Top row, left to right: Patrick Vieira, Dennis Bergkamp, Edu Gaspar,
Jens Lehmann, Lauren Etame Mayer, Sol Campbell and Kolo Toure.
Bottom row: Unidentified mascot, Ashley Cole,
Freddie Ljungberg, Thierry Henry and Robert Pires.
Somebody asked me recently, on Twitter, if the 1998 New York Yankees' achievement of a 114-48 regular season record, followed by an 11-2 postseason record, totaling 125 wins and 50 losses and resulting in winning the World Series, was equivalent to the 2003-04 Arsenal team's achievement of an undefeated Premier League season: As an announcer said, "They were, quite literally, unbeatable: Played 38, won 26, drawn 12, lost exactly none!"
I told him this was worth studying, and that it required a lot more than the 280 characters that Twitter now allows.
The Case for The Arsenal
The Arsenal didn't lose a game. Maybe they drew some games they should have won. But they also drew some games where they could have lost. Examples: 1-1 home to Portsmouth on September 13, 2003 (no, Robert Pires did not dive, he was practically mugged); 0-0 away to Manchester United on September 21 (a.k.a. the Battle of Old Trafford, or the van Nistelrooy-Keown Game); 1-1 away to Charlton Athletic on October 26; and 1-1 home to Man United on March 28, 2004.
The 1998 Yankees' record of 114-48 was magnificent. Only 2 Major League Baseball teams have ever won more games in a regular season: The 1906 Chicago Cubs and the 2001 Seattle Mariners, both of whom won 116. But neither of them went on to win the World Series. The '98 Yanks did.
But they didn't win every game. In 29 percent of their games, they not only failed to win, they lost. The Gunners lost exactly none.
That had only been done once before in the history of English soccer's 1st division. It was all the way back in the 1st season of the Football League, 1888-89, when Preston North End of Lancashire played 18, won 22, drew 4, and lost none. But 22 games unbeaten is one thing; 38 is another. Indeed, Arsenal's League unbeaten streak ran from May 7, 2003 to October 24, 2004, encompassing pieces of 3 seasons, and stretching to 49 straight games, before Man United cheated them out of a 50th.
And it hasn't been done since. An unbeaten League season of more than 22 games? Only The Arsenal have done it. The Yankees haven't. No Major League Baseball team has.
For comparison's sake, the longest winning streak in Yankee history is 19 games, in 1947. They also had an 18-game winning streak in 1953. They won the World Series both times.
The Case for the Yankees
They won every competition that was available to them. They won a Playoff berth. They won the American League Eastern Division. They won the American League Pennant. And they won the World Series.
They also reached the Semifinal of the League Cup. There, they lost to Middlesbrough. Not a good team. But then, Arsenal usually don't take the League Cup very seriously.
Then there was the UEFA Champions League. That season, Arsenal became the 1st English club ever to defeat Internaionale of Milan in Milan, and also gained their 1st victory on Spanish soil by knocking Celta Vigo out of the tournament. But after a 1-1 draw in the away leg of the Quarterfinal, they lost to fellow Londoners Chelsea 2-1 at home.
The title was there. Chelsea were knocked out by AS Monaco, who really weren't as good as either Chelsea or Arsenal. And Monaco lost the Final to FC Porto, who also weren't as talent-laden as Arsenal. This is the great missed opportunity in Arsenal history.
Arsenal did not win everything that was available to them. The Yankees did.
In addition, the big argument of "lost exactly none" has a flaw in it: Draws are not available in baseball. If the '04 Gunners had had to play to a winner every time, how many of those 12 draws would they have lost?
Surely, some would have gone to penalties, and with Thierry Henry leading the way, they likely would have won most of those shootouts. But they could live with a draw, as they did on April 25, 2004, when a draw would clinch them the League title at the home of their North London arch-rivals, Tottenham Hotspur, and they blew a 2-0 lead to finish 2-2. Still, "We won the League at White Hart Lane!"
The '98 Yanks failed to win in 29 percent of their games; but the '04 Gunners failed to win in 31 percent of theirs.
CONCLUSION: What 2003-04 Arsenal did was astonishing, and had never (really) been done before, and hasn't been done since. But what the 1998 Yankees did was even better. They didn't avoid defeat in all their League games, but they did "win it all."
One more note: When Reggie Jackson hit his 3rd home run of Game 6 of the 1977 World Series, ABC's Howard Cosell noted that all of the controversies of the season had, for the moment, been swept away. Cosell said, "Victory can bring harmony!"
Which is almost the exact opposite if Arsenal's motto: Victoria Concordia crescit. "Victory through harmony."