Arsenal: 16 years on, how was the Invincibles' unbeaten run ended?

Manchester United vs Arsenal in 2004

The debate will rage on until the end of time itself as to who the best Premier League team of all time is.

Some think it’s Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City, while others will argue that Liverpool’s title win last term was the most impressive.

There are also claims that Sir Alex Ferguson built the best side or that Chelsea’s team in 2004/05 had the greatest quality.

All of them have their own eye-catching nuances and quirks but few would be able to complain if the crown of Premier League’s best went to Arsenal’s Invincibles.

Not only did they go through an entire season unbeaten after Arsene Wenger was laughed at for suggesting they could, but they extended it to a massive 49-matches in the season that followed the 2003/04 campaign. 

Wenger’s side played swashbuckling football, an unrelenting style of passing that cut through opposition teams like a knife through butter. 

However, 16 years ago today (24th October), Manchester United were having none of it. 

Arsene Wenger and Sir Alex Ferguson

Goals from Ruud van Nistelrooy and Wayne Rooney saw the Red Devils come away with a 2-0 win in an encounter that Sir Alex Ferguson would later label as the Battle of the Buffet for what occurred during the course of 90 minutes. 

Ferguson had clearly told his players to leave their mark on the Arsenal team and who can blame him? A year prior, Martin Keown had got in the face of Van Nistelrooy after he missed a penalty, a moment that has gone down in the Premier League history as one of the most memorable.

English football has rarely seen a rivalry like Arsenal’s and United’s at the time, and this match back in 2004 proved it. 

The Gunners started the game brightly but crumbled after a succession of robust challenges went without punishment or weren’t even spotted by Mike Riley. 

Arsenal players at Old Trafford in 2004

His refereeing performance was absolutely puzzling, and 16 years ago to the day, a compilation has been put together of just how much United got away with.

Check out the best bits here… 

One way to rattle Arsenal back in the day was to throw in the challenges. Although they had their warriors in Patrick Vieira and Gilberto Silva, you could upset their rhythm if you played aggressive football. 

If Riley had officiated the game properly, they may have been able to keep their heads but after 49 triumphant games, their run had to come to an end at some point.

The bad decisions all started when Rooney absolutely steamed through the side of one unfortunate Arsenal player without getting a booking. Phil Neville continued the theme by catching Jose Antonio Reyes late on the ankle, a tackle that didn’t even provoke a foul.

One of the worst decisions came after a challenge from Rio Ferdinand. Edu sent Freddie Ljungberg through on goal but he was completely wiped out by the England defender.

Ljungberg was through on goal and quite possibly would have scored, but instead of a red card being given for Ferdinand being the last man, Riley waved play on. Baffling. 

Cristiano Ronaldo and Edu

Moments later, Reyes was brought down again. He nutmegged Gary Neville with a brilliant bit of trickery before the right-back hacked the Spaniard down from behind. A free-kick was given, but somehow it escaped a caution. 

Van Nistelrooy’s horrific challenge was arguably the most appalling decision of all. He raised his studs to Ashley Cole’s knee and again, no yellow card was shown. The tackle was so bad that the striker was retrospectively banned for three games after Riley missed what happened. 

What made all of the above more confusing, was that it was an Arsenal player – Cole – that earned the first booking of the match on 35 minutes.

Just a minute later, Neville finally went into the book after fouling Reyes for a second time but there was more bewildering officiating from Riley to come. 

Battle of the Buffet

Reyes was again fouled, this time by the other Neville brother, Phil, someone who later admitted they purposely targeted the Spanish winger.

He said back in 2018: 

“We literally kicked him off the park. Every time he got the ball, Gary (Neville) smashed him. Next time he got the ball I smashed him, next time he got the ball (Paul) Scholes smashed him, and after a bit, I remember looking at him and he was thinking ‘what am I doing in English football?’”

Surprise, surprise, United were then awarded a penalty. Rooney went over easily under Sol Campbell’s challenge and Riley gave Ferguson’s side his eighth penalty in eight successive outings at Old Trafford. 

That just about summed things up.

Manchester United v Arsenal Old Trafford 2004

Wenger was rightfully left fuming, lamenting Riley for his officiating post-match and also labelling Van Nistelrooy a cheat.

Consequently, the former Arsenal boss was investigated by the FA and handed a fine of £15,000.

If you thought things couldn’t get any worse, a brawl erupted in the tunnel, leading to the famous moment when Cesc Fabregas threw pizza at Sir Alex. 

It’s safe to say they don’t make Premier League football like this anymore. 

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