“The Invincibles” Arsenal 2003-04 Analysis (1) – Squad and formation

Arsenal 2003/04 unbeaten title-winning team have been voted as the Best Team in the Premier League’s 20 seasons awards. It is the first team to win the Premier League title having not lost a game. The last team to achieve it was over a hundred years ago. It was a big achievement that earned the nickname “The Invincibles”. Therefore, it is worthy to analyse this team to see what we can learn. How did they play? What were the characteristics of the players? It may not have the best players in every position but the chemistry they formed was the best at that time. I am trying to find it out through analysing the 38 league games.

Arsene Wenger used 22 players in the whole season. However, Justin Hoyte and David Bentley had only made 1 appearance, comparing with the rest of the team making at least 9 appearances (more than 20% of the 38 games). Therefore, it is reasonable to exclude these two players and focus on how Wenger used those 20 players in the whole season. This was the first team line up:


Goalkeeper Jens Lehmann played every league game in the whole season.


defender appearances

The above chart clearly shows that Cole, Lauren, Campbell and Toure were the first team players of the back four. Keown had more substitute appearances (7) than starting appearances (3); especially four of them were in the last four games after Arsenal had won the title on 25/4/2004. Therefore, Cygan was the first choice back up in the centre back position. On the other hand, Clichy was the back up of Cole in left back position. Who was the back up of Lauren in right back position? Wenger used a different approach. Instead of putting a right back player as the backup of Lauren, Wenger used the versatile Toure wisely. The following diagram shows Wenger’s approach about the backup of right back. When Lauren was not available, Wenger moved Toure to the right back and let Cygan played as centre back:

versatile Toure as right backEven Toure moved from a centre back to a right back, he was more than a defensive right back. His speed and strength made him playing well as an attacking right back also. The following video is an example.

In short, the versatility of Toure gave the consistency in Arsenal’s defence, letting Wenger used 6 players mainly throughout the season.


midfielder appearance

The chart of midfielders is not as obvious as that of defenders. It shows that more rotation was happened in midfielders. However, it still shows that Vieira, Pires, Ljungberg and Silva were the first team midfielders. Edu shouldn’t be ignored because he was Wenger’s first choice substitute in midfield, having 16 substitute appearances. In fact, if total appearances were considered, Edu had 29 (13+16) which is the same as Vieira.

Only 6 midfielders were mainly used in the whole season showed the versatility of these players, especially the two backup players Parlour and Edu who played as both central and wide midfielders. Moreover, Pires and Ljungberg were able to play at both flanks. The combination of these 6 players gave the flexibility and consistency of a solid Arsenal midfield.

When Ljungberg was not available, Parlour was the first choice of Wenger to replace the right winger role:

first choice of right winger

When these two players were not available, Pires played as a right winger as Edu played as a left winger:

second choice of right winger

It happened 4 times during the season. However, Wenger used a different approach in the late second half of the season, keeping Pires as left winger and put Wiltord or Reyes as the right winger.

When Pires was not available, Wenger moved Ljungberg to the left and played Parlour as the right winger:

first choice of left winger

If both Pires and Ljungberg were not available, Edu could play as a left winger also.

The rotation in central midfield was simple. Parlour and Edu were the backup of Vieira and Silva. However, the interesting point is that even Edu was the first choice substitute in Wenger’s mind; Parlour was the primary backup central midfielder when either Vieira or Silva was unavailable. There were 18 games when one of them was unavailable, Parlour started 11 of them and Edu started only 7 of them.

The appearances and rotation in midfield could be linked to the analysis of formation. In 4-4-2, the central midfielder substitutes were still able to cover the wide position as wide midfielder or winger (e.g. Parlour in right flank, Edu in left flank). It is because the two strikers playing upfront are the main goal scoring power. The substitutes could act as a supporting role in wide position even though they are not good at attacking. Comparing with the 4-3-3, 4-5-1 or 4-2-3-1 nowadays, it is rarely to see a central midfielder to take over the winger position because the winger position in these formations requires more attacking attributes due to the lone striker system.


striker appearance

Henry was definitely a first team member starting all 38 league games. Therefore, what Wenger had to decide is using whom as Henry’s partner. Wiltord got more chances firstly. In the first 10 games, he started 5 times and played 3 times as substitute. However, he was not in Wenger’s first team plan since then. Bergkamp, having 21 starting appearance, was the partner of Henry in most of the season. However, may be because of Bergkamp’s age, he didn’t play many games continuously. Wenger used Kanu, Aliadiere and Wiltord as the backup. The situation changed after January’s transfer window. Reyes joined the team and got the chances immediately. The total number of games Reyes played in half season (13) was more than Wiltord (11), Kanu (10) and Aliadiere (9) playing in the whole season. Note that in some exceptional cases, Wenger used Reyes and Wiltord as left and right wingers.

For further analysis of Arsenal invincibles squad, please go to the links below:

Part 2 – Were Arsenal a one-man team?

