Arsenal Advent: Edu, Parlour, Cygan – don’t forget the Invincibles’ supporting cast!

Welcome to the Arsenal Advent Calendar: The Invincibles edition. Every day in the build-up to Christmas, The Athletic will bring subscribers content to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Arsenal’s unbeaten season in 2003-04. It could be a short story, a long interview, or a segment of audio. It might be published early or late in the day. Whatever it is, there will be a little something, a reminder, or a new take on a moment during that campaign for all Arsenal fans. If you miss a day or want to gorge on it all at once, like the small chocolates in your festive calendars, we won’t judge. Simply step this way to find all the treasures in one place. Enjoy!

The leading characters draw the most attention, whether in sport or on film. Despite this, the supporting cast is usually more important than the masses realise.

That theme has emerged recently at Arsenal, particularly during their title charge last season. Throughout the 2022-23 campaign, the perceived first-choice XI was Ramsdale; White, Saliba, Gabriel, Zinchenko; Odegaard, Partey, Xhaka; Saka, Jesus, Martinelli. All those players topped the pecking order in their positions, but Arteta used that line-up just seven times in the Premier League.

Arsene Wenger’s Invincibles can tell a similar tale. The remembered XI from the 2003-04 season is Lehmann; Lauren, Toure, Campbell, Cole; Ljungberg, Gilberto, Vieira, Pires; Henry, Bergkamp. Surprisingly, that particular line-up was used just twice in those 38 unbeaten games. (Once in the 4-2 win over Liverpool in April 2004 and then in a 2-1 win over Leicester City on the final day of the season a month later).

It took Wenger until matchday 32 to field that team together, but they were all starting regularly throughout the year. Jens Lehmann was the only player to start every league game. Thierry Henry (37 starts), Kolo Toure (36 starts), Sol Campbell (35 starts) and Robert Pires (33 starts) were the most regular outfielders, but a squad was needed beyond them.

Outside of the XI most remember, a core group of players helped the machine roar on. Edu was involved in 30 matches (starting 13), Ray Parlour 25 (starting 16), Pascal Cygan 18 (10 starts), Jose Antonio Reyes 13 (starting seven), Sylvain Wiltord 12 (starting eight) and an 18-year-old Gael Clichy 12 (starting seven). Each player stood up to be counted, and many at times that have become easy to overlook in the 20-year aftermath.

Before the 2003-04 season, Wiltord had scored 15, 17 and 13 goals in each of his first three seasons at Arsenal. Wenger used an unchanged side in the first three games of the campaign and Wiltord started ahead of 34-year-old Dennis Bergkamp in each of them, as well as in the fourth game away to Manchester City. All three of his league goals that season came in this period as his campaign was marred by injuries, with the most important at the then-City of Manchester Stadium. Arsenal had gone in 1-0 down at half-time due to a comical Lauren own goal but Wiltord was on hand to equalise after the renowned Pires-Ashley Cole combination opened up the right side of City’s defence. Arsenal went on to make it four wins from four to start the season.

Parlour, Edu and Bergkamp were all brought in, alongside a returning Campbell, and all became more involved from that point. That was the start of Parlour’s longest run in the starting line-up that season (eight games), which included matches against Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur at right and central midfield. It may surprise some, but that stint from Parlour was longer than Bergkamp’s longest run of consecutive league starts (seven) that year.

Arsenal’s depth was vital during that stretch. Patrick Vieira was absent from October until December with a hamstring strain, but the FA’s charges on players following the madness at Old Trafford in August landed on October 30. Ordered by severity: Arsenal were fined £175,000, Lauren was banned for four matches and banned £40,000, Keown received a three-match ban and £10,000 fine, Vieira was fined £20,000 and given a one-match ban, Parlour had to pay £10,000 with a one-match ban while Cole was given a £10,000 fine.

How did Wenger cope? Initially, Clichy was given his debut at right-back away to Birmingham in November. The next week, he settled on Toure at right-back with Pascal Cygan stepping up for a run of 10 successive starts at centre-back around Christmas that included six clean sheets. Clichy’s first true cluster of starts also came during this period after Cole was sent off away to Leicester City and it was not until January when the ‘usual’ back four started together again.

Edu started five of the seven games Vieira missed through injury and made a few key contributions. In October, Arsenal went behind against Liverpool before Edu headed a Pires free kick towards goal and it went in off Sami Hyppia. The following week, the Brazilian scored a deflected free kick to give Arsenal the lead in a 2-1 win over Chelsea.

Interestingly, post-match discussion surrounded Chelsea’s larger squad, to which Wenger replied, “We have stability. We have been together for years and have the comfort of knowing we have won things before. When we are challenged, we become even more united. Chelsea maybe need a little bit more time but their huge squad will be an advantage in March and April.”

Coincidentally, Edu also completed a 2-1 comeback win over Chelsea at Stamford Bridge in February by scoring the winner after the hosts went ahead inside a minute.

The dynamic of the front line had also changed slightly by that time.

A 20-year-old Reyes signed in January and was making his way onto the bench. From late February until April, when Arsenal were still in the Champions League, Wenger rotated the Spaniard with Bergkamp for seven straight league games. Reyes finally started successive matches in May and earned Arsenal four points while keeping them unbeaten with an equaliser in the 1-1 draw to Portsmouth and the winner in a 1-0 win over Fulham.

In total, 22 players appeared for Arsenal in the 2003-04 Premier League season. Seventeen played at least 12 games, which was the threshold at the time for a winner’s medal, and 14 started at least 10 games. This was not the biggest squad, helped by the fact Lehmann was the only senior summer signing, but Wenger had a strong group of players he could depend on with the help of a few hungry youngsters.

In his own words, Arsenal had “stability” and the right deputies to make them “united”.

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