Earlier this month the trailer dropped for ‘Arsene Wenger: Invincible’ – a documentary focusing on the incredible Arsenal side that went the 2003/04 Premier League season unbeaten, winning the club’s most recent league title.
It was a stacked squad with a ridiculously strong starting XI; but who was their most important player? You probably already know the answer to that, but here are our rankings of the importance of the whole squad…
21) Graham Stack (goalkeeper)
Stack had the best seat in the house during this legendary campaign. The goalkeeper sat on the bench all season, only getting game time in the League Cup.
With zero minutes played in the league, there was no way Stack could avoid being 21st in this list, only achieving a medal for being the second-choice ‘keeper. Outfield players would have to earn ten appearances to be given a medal.
20) Jeremie Aliadiere (striker)
The French forward picked up ten league appearances during 03/04 to get his hands on a medal. He didn’t play the full 90 minutes in any of those ten matches, whilst failing to score a goal. His form in the League Cup was pretty impressive, however, scoring four goals in three matches. Arsenal were beaten in the semi-finals by eventual winners and Aliadiere’s future club, Middlesbrough.
19) Martin Keown (centre-back)
Keown played a little bit at the start of the season, helping the Gunners to a 0-0 draw against Manchester United at Old Trafford, memorably jumping all over Ruud van Nistelrooy after the Dutchman cannoned a late penalty off the crossbar. His reaction to the miss is iconic; the penalty would have put any invincible talk to bed very early on indeed.
Four early appearances in which the 43-cap England man started were followed by a lack of game time. With four games remaining Keown had to play in them all to get his hands on a medal. He played in all four, coming off the bench very late on in every match. If you haven’t heard the story of the last game against Leicester, I would recommend giving it a listen.
A timeless classic 😂
— Arsenal (@Arsenal) July 24, 2021
18) Gael Clichy (left-back)
Clichy definitely contributed towards Arsenal’s success in 03/04 – filling in for Ashley Cole whilst the England left-back was injured. He made 12 appearances in the Premier League as the Gunners strolled to the league title. Two of his full 90-minute appearances came in a 1-1 draw with Man Utd at Highbury and a win away to Chelsea, so the Frenchman definitely earned his medal.
He was only a teenager at the time and went on to replace Cole as the north Londoners’ first-choice left-back after the Englishman controversially left for Chelsea in 2006.
17) Pascal Cygan (centre-back)
The centre-back signed from Lille in 2002 made 18 Premier League appearances in 03/04. He was certainly not a fan favourite at Highbury, and would tend to make Arsenal fans nervous whenever he was named on the team sheet. But Cygan nearly played in half of the games, obviously failing to experience a league defeat in the process.
After a spell in which the Frenchman played the full 90 minutes in ten consecutive games, he would then be used very sparingly by Wenger, often coming on in stoppage time to wind the clock down and help shore up the defence.
16) Sylvain Wiltord (striker)
Wiltord scored one of the most famous goals in the club’s history during the 01/02 season, slotting under Fabian Barthez after the Red Devils ‘keeper denied Freddie Ljungberg, securing a 1-0 win at Old Trafford to win the league title on their rival’s home turf.
There was no such moment for Wiltord during the invincible season, however. Approaching his 30s, the forward made 12 appearances, scoring three times. All of his league goals came in the opening four fixtures of the season, including one in a 2-1 win away to Manchester City – who weren’t very good back then.
15) Nwankwo Kanu (striker)
Kanu only played ten times, and he was past his best in an Arsenal shirt by the time 03/04 came around, but he scored a pretty crucial goal that edged him up a few rankings.
The Nigerian netted the opener in a 1-1 draw with Everton. The Gunners would have lost the match if it wasn’t for Kanu’s goal, technically speaking.
14) Edu Gaspar (midfielder)
Despite being an invincible, Edu will be mostly remembered for his time as the club’s technical director. He is still in the role and isn’t exactly a popular man at the Emirates.
Edu joined the Gunners in January 2002, signing from Corinthians in Brazil. He played sparingly in his maiden season in England before stepping up to become a crucial back-up option under Wenger. The central midfielder made 48 appearances for Arsenal during 03/04, including 30 in the Premier League. The Brazilian scored two goals in the league on his way to a winner’s medal – both coming in 2-1 wins against Chelsea, strangely enough.
He was a very important player who could play anywhere in midfield when called upon, and it will be harsh if his time as a technical director outweighs his time as a player.
