Arsenal's Invincibles were fortunate too – but Henry was the key

United's attempt to go unbeaten could founder on lack of a star player and the fixture pitfalls ahead
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If anyone should appreciate that a team needs luck to remain unbeaten over a prolonged period of time it would be Arsène Wenger.

Manchester United may have been fortunate this season, but so were Wenger's Arsenal seven seasons ago. There is no disputing the New Invincibles (Preston North End, in 1888-89 having been the originals) were an outstanding team, nor that their achievement in surviving the Premier League season unbeaten was exceptional. Yet the run was nearly cut short long before anyone began to consider whether they could go through the campaign undefeated.

Two incidents within the space of nine days stand out. On 13 September Arsenal were trailing to, and being outplayed by, Portsmouth when Robert Pires took a dive over Dejan Stefanovic's leg. It was shameless, but it worked. Thierry Henry converted the penalty and Arsenal gained a draw.

The following weekend Arsenal went to Old Trafford to play the defending champions. Ruud van Nistelrooy tricked the officials into dismissing Patrick Vieira, but Arsenal held on until the final minute when United were awarded a penalty. Van Nistelrooy, perhaps mindful that Jens Lehmann had saved his spot-kick in the Community Shield a month earlier, opted for power and hit the bar.

Arsenal's celebrations turned nasty, with Van Nistelrooy surrounded and assaulted. Four Arsenal players were subsequently banned and the club fined £175,000, but the incident showed the fierce spirit burning within the team. It was evident again the following month as they were outplayed at Anfield, but won.

Yet as late as mid-January, Arsenal were second to United. They then embarked upon a run of nine successive wins which pulled them clear. Midway through that run they went 1-0 down at Stamford Bridge in the opening minute, but recovered to win. The unbeaten run was next threatened when Liverpool took the lead at Highbury in April. Arsenal had just been knocked out of the Champions League at the quarter-final stage, by Chelsea, and lost the FA Cup semi-final, to Manchester United. When Liverpool twice took the lead the hosts' mettle was questioned, but Henry, memorably bamboozling Jamie Carragher, scored a hat-trick as Arsenal won 4-2.

The final test was at White Hart Lane, but Arsenal cruised into a two-goal lead and, though Tottenham levelled in injury time, it was not enough to deny Arsenal a deserved title. They finished the season 11 points clear of Chelsea with Manchester United a distant third.

Then, as now, it was suggested that their supremacy reflected a weak division. Certainly, English clubs disappointed in Europe, with none appearing in a final. Of Arsenal's main rivals Chelsea were just beginning to absorb Roman Abramovich's investment, United were in transition and Liverpool flattering to deceive again. But even better opponents would have struggled to resist Arsenal for in Henry they had a truly great player at his peak. The Frenchman scored 39 goals in all, 30 in the League, many of them glorious.

With Cristiano Ronaldo departed and Wayne Rooney out-of-sorts, the current United side have no such stand-out player. Nor are they as attractive to watch as Arsenal were seven years ago. It says much about the difference between the two teams that United's key figure is a centre-half; moreover it is the uncompromising Nemanja Vidic rather than the stylish Rio Ferdinand who has underpinned their campaign.

In other respects there are similarities. Like Arsenal then, United boast a core of battle-hardened players (Vidic, Ferdinand, Edwin van der Sar) leavened by the freshness of some talented youngsters (Rafael da Silva, Javier Hernandez). Tactically there are several common features: an experienced goalkeeper, strong central defenders, attacking full-backs, a midfield with width on the flanks and holding players in the centre, and strikers who place an emphasis on clever movement and sharp footwork.

United's is more of a squad effort. In 21 matches Sir Alex Ferguson has already used 27 players, Wenger deployed 22 in 38 games and several of those had a minimal involvement. For United, Hernandez, Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes and Anderson have all made significant contributions besides the theoretical first-choice XI listed right.

Can United emulate Arsenal? This observer doubts it. The unbeaten run may owe something to the fixture list because many of the most difficult matches are still to come, notably the first week in March when United visit Chelsea and Liverpool. Significantly, they must also go to the Emirates, on 30 April. They will face opponents who will not lack for incentive if United are still undefeated, whatever the state of the title race.

