The Analyst’s Premier League History Part II: The Treble, The Invincibles and the Flying Dutchman
This series analyses the best stats and insights from every single Premier League campaign. Part I charted the early era of the Premier League from 1992-97, as the competition took its fledgling steps away from the old First Division.
Now, with the help of nearly 30 years of data, we aim to provide the larger historical context needed to better frame each era. Part II examines the era of intense rivalry between Arsenal and Manchester United. Between August 1997 and May 2004, the two clubs shared all seven league titles that were on offer. That is as far as the sharing went.
This era was a finite window in a rapidly changing league where the values and intensity of Old Football met the skill and diversity of New Football to produce a titanic struggle between two English heavyweights.
If there is one season in the Premier League that marks the transition from the old First Division to the cosmopolitan global brand we now know, 1997-98 is probably it. Frenchman Arsène Wenger, who had moved to Arsenal in 1996 from little-known Japanese club Nagoya Grampus Eight, made history when he became the first foreign manager to win the English league.
Unbeknownst to those at the time, Wenger was blazing a trail for others to follow. The hiring of a foreign manager in Wenger, seen as a major risk in 1996, has now become the established norm within the league. Foreign hires have been the recipe for success – since Wenger’s debut title, Alex Ferguson is the only British manager to win the Premier League.
Wenger arrived not only with a new philosophy – gone were the days of rigid tactical stability, replaced with an emphasis on a fast-paced attacking style – but armed with new dieting and nutrition plans as well as a more scientific approach to training. Pundits hailed his intellectual approach to the game, though some were more sceptical, including his nemesis Ferguson:
“They say he’s an intelligent man, right? Speaks five languages? I’ve got a 15-year-old boy from the Ivory Coast who speaks five languages.”
It proved to be the start of a frosty and bitter relationship between the two managers.
After a period of goalscoring decadence in the first years of the Premier League, in which the lowest-scoring Golden Boot winner was Teddy Sheringham in 1992-93 with 22 goals, no individual player managed to score more than a paltry 18 in 1997-98.
It did mean that, for the first time in Premier League history, the award was shared among more than one player, with Dion Dublin, Michael Owen and Chris Sutton all ending the season level. The 18 goals that this trio scored in 1997-98 is the joint-lowest number of goals needed to win the Premier League Golden Boot (tied with Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, Dwight Yorke and Owen the subsequent season.)
More notable, however, was the emergence of Liverpool youngster Michael Owen. In the Red’s 3-3 away draw with Sheffield Wednesday in February, Owen became the youngest Premier League hat-trick scorer aged just 18 years and 62 days – a record he holds to this day. In fact, Owen alone has contributed to three of the five youngest hat tricks that have been scored in the Premier League era.
Arsenal’s title under their revolutionary foreign manager clearly provoked Ferguson into a reaction the following year. In a season that has lodged itself firmly into Manchester United folklore, Ferguson’s side became the first and only English club to win the treble of the Premier League, FA Cup and Champions League. United were crowned champions by just a single point after an epic title race that saw them win 14 and draw the remainder of their last 20 games. Rivals Arsenal won 15 of their last 20 matches. During that run, Arsenal’s crucial defeat to Leeds put United’s fate in their own hands. As was customary with Ferguson’s United, they did not blink.
What is not remembered during this season, however, is the relative paucity of goals. Indeed, the 49 goalless draws during this campaign remains the most seen in a 20-team season.
Arsenal’s defence can feel hard done by their efforts not being rewarded with another title. Defensive resilience is not an attribute often credited to Wenger’s Arsenal sides but a mean back four consisting of Lee Dixon, Nigel Winterburn, Tony Adams and Martin Keown conceded just 17 goals in the 1998-99 Premier League season, the fewest of any non-title winning side in the competition’s history.
For the second consecutive season, there were three players who tied as top goal scorer – Dwight Yorke and Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink joined Owen at the top of the charts. This marked the first time in Premier League history that a non-English player finished first in the scoring books and epitomised the beginning of the transition into a new cosmopolitan era.