13) Jose Antonio Reyes (winger)
It was very tempting to put Reyes a little bit higher due to his goal against Portsmouth late on in the season. The 1-1 draw at Fratton Park was one of the occasions where Arsenal found themselves lucky not to have lost. It was their third-last match of the campaign, and the final time they failed to pick up all three points in a game.
Reyes joined up with the squad in January after moving from Sevilla and frightened defences with his trickery and incredible pace. He went on to have a decent career, returning to Sevilla in 2012 after spells with Atletico Madrid and Benfica, before he tragically passed away in 2019.
12) Ray Parlour (midfielder)
Parlour could perhaps have broken into the top XI due to the fact he was a very influential member of the dressing room, as well as an important player. This sort of character was pivotal in their title challenge; he was one of the few proper Arsenal men within the squad.
The ten-cap England midfielder played over 400 times for the Gunners, spending 13 years in north London before moving to Middlesbrough at the end of the 03/04 season.
During his final season at the club he played 25 times in the Premier League – 16 as a starter – and failed to score a goal, but that wasn’t his job. His job was to do the dirty work and he smashed it.
11) Freddie Ljungberg (right-midfielder)
It’s time for the starting XI, with no fringe player breaking into this list. Every single man in Wenger’s most-used XI was incredibly important, and were truly world class in their position. That’s what it takes to go a whole season unbeaten: a team full of world-class footballers.
Ljungberg was no exception. The tricky right-midfielder started 27 out of 38 games for Arsenal, chipping in with four goals. He scored the winner against Man City at the Etihad as well as the winning goal against Tottenham in the north London derby. As you can see, he rarely scored, but he did love an important goal.
Stats are not the be all and end all. His dynamism down the right flank was crucial and he created plenty of chances for his team-mates. To say he was the least important player in any starting XI is a testament to how good this team was.
10) Lauren (right-back)
A shoo-in for tenth or eleventh in this list, Lauren was a rock solid right-back and blossomed into one of the most underrated players in Premier League history. His seven years as a Gunner were definitely enough to be in the conversation for the best in his position in the league’s history.
Like Keown, he got in Van Nisterlrooy’s grill and was fined and banned by the FA for his reaction to the Dutchman’s missed spot-kick. In the six matches he missed during 03/04, Arsenal drew three and won three.
Lauren was a player that epitomised the Invincibles. He was aggressive (in a good way, besides the RVN penalty drama), strong physically and mentally, and of course, excellent at football.
9) Kolo Toure (centre-back)
Only one player in the squad played all 38 matches – not Toure, but he was close with 37. Only 22 years old at the start of the season, the Ivorian defender became a constant in Wenger’s first-choice XI after being in and out of the starting line-up in 02/03.
Toure was a unique defender. His defensive partner during the season was Sol Campbell, which was pretty perfect for the team, combining Campbell’s experience and out-and-out defending, with Toure’s full-on, ‘heavy metal’ approach.
The young defender played 37 times in 03/04, chipping in with a single goal all season, which came in a 3-1 win away to Wolves. He filled in at right-back whenever Lauren was absent, providing crucial versatility and cover for Wenger.
8) Ashley Cole (left-back)
This is where it begins to get near-impossible. Ranking Cole as the eighth most important player in any team seems harsh, but this is yet another indication of this team’s utter brilliance.
Cole played 32 times in the league and 47 times in all competitions. He was ridiculously consistent and comfortably the best left-back in the league during the vast majority of his career. His output both defensively and offensively was insane, often contributing to attacks whilst slotting the opposition’s right-midfielder in his back pocket.
Everyone knows what Cole was about and that he is the best in his position in Premier League history – there is no need to disagree to increase your edginess.
7) Gilberto Silva (centre-midfield)
Gilberto formed one of the best midfield partnerships in league history next to Patrick Vieira. He was the anchor of Wenger’s bank of four, allowing his French counterpart to bomb forward and be the engine in Wenger’s midfield.
The 2002 World Cup winner scored in a 1-1 draw against Leicester in December 2003. His header should have been enough for the win, but Cole’s second-half red card put the Gunners under pressure, conceding to a 90th-minute Craig Hignett goal.
Much like Lauren, Gilberto was aggressive, strong, and technically superb. He did a lot of the dirty work in midfield and knew when to go forward and when to sit.