Part 3 – Henry-Bergkamp Partnership

Part 4 – Henry, Pires and Cole


About Leo

I am the founder of footballperformanceanalysis.com. I worked as a performance analyst and football coach. With experience of working within professional football club, I am competent at using performance analysis products (SportsCode Gamebreaker and Prozone). My goal is to combine the knowledge of football and performance analysis.

Posted on 10/01/2013, in Arsenal, Arsenal 2003/04 and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 64 Comments.

  1. Ben Bradley

    Hi I enjoyed the analysis of the Invincibles, however I am wondering if the best Premier League team ever is the right tag to place on this side. Arsenal may have gone unbeaten which is a magnificent acheivement, hower it could be argued that the Chelsea team of the 2004/2005 season were superior in comparison. Chelsea in 2004/2005 massed 95 points compared to the Invincibles 90 in 2003/2004, Chelsea won 29 games drew 8 and lost 1 compared to Arsenal’s 26 wins, 12 draws and 0 losses. Chelsea’s goal difference was +57 compared to Arsenal’s +47 with Chelsea conceeding just 15 goals all season (Petr Cech kept 24 Premier League clean sheets that season) compared to Arsenal’s 26 conceeded. Chelsea also won the Carling Cup in the same season. I am just wondering if the invincibles tag is blinding the judgement of the greatest premier league side. The Chelsea 2004/2005 team may also make for a good season analysis?

    • Hi Ben, thank you for your comment. You bring up a very good point for discussion. As a performance analyst, what I did was to analyse the team performance objectively (even though I am an Arsenal fan). That’s why I won’t say that Arsenal 2003/04 was the best team ever in my team analysis post. I quoted the news from http://www.premierleague.com saying that this team had been voted the best team in the Premier League’s 20 seasons award. Chelsea 2004/2005 was an excellent team also that’s why they were one of the five teams in the shortlist (http://www.premierleague.com/en-gb/news/features/20-seasons-awards-best-team.html). I agree with the stats you mention comparing both teams. You may argue the invincible tag is blinding the judgement but I argue it is analysing the same object from different perspectives. I guess when people voted they considered not only the team performance (statistically) but also the achievement, especially the historical meaning to the league. Chelsea performed better in statistics but Arsenal had achieved something that no teams did over a hundred years. That’s why analysis could be divided into quantitative and qualitative analysis because it provides different angles to analyse the same object. I understand that Chelsea had lost only once. If Chelsea didn’t lost that game, I think the result would be totally different. However, at the highest level, a small difference becomes a big difference. I agree with you that Chelsea 2004/2005 is a good topic for team analysis, especially I wonder how they could conceded just 15 goals all season. Their defence was absolutely brilliant.

  2. u missed out Jermain pennant

    • Jermaine Pennant was in the squad but he didn’t play any league game in that season. That’s why he is not included in the analysis.

  3. he scored his first hatric against Southampton i think i am not sure, thats all i saw him play in the team.

    • Thank you for your comment, Robbie. I understand why we have different opinions here. Jermaine Pennant did score a hat-trick against Southampton on 7/5/2003. It was the first game of 49 unbeaten games. On the other hand, my analysis focused on a season basis. In short, only 38 league games were analysed from 16/8/2003 to 15/5/2004 as a whole season. That’s why Jermaine Pennant is not included in the 2003/04 season.

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  6. the strangest thing is that the manager expected them to remain unbeaten, the season prior

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  28. It was 2003 now they are loosing plus the ozil is injured until 2015

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  30. There’s very little insight here. A passing glance at the stat-books would tell us the names of the squad players who predominantly started in each position that season. Someone has even put in on wikipedia. But by way of in-depth analysis of the team, in terms of formations (which was the more interesting part of why I ventured here), there’s not much here.
    I would have liked seeing how Arsenal looked, shape-wise, when with the ball and also, without it. What was the average starting position of Henry? Did Silva play deeper or Vieira? Did Vieira really only play always as the RCM or sometimes as the LCM too? How did Reyes’ purchase in January alter the wing tactics? Etc.

  31. Great article, interesting to read about how Arsene rotated the players and how vital Pires was to their success.

    I have some Arsenal related articles on my blog, if you want to look it’s : naturalfootballfan.com

    Thanks for posting this, a joy to read.

  32. Sսperbe post : pour ne rien changer

  33. I have to agree statistically speaking and for record purpose Arsenal 2003-2004 were the greatest team for going unbeaten “in the league”. However Chelsea 2004-2005 hold so many records and amassed the highest point ever in the premier league era. They did better in other competitions too. That team were so difficult to beat at full strength and only a phantom goal against Liverpool cost them to miss the final of the champions league. They did beat Barcelona and Bayern Munich before that and were hot on favourites to be in the final. That was a continuation of Chelsea bad luck in the UCL until they won it in 2012.

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  35. raphgunner

    am an arsenal fan and I like the analysis of the Invicibles but I wonder why they couldn’t win the champions league with this squad and moreover even a cup double will do….

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