As an Arsenal fan, one of the things that I can boast about is the fact that no other English club could achieve an undefeated season in a 20 team league. In fact, this was an achievement that no other team in the top five leagues of Europe had achieved. Yes, AC Milan did finish the 1991-1992 season unbeaten, but that was an 18 team league. Now that Juventus have done the seemingly impossible and gone the entire season unbeaten, the question needs to be asked. Who was the better team?
Of course, I do understand that comparing teams that played a decade apart is not sensible. But if we look at the performances of the team in their respective contexts, one might be able to come up with an answer.
First, let’s take a look at the standings of each club. Arsenal played 38 games in which they recorded 26 wins and 12 draws. Juventus, on the other hand, won 23 games and drew 15. Purely on the basis of points scored, Arsenal have an upper hand. Did it make any difference to the title race? Sure, it did. Juventus had to take it to the penultimate game to ensure that they won the title. In fact, if AC Milan had won their penultimate game, Juventus would have had to win their final game to win the title. Arsenal, on the other hand, wrapped up the title before the end of April.
One might argue that this only means that the English league was not as tough as the present Italian league. But that is not the case. In fact, until February, it was a 3 way battle between Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester United. At one point, Chelsea and Arsenal were on the same points and had the same goal difference as well as goals scored. But, as the season progressed, the other 2 fell apart and Arsenal were able to win the title comfortably.
Juventus, by virtue of finishing 7th in the previous season, did not take part in the European competitions. So, they only had to concentrate on the league and the Coppa Italia. Arsenal, on the other hand, were involved in a number of competitions. Juventus reached the finals of the Coppa Italia, where they were beaten by Napoli. Arsenal reached the semi finals of the FA Cup, where they were beaten by Manchester United. They also played all the games in the group stages, went past the round of 16, and were beaten by Chelsea in the quater finals. They also reached the semifinals of the League Cup as well, where they were defeated by Middlesbrough.
Just because Juventus had only one other tournament to worry does not mean it was easy for them. But it does put Arsenal’s achievement in context and shows what a fine team it was. True, they did not win any of the other tournaments, but neither did Juventus. But two semifinals in domestic cup competitions and a quarterfinal in the premier European Championships ought to have more weight than an appearance in the final of the domestic competition.
Would it have changed if Juventus did manage to win the Coppa Italia? I don’t know. Maybe it would have, as a domestic double would certainly mean that they were the best side in Italy. But they cannot make that claim, and neither can Arsenal.
This is the section where it all comes down to personal tastes. One cannot really claim that certain players are better than others, especially when they play in different leagues. So I will try to keep it as neutral as possible.
The Arsenal of 03-04 had some extraordinary players. Supporters, to this day, look back at that team and sigh in frustration at the current iteration. Starting at the back, there was the immense presence of Jens Lehmann, who, even though crazy at times, was an able successor to the legendary David Seaman. The back four consisted of Lauren, Sol Campbell, Kolo Toure and Ashley Cole, who were all good at their respective positions. The midfield had the industry of Gilberto and Ray Parlour, combined with the skills of Robert Pires, Fredrik Ljungberg and Patrick Viera. The frontline had the God-like Dennis Bergkamp and the brilliance of Thierry Henry. The entire team combined to entertain the English audience with their fantastic displays of football skills.
Juventus have some fabulous players of their own. Gianluigi Buffon is a giant between the posts, and still the best there is. In front of Buffon, they had excellent defenders in the form of Giorgio Chiellini, Andrea Barzagli, Leonardo Bonucci and Stephan Lichtsteiner. When you look at the midfield, there is one name that jumps out at you. Andrea Pirlo has been a fabulous success at Milan and he played a major part in Juventus’ success this season. He was ably assisted by the likes of Claudio Marchisio, Arturo Vidal and Simone Pepe. The forward line had the legendary Alessandro Del Piero, Mirko Vucinic and Alessandro Matri to provide the goals.
The Arsenal team of 03-04 scored 76 goals and conceded 26 in the league, while Juventus scored 68 and conceded 20. Arsenal may have scored more goals, but Juventus conceded lesser and have a better goal difference, even though it is by just 1. While Arsenal had the mercurial Thierry Henry to bang in the goals, with Pires also in the top 10, none of the Juventus players feature in the top 10 scorers of the season. It is a surprise, but it just shows that everyone contributed with goals as well as taking care of the defensive side of the game.
On the face of it, it looks like the Invincibles of Arsenal, hands down, were better than Juventus. But, one cannot discount the effort put in by the “Old Lady”. There is that Robert Pires “dive” that people always want to show to say that Arsenal would not have gone unbeaten. But nobody can really prove that it was a dive and Pires has never really been a diver. Also, the technical brilliance of Pires, Bergkamp, Viera and Henry is something that one may not see in one team ever again. I may be biased, but it is my opinion that the Gunners were a better team than the current invincibles, Juventus.