Can Chelsea emulate Arsenal’s ‘Invincibles’?
The surest measure of greatness is the shadow it casts. A decade on, the Arsenal ‘Invincibles’ side of 2003-04 are still regarded with a unique reverence.
Others hold the records for most points won and most goals scored in a Premier League season but it is Arsene Wenger’s greatest team, inhabiting a page all of their own in the annals of English football history after emerging unbeaten from a 38-game campaign, who remain the yardstick for any side hoping to earn lofty position within the pantheon of the greats.
Many have won the Premier League title since without ever threatening to match the Gunners’ remarkable feat. Some have gone further down the path than others but all have faltered well before the finish line and, with every failure, the question resounds ever louder: Will it ever be done again?
“It’s something that happened once in a lifetime,” Chelsea boss Jose Mourinho told reporters earlier in October when asked whether his team are capable. “I don’t see, in modern football with the competitiveness of this Premier League, one team being champion without a defeat.”
Mourinho is often disingenuous with the media but, given the fact that he never usually passes up a chance to upstage or humiliate Wenger, there is no reason to assume that he was anything other than serious in his answer.Even after comfortably holding off Arsenal on Saturday to make it six wins and a draw from seven matches, Chelsea still have 31 games left to navigate. Top of the priority list is winning the Premier League for the first time since 2010, closely followed by the prospect of Mourinho’s third Champions League triumph.
For football’s arch-pragmatist, remaining unbeaten is a means and not an end. Trophies are the most certain guarantee of a place in history and both Chelsea and their manager remain intent on swelling their collections.
Not that it is impossible, of course. This Chelsea side have at least as much in their favour as any Premier League leader over the past 10 years: the form striker in world football, a midfield bursting with power and creativity, a settled defence which can still improve, two world-class goalkeepers and formidable depth in most positions.
They have also already returned from the home of the champions with a deserved point and avenged one of last season’s six defeats at Goodison Park in emphatic style. Saturday’s trip to Crystal Palace offers a similar opportunity.
Mourinho, however, has been here before. In 2004-05 his Chelsea side won six and drew two of their opening eight matches on the way to winning a first league title in 50 years with a record points total but then saw their record blemished by a pre-Sheikh Mansour City on this day 10 years ago.
The following season, the Blues opened their title defence with nine straight victories but tasted defeat to Manchester United in the first week of November. Four of Chelsea’s next six Premier League matches are away from home – including trips to Old Trafford and Anfield – with Champions League and League Cup commitments sandwiched in between. If Mourinho can make it to December with that zero still in the loss column, the possibility may finally cross his mind.
Fighting on numerous fronts will require intelligent juggling of resources. Mourinho has so far avoided shuffling his pack too much, starting nine players in every one of Chelsea’s first seven Premier League matches: Thibaut Courtois, Branislav Ivanovic, Gary Cahill, John Terry, Cesar Azpilicueta, Nemanja Matic, Cesc Fabregas, Eden Hazard and Diego Costa.
In their unbeaten season, Arsenal boasted 13 players who made at least 25 league appearances and seven who made at least 30 starts: Jens Lehmann, Lauren, Kolo Toure, Sol Campbell, Ashley Cole, Robert Pires and Thierry Henry.
This unchanging spine – midfield duo Patrick Vieira and Gilberto Silva also made 29 starts – clearly enhanced the consistency of Wenger’s side in the Premier League, though it might well have contributed to the Gunners falling narrowly short at the business end of the cup competitions. Given his keen desire to win the Champions League again, Mourinho may have some tough selection decisions to make as the fixtures begin to stack up.