6) Dennis Bergkamp (shadow striker)
Bergkamp was the perfect link between midfield and attack and is arguably the most technically gifted player to grace the English game. He was 35 years old when the trophy was lifted in May 2004, undoubtedly past his best, but he never lost his positional awareness and amazing technical ability.
‘The Non-Flying Dutchman’ operated in a shadow striker role under Wenger for the majority of his Highbury career, and that was his position in 03/04, sitting behind Thierry Henry, pulling the strings.
Obviously, as a player in his mid-30s, he did not play every match. Bergkamp played 28 times in the league, completing 90 minutes on only four occasions. In his prime, he would have been much higher up the list. He only scored four times that season, including the only goal in a win against Blackburn Rovers.
5) Sol Campbell (centre-back)
The other member of the centre-back partnership, Campbell was the rock of Arsenal’s 03/04 defence. The 73-cap England star played 35 times in the league that season, winning the vast majority of his battles with the opposing striker. Dominant in the air, quick, good with the ball and strong as an ox, Campbell was ahead of his time and would not look out of place in the modern game.
Campbell lasted 24 minutes in the first game of the season; being sent off early on in a home win against Everton. That was the only match he started and didn’t finish during the legendary campaign, completing 90 minutes on 34 occasions.
4) Jens Lehmann (goalkeeper)
The German shot-stopper saved Arsenal numerous times, and as the last line of defence, his saves tend to be highlighted more than the tackles, blocks and interceptions of the men in front of him.
Lehmann played every single minute in the league – the only player to play all 38 matches – and was outstanding all season. 03/04 was his first season at Arsenal as he became club legend David Seaman’s replacement. He also played every minute in the Champions League, FA Cup and Community Shield, shifting from the sticks in the League Cup only.
In 2020, Lehmann admitted the Gunners were “lucky” at times but also said: “I am a believer that you have to work hard to earn your good fortune”, which Wenger’s men most certainly did.
Lehmann was particularly crucial during draws against Bolton, Birmingham City, Man Utd and Portsmouth, all of which could easily have been defeats.
3) Robert Pires (left-midfielder)
Despite playing on the wing, Pires was Henry’s Robin. His trickery and ability to go on either foot kept defenders constantly guessing as he became a thorn in any full-back’s side.
Pires played 36 times, scoring 14 goals and assisting a further nine. He scored in narrow wins against Everton, Liverpool, Spurs, Southampton, Charlton and Bolton as well as draws against Spurs and Bolton.
Much like Robin, Pires’ work was overshadowed by Batman (Henry in this instance). Looking back, his season is one of the most underrated in Premier League history and he is one of the most under-appreciated players (by modern fans, at least) to ever grace England’s top flight.
2) Patrick Vieira (centre-midfield)
The captain of the Invincibles, Vieira was the spine of the team. His marauding runs forward with the ball – enabled by Gilberto – helped push Arsenal on every single time he played. It was been well-documented that the north Londoners have not replaced Vieira since he departed in 2005, which is admittedly a tall order.
During the 03/04 league campaign, the midfielder played 29 times, scoring thrice. One of his goals came in their 2-2 draw at White Hart Lane, the title-clinching match for the Gunners.
Vieira had a few injury problems and was sent off against Man Utd before the penalty fiasco. He missed nine matches overall, but his dressing-room influence was key throughout the season. It would have been easier to place the Frenchman lower as he played less than 30 games, but he was the best midfielder in the league that season.
He rounded off the season by scoring Arsenal’s last goal of the season: a winning goal against Leicester on matchday 38, shortly before lifting the trophy at Highbury.
1) Thierry Henry (striker)
This was inevitable. Any other answer is simply wrong, no matter what the argument.
Henry scored 30 league goals as Arsenal went unbeaten, producing one of the most scintillating seasons in football history. Pace, strength, dribbling, composure, heading, passing; the Frenchman literally did everything imaginable on the pitch. If Harry Kane is worth £150m, Henry would have been worth at least £200m after this season.
France’s all-time top scorer scored two in a 3-2 win against Newcastle and a 2-0 win vs Southampton, on top of one goal in single-digit victories against Chelsea, Southampton, Man City, Charlton, Leicester and in 1-1 draws against Charlton and Man Utd. Henry also bagged a hat-trick as the Gunners beat Liverpool 4-2 at Highbury, and famously netted four in a 5-0 win against Leeds.
There is no need to justify Henry’s position on this list, neither is there a need to justify his standing as the greatest player in Premier League history.