Comparing the Arsenal Invincibles with the 38-Game ‘Unbeatables’

Sam Patterson

Pundits are frequently drawing parallels between Klopp’s Liverpool – yet to be beaten in the Premier League this season – and the Arsenal Invincible season. So does this team have the mark of the 2003/04 league winners? @sam0007ster gives his thoughts…

The fact of the matter is Liverpool won’t stop winning. Their current league record of 21 games, 20 wins, 1 draw, 0 losses (61 points) is the best start to a league season by any club in Europe’s top five leagues.

The playing style – partly responsible for the accumulation of all these points – is something to behold as well. It has been touted ‘generational’ by outsiders (due in part to its idiosyncrasies; the reliance on the creativity of its marauding full-backs; the dynamically cohesive front three; the gun-ho workaholic midfield). And ‘organised chaos’ by insiders (a phrase which assistant coach Pep Lijnders used to describe Klopp’s Liverpool last Summer for pretty similar reasons).

Gleg Johnson, editor-in-chief at football.london.com, recently wrote a piece – you can find it here – listing six proverbial ‘banana skin games’ which still await Klopp’s rampant Reds.

Indeed, the article posits the notion that fans and pundits alike are beginning to wonder whether Liverpool ‘will’ or indeed ‘can’ be beaten this season, and by whom?

The first of those ‘banana skin games’ he listed – Spurs away – was passed on Saturday evening with relative ease. Jose Mourinho, of course, loves to be the party pooper. His Tottenham side sat back, waited patiently for their moment and almost snatched a late equaliser. But it wasn’t to be, and unlike the infamous 2014 title run-in, the Portuguese won’t be able to derail Liverpool’s title charge this time around.

Klopp’s Reds, in truth, were pretty dominant throughout and deservedly claimed the spoils. Roberto Firmino’s sumptuous drop of the shoulder, deft touch and unerring bullet finish ensured Liverpool finished the weekend fourteen points clear of second-place Manchester City with a game in hand.

The very magnitude of the current gap between first and second begs the question: are we witnessing the best team the Premier League has ever seen? If so, how to does this team rank against previous ‘precessions’ towards the title?

So since the Reds have now gone 38-games unbeaten in the league, a run which spans twelve months, perhaps we should go back seventeen years and take a quick look at the Arsenal Invincible side and ask: what made that side so special?

I am not going to go into infinite details about tactics, playing styles, etc because the all-conquering ‘Wenger-ball’ of 03/04 was a whole different mode of football too, say, Klopp’s pragmatic ‘gegenpress-ball’ of today. But what is palpably similar is the way (and ways) of winning and the refusal to accept defeat.

The relentless Frenchman Theirry Henry – top scorer in 03/04 with thirty goals in thirty-seven experiences – was a stand-out name in a team that included the likes of Patrick Viera, Dennis Bergkamp, Sol Campbell, and Jens Lehman. 

They could blitz teams – with plenty of panache and fluency of course – but also stroll in second gear, grind out a result and turn the tide when all seemed lost. Sound familiar?

An element of good fortune

At times there were, quite inevitably, games in which Arsenal failed to perform at their free-flowing best. In early September 2003 newly-promoted Portsmouth, for example, took the lead and stunned Highbury after a slick piece of play opened up the Gunners’ defence with Teddy Sheringham on hand to head home.

Arsenal eventually earned a point, but it was, perhaps, a little fortuitous. Robert Pires went down in the penalty area rather easily after colliding with Dejan Stevanovic. Henry then converted and it finished 1-1.

But you need an element of luck to win titles and fans, especially rival fans, would argue Liverpool have had that in abundance. The Gini Wijnaldum winner at Bramall Lane (courtesy of a Dean Henderson fumble) is a near-perfect example.

Nor can we forget the Danny Ings close-range miss at the St Mary’s Stadium in August, the whole host of gilt-edge chances squandered by a determined Sheffield Utd side in September and, most recently, Le Celso’s glaring miss in the dying embers on Saturday.

