the tree than anyone else in 13/14, so there was optimism for the upcoming season. The Reds had just lost Luis Suarez and Steven Gerrard could barely run (or stay on his feet during very crucial moments), so they weren’t too much of a threat. United were becoming very average after Sir Alex Ferguson retired and Chelsea didn’t really mount a strong title challenge, so onwards and upwards for Arsenal!

Alexis Sanchez joined and it was good to see Wenger backed in the window.

After no trophies for eight years, they won the FA Cup again but once again but they were far from being a force in the league or Europe.

Ahh, 2015/16, you filthy animal. This is the only campaign you can really look back on and say ‘Arsenal should have won the Premier League’. But no, Leicester had to win it. F**king Leicester. After beating the Foxes via a stoppage-time Danny Welbeck header, many fans believed they would finally do it. Unfortunately, Arsenal did an Arsenal and squandered their momentum with defeats against Manchester United and Swansea City. It was their first trophyless season for several years, but there was no winning mentality at the Emirates. And Wenger really had to go.

2016/17 saw another FA Cup but it was the first time Arsenal finished outside the Champions League places under Wenger. Their demise was complete. St Totteringhams Day could not even be celebrated. Spurs were going from strength to strength under Mauricio Pochettino and mounted as meaningful a title challenge as Arsenal had managed since their 03/04 success.

Eclipsed by Spurs? Pfft. It’s time to walk, Arsene. Come on fella, you’ve had a good run.

Okay, fine. One last dance. Alexandre Lacazette signed for a lot of money and was joined by Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang in January. It was official, Arsenal fans could not moan about not spending money, but it was a little too late, as the club had already fallen into a state of mediocrity and were now in a dog fight to finish in the top four after years of being a shoo-in under Wenger.

A sixth-place finish in the league was really quite awful. How have they gone from not spending and doing half-decent, to spending and doing rubbish? It’s just an Arsenal thing, I guess.

Arsenal dominate top ten net spenders in Europe since 2020 but Spurs not far behind

In all seriousness, they had no option but to spend; if they hadn’t they would be a mid-table side by this point. Everyone around them was splashing the cash and it was now the ‘big six’, not the ‘big four’, with clubs on the periphery such as West Ham and Leicester threatening to crash the party.

In Wenger’s final season, his team lost the League Cup final in humiliating fashion to Manchester City, who were now miles ahead of Arsenal. Wenger bowed out after losing to Atletico Madrid in the Europa League semis. You either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become a villain. That right there describes the legendary French manager’s last few years to a tee.

Arsenal were now spending consistently, not very wisely, but consistently nonetheless. Unai Emery replaced Wenger and was eventually hounded out and replaced by ex-captain Mikel Arteta 18 months later. Bad ebening.

Arteta is being backed to the hilt by the board, who have placed a lot of faith in the rookie manager. A title win is miles off and has been for a long time. From anything less than a league title being completely unacceptable to hoping and praying they can finish fourth or win the Europa League, Arsenal have become just another team in the Premier League and a very easy target for internet bullies.

From the Emirates transition to other sides spending a hell of a lot more, the culture at the club is a lot different to the glory days. But the Gunners are looking to become a juggernaut once again by placing faith in young players and a young coach. Despite all the bashing and criticising, the foundations are there under Arteta and with the likes of Bukayo Saka, Emile Smith Rowe, Fabio Vieira, Gabriel Martinelli and Benjamin White at the club, the future is very bright. They have no choice but to remain faithful to the Spanish manager, but he must repay the faith the club’s hierarchy has put in him.