How United compare to Arsenal's 03-04 team

Arsenal 2003-04

Jens Lehmann (38 starts, 0 goals)

A bright start but hair-trigger temperament could have cost Arsenal dear. Kept 14 clean sheets in conceding 26 goals. 6/10

Lauren (30+2 sub apps)

Solid, consistent right-back who coped well with being isolated when Ljungberg drifted inside. Banned for four games after the Old Trafford fracas. 7/10

Sol Campbell (35, 1)

Then in his 30th year, but still dominant in the heart of any defence as he was to prove at Euro 2004. Formed a strong pairing with Touré. 8/10

Kolo Touré (36+1, 1)

Only his second full season in the Premier League, he improved hugely on the first settling down to become an excellent foil to Campbell with his pace. 7/10

Ashley Cole (32, 0)

Was 24 mid-season and coming into his peak as an attacking left-back. Was a constant danger overlapping Pires on the left flank. 8/10

Freddie Ljungberg (27+3, 4)

Not as devastating as in the title-winning season two years' prior when he scored 12 goals, but the Swede still contributed handsomely. 7/10

Patrick Vieira (29, 3)

In his prime and the team's heartbeat even if injury and suspension cost him a quarter of the season. Harshly dismissed at Old Trafford. 9/10

Gilberto Silva (29+3, 4)

Much under-rated Brazilian whose ability to snuff out danger made him the ideal partner to Vieira. Arsenal always did better when he was in the team. 7/10

Robert Pires (33+3, 14)

Coming off the left wing onto his right foot Pires undid many a defence scoring 14 goals and creating plenty more for his compatriot Henry. 8/10

Dennis Bergkamp (21+7, 4)

Reached his 35th birthday in the final month of the season and had to ration his involvement but still a significant contributor to the title. 7/10

Thierry Henry (37, 30)

Writers' and players' footballer of the year he was simply outstanding, tormenting defences and delighting fans and neutrals alike. 10/10

Total: 84/110

Arsenal used only 22 players. Many of the squad were used fleetingly though midfielders Ray Parlour and Edu featured in more than half the games.

Also played: Ray Parlour (16+9, 0), Edu (13+17, 2), Pascal Cygan (10+8, 0), Sylvain Wiltord (8+4, 3), Jose Antonio Reyes (7+6, 2), Gaël Clichy (7+5, 0), Martin Keown (3+7, 0), Jérémie Aliadière (3+7, 0), Kanu (3+7, 1), David Bentley (1, 0), Justin Hoyte (0+1, 0). Own goals 4.

Man United 2010-11

Edwin van der Sar (19 starts, 0 goals)

His last season but a very solid performer whose handling inspires confidence and whose distribution remains significant. 8/10

Rafael da Silva (12+1, 0)

Still makes mistakes but the youngster is developing into an impressive performer, tenacious and energetic. Just needs to control his impetuosity. 6/10

Rio Ferdinand (14, 0)

A smooth presence who has formed a superb partnership with Vidic. Rarely makes mistakes these days and his composure on the ball is valuable. 8/10

Nemanja Vidic (21, 3)

Outstanding season from the Serbian centre-half who more than anyone is responsible for their unbeaten run. The only ever-present, with useful goals. 9/10

Patrice Evra (20, 0)

Arguably the best left-back in Britain – only Ashley Cole compares – and impressive in defence and attack. United understandably concerned about his future. 8/10

Nani (17+1, 6)

Not quite Cristiano Ronaldo, but he has provided the occasional moment of genius and is the most likely player to unlock a stubborn defence. 8/10

Darren Fletcher (18+1, 2)

A busy player, too busy for Arsène Wenger's liking, the Scot breaks up the attacks of opponents and drives forward those of United. 7/10

Michael Carrick (14+3, 2)

Much-criticised, but he has played in most of the key matches this season, steadying the midfield and contributing with a couple of goals. 6/10

Park Ji-sung (11+4, 2)

An unassuming player but Alex Ferguson likes to play him in the big games, and he usually delivers with his winner this season against Arsenal typical. 7/10

Dimitar Berbatov (18+1, 14)

With Rooney quiet the languid Bulgarian has been the main source of goals for United, finally justifying his price tag and winning over the fans. 8/10

Wayne Rooney (12+2, 2)

Injury, contract negotiations and off-field matters have combined to make this a difficult campaign but there are signs his form is reviving. 5/10

Total: 80/110

United have used 16 other players. Also played: Javier Hernandez (15+8, 6), Paul Scholes (13+4, 1), Ryan Giggs (12+3, 1), John O'Shea (10+1, 0), Anderson (9+2, 0), Gabriel Obertan (7+4, 0), Jonny Evans (7+1, 0), Darron Gibson (6+4, 0), Wes Brown (5+3, 0), Michael Owen (4+5, 1), Chris Smalling (3+2, 0), Gary Neville (3, 0), Antonio Valencia (2, 0), Tomasz Kuszczak (2, 0), Owen Hargreaves (1, 0), Fabio da Silva (0+1, 0), Own goals 1.