Now, I’m not going to go into the VAR debacle as (1 it’s pretty irrelevant given it’s the same for everyone and (2 how can we possibly argue that Liverpool has benefited most from a system which corrects refereeing mistakes?

The point is that on numerous occasions, this Liverpool team has snatched maximum points from games they’ve have had to endure rather than enjoy. But that is, as they say, the hallmark of champions.

Moments of inspiration

Henry’s brilliance left defenders in his wake throughout the 03/04 season, and at home against Liverpool in April, he left Jamie Carragher on his backside after a mesmerising run and finish.

The fixture followed Arsenal’s exit from the Champions League, and Liverpool looked set to rub salt into the wounds when Michael Owen put the Reds 2-1 up on half-time. Henry, though, was in scintillating form and completed a breath-taking hat-trick to maintain Arsenal’s unbeaten league campaign.

Some players have a knack of standing up when it matters most, Henry was one of them. Today the Reds are lucky to boast a world-class front three. Week in week out, you can guarantee that one of them will be ‘in the mood’.

Think of Salah’s spin, turn of pace and devastating finish vs Arsenal. Think of Firmino’s awe-inspiring flicks and tricks vs Newcastle. Think of Mane’s determination and never-say-die attitude vs Villa.

The Merseysiders have had to come from behind on three occasions so far this season. They trailed Tottenham 1-0 at Anfield for a little under fifty minutes in October before captain Jordan Henderson’s strike inspired a second-half turnaround. It was a similar story at Old Trafford that very same month when, five minutes from time, Adam Lallana was on hand to grab an important equaliser, sparking a late rally and flurry of chances for the men in Red.

Just like Arsenal’s Invincible team before them, Liverpool don’t know when they’re beaten. Winning is a wonderful habit to have, but to be so dogged in the conviction that ‘it ain’t over til it’s over’ is arguably even better.

Champion players and champion performances

Potential champions play the best teams in the most heated arenas and get big results. The Invincibles did it again and again. They travelled to Anfield and won, to Stamford Bridge and won.

At Old Trafford, the stadium they’d surrendered the title 2-0 in the previous season, they grit their teeth and held on – albeit with a slice of luck (remember you need that) – for a 0-0 draw. Manchester Utd striker Ruud Van Nistelrooy had a chance from the spot to win it late on but crashed his penalty against Lehman’s bar. 

Martin Keown’s spiky confrontation with Van Nistelrooy after that penalty miss was a sign of Arsenal’s boastfulness on the pitch; an arrogant kind of confidence if you like; a sort of self-congratulatory ego. There was a vigor and verve to Arsenal. The world-class capabilities of the front-line inexorably intertwined with power and presence at the back.

In a similar sense, then, when opposition players see the likes of Virgil Van Dijk and Alisson Becker lining up against them, it must be demoralising. Their history, their records, their calmness under pressure, and of course, their prerogative to win at all costs has culminated in various individual and team prizes. 

Van Dijk’s and Alisson’s effect on this side is on show for all to see. The Reds have now gone six (and a half) Premier League matches without conceding a goal which is helping to get results in the biggest games of them all, including the 4-0 win away at high-flying Leicester City on Boxing Day.

Modern Invincibles?

To suggest with firm authority that Liverpool will go unbeaten this season is a little unrealistic. There are still seventeen games to play and, after all, it’s only January. The game at the Etihad in April will also determine a lot of things. Nevertheless, at this moment the Reds are undoubtedly the best football team in Europe having dropped just two points all season.

All possibilities are still open, more records are there to broken and there is no sign of a hiccup around the corner – just yet. Saturday’s 1-0 victory was yet another sign of Liverpool’s maturity, a display of such adept control from a side so in sync. Those 1-0s, as Gary Neville was at pains to point out on commentary, is a palpable sign of a team with the ‘know-how’ of serial winners.

Watching Liverpool regularly tricks you into thinking these players are indefatigable. It’s scary to think about what Klopp demands in training week in week such is the endeavor and will-power of this Liverpool side. They win, win and win again, each game being as frantic as the last, so I guess that’s why Jurgen Klopp coined the phrase ‘mentality monsters’ to describe them.

Man Utd to follow.

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