If Wenger’s arrival and title victory was an overt indicator for the way the league was about to change, then Aston Villa’s game against Coventry in February 1999 was a subtle, yet powerful confirmation of this. In this game, Villa named a fully English starting XI – this remains the last time a team named a starting line-up comprising only Englishmen in a Premier League match. The times were truly changing.
If Arsenal’s league title in 1997-98 had provoked Ferguson’s side into action, then in 1999-2000 they’d well and truly awoken the beast. Manchester United won the title (their sixth) at an absolute canter, finishing 18 points clear of second. This was a record gap between first and second in the competition up until 2017-18 when Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City side won by 19 points over Manchester United.
During this season, United displayed a crazed obsession with attacking football: they scored 97 goals (and three or more goals in half their league fixtures) en route to the Premier League title – a record at the time, and one that wouldn’t be broken until 2009-10.
At the other end of the pitch, United’s defence shipped 45 goals – more than any other Premier League champions. During this season, four teams – Liverpool, Aston Villa, Chelsea and Leeds – kept more clean sheets than the champions.
The table below shows the Premier League champions who conceded the most goals en route to the title.
Despite Manchester United’s glut of goals, it was Kevin Phillips who won the Golden Boot, scoring 30 goals in the process. This feat was made all the more impressive by the fact that Phillips was playing for Sunderland, who finished in seventh place. His total of 16 away goals remains a Premier League record, with Alexis Sánchez and Sergio Aguero, who both scored 15 away in 2016-17, coming the closest to match Phillips.
Toward the bottom of the table, the Premier League finally said goodbye to plucky Wimbledon. The London side spent just eight days in the relegation zone in the 1999-2000 Premier League season, the fewest of any side to be relegated.
2000-01 may have ushered in a new millennium, but the Manchester United juggernaut continued to rumble on. United secured the Premier League title on April 14 with a 4-2 win against Coventry City, the earliest date a Premier League champion has been confirmed. In doing so, Ferguson’s side became the first to win the Premier League in three consecutive seasons.
They did so without much struggle. Arsenal finished as runners-up this season with 70 points, the second-lowest figure for a second-place side in the Premier League, after Newcastle United’s 68 in 1996-97.
To compound the misery that Ferguson’s side repeatedly inflicted on their Manchester rivals, Manchester City’s relegation in 2000-01 meant that the Sky Blues became the first side to be relegated from the top flight on 10 different occasions. After enduring such a painful era of inadequacy, it is hard to begrudge City’s current period of dominance over their neighbours.
2000-01 brought four seasons of David Beckham brilliance to an end. Beckham had recorded 10+ assists for the fourth-straight campaign, an achievement that has only been matched once since: Tottenham’s Christian Eriksen from 2015-16 through 2018-19.
In December 2000, Ledley King made history by scoring after 9.82 seconds against Bradford for Spurs. His record of scoring the fastest goal in history stood for 18 years and 135 days, until Shane Long netted after just 7.69 seconds for Southampton against Watford in April 2019.
After two seasons of Manchester United processions, 2001-02 provided fans with a genuine title race. United began the season looking to become the first team to win the English league title for four consecutive seasons but could only manage a third-place finish. This was the first time they’d finished outside the top two since 1991 – the longest stretch of top-two finishes in Premier League history and joint-longest in the history of the English top flight. Liverpool also had 10 consecutive top-two finishes between 1981-82 and 1990-91, and only a fifth-place finish in 1980-81 prevented them from 18 consecutive top-two finishes between 1972 and 1991.
It was Arsenal who capitalised on United’s shortcoming. The Gunners won their second Premier League title, becoming the first – and so far, only – side to score in every single game in a Premier League campaign. Key to that achievement were French duo Thierry Henry and Robert Pires. Henry finished the season as the top scorer in the Premier League with 24 goals, winning the first of his four Golden Boot awards, while Pires’ 15 assists were the most in the season.
The Gunners were relentless throughout the season, becoming the first side to remain unbeaten away from home across an entire campaign (W14 D5). They also won their final 13 games of the season, which at the time was the longest run in the competition. By beating Birmingham on the opening weekend of the 2002-03 season, they extended that record to 14 in a row. This record wouldn’t be beaten until Manchester City had a run of 18 between August-December 2017.
