However much I argue that Arsenal shouldn’t be in a hurry to get rid off Arsene Wenger, I won’t pretend not to understand why fans get frustrated at the Arsenal of recent years. We’ve known so much better in the not-distant past.
It’s not fair to hold any team up to the standard of the “Invincibles”; that was a one-off amazing achievement and the chances of even the most impressive team matching it are low. Every year, at the start of the season, there will be one team that goes 7 matches or so without defeat and each year I wonder “God! What if...?” But it always ends, sometimes unexpectedly, sometimes to a predictable opponent.
So Arsenal 2003/4 remain the only team in modern English football to have gone a whole season – 38 games — undefeated in the top tier of the English league. (Preston North End did it in 1888/9 when there were only 22 matches.)
Arsenal of that vintage were a remarkable team but even so it is hard to believe that they managed to remain undefeated. They did so with some beautiful football but they also had some luck (van Nistelrooy missing a late penalty at Old Trafford) and they weren’t always sublime (Robert Pires isn’t remembered fondly in Portsmouth for the dive that gave Arsenal an equalising penalty when a famous victory beckoned for Portsmouth). But that is in the nature of great teams; they somehow find a way to get a result. They can win, or scrape a draw, when they aren’t having a good day. And when they were on form, they had a mixture of “silk and steel” that was irresistible.
It’s only in retrospect that the “Invincible” bit came to matter so much, to me at least. At the time, I was only watching if Arsenal would win the league. I do remember the last game of the season, against already-demoted Leicester, at home and wanting not to lose it, as a nice way to “complete” the season. (Arsenal had to come from behind: a final intriguing twist.) But to be honest, if Arsenal had won the league with six matches remaining and then lost the last six I would have been happy.
What I did know at the time was how exhilarating it was to support a team that is so brilliant. I remember explaining to a perplexed Australian friend that however much stress I had at work, whatever else was happening in my life, whether I was up or down, it didn’t matter come match-time. “Thierry Henry and the gang will make everything alright,” I explained.
Now, those games and those players are a part of history.