With nine games to go the following season, Arsenal looked like they were on course to successfully defend their Premier League trophy. They were eight points clear of United and looked unstoppable, particularly at Highbury.
However, a visit from the Red Devils, and a Ryan Giggs equaliser that salvaged a point for United, set Arsenal in a wobble that would turn into a full tailspin. Soon after, Arsenal faced a trip to Sam Allardyce’s Bolton Wanderers, where the Gunners squandered a 2–0 lead to draw another game 2–2. The next week, Leeds shocked Highbury with a 3-2 victory that sent the trophy back to Old Trafford.
2002-03 is perhaps the first example of Ferguson’s men triumphing over Arsenal when they had little right to do so, planting the seeds of doubt that would haunt the Gunners for the next decade.
In his second season at Old Trafford, Ruud van Nistelrooy finished as top Premier League scorer with 25 goals, pipping Thierry Henry to the accolade by a single goal. On his way to the Golden Boot, van Nistelrooy scored in each of the final eight Premier League fixtures. He then netted in the first two fixtures the following season, setting the record for scoring in the most consecutive Premier League matches (10). This would remain a record until Jamie Vardy scored in 11 consecutive Premier League matches during Leicester’s improbable title victory in 2015-16. Ironically, Vardy broke the Premier League record against Manchester United – Van Nistelrooy’s former club.
Despite missing out on The Golden Boot, Henry produced an anomaly of a statistic as a creative force. His 20 assists in 2002-03 are the joint-most by any player in a single Premier League campaign.
In more statistical surprises, James Beattie scored 53.5% of Southampton’s Premier League goals in 2002-03 (23/43), the highest ratio by any player in a season in Premier League history.
Team Season Player Goals Team Goals Scored % Southampton 2002-03 James Beattie 23 43 53.5% Sunderland 1999-00 Kevin Phillips 30 57 52.5% Sunderland 2016-17 Jermain Defoe 15 29 51.7% Crystal Palace 2004-05 Andy Johnson 21 41 51.2% Southampton 1993-94 Matt Le Tissier 25 49 51.0%
James Beattie’s 23 goals single-handedly powered Southampton to eighth position, their highest finish in the Premier League. The Saints’ next highest scorer was fellow striker Brett Ormerod with five goals.
At the bottom end of the table, West Ham United were relegated with 42 points, the highest total for a relegated side in a 38-game season in the Premier League history.
Played 38, won 26, drew 12, lost 0. Arsenal’s Invincibles won the Premier League title without losing a single game, the only side to ever achieve this feat in the Premier League era and the second side to go an entire league season unbeaten in the English top flight after Preston in 1888-89.
During that run, everything Thierry Henry touched turned to gold. A star-studded cast of the likes of Patrick Vieira, Robert Pires and Dennis Bergkamp played merely supporting roles as Henry powered his team to the title with four games to spare. His 30 goals this season was his best haul in a single Premier League season.
Elsewhere, Bolton’s Jay-Jay ‘So Good They Named Him Twice’ Okocha, had 137 attempts on goal without scoring – no player has had more than 82 shots in a single Premier League season without scoring since. It may come as no surprise for Middlesbrough and Liverpool fans to see Stewart Downing’s efforts earn him an unwanted double spot on this leader board.
Portsmouth’s Teddy Sheringham netted the first hat trick of the 2003-04 Premier League season, against Bolton. At the ripe age of 37 years and 146 days, he became the oldest hat-trick scorer in the competition’s history.
At the bottom of the table, fans were treated to a rare three-way relegation tie, with Wolves, Leeds and Leicester all finishing on 33 points. This is the only time in English top-flight history when three teams have gone down on the same points.
As the intense rivalry between the Gunners and the Red Devils hogged the spotlight, Chelsea’s second-placed finish in 2003-04 was a sign of the changing of the guard. In July 2003, a Russian businessman by the name of Roman Abramovich had purchased The Blues. The Wenger/Ferguson era of dominance was nearing its end, and soon the emergence of ‘The Big Four’ would begin.
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