Manchester United are on an unbeaten run of 20 league games. Not that it’s really done them much good: the 10 draws and 10 wins have seen them shuffle between fifth and eighth place, but it is among the longest in-season unbeaten runs in Premier League history (spells to have been created in a single campaign rather than bridging two).
Here are 10 more unbeaten runs in campaigns gone by, but these ones were a lot more important.
1998-99 Manchester United — 20 unbeaten — Champions
Just before Christmas in what would turn out to be the greatest English club season of all time, United were struggling. A 3-2 home defeat to Middlesbrough left them third behind Chelsea and implausibly enough, Aston Villa. The treble looked a long way away. But then they won 10 of their next 12 games, including a 6-2 thrashing of Leicester and an 8-1 victory at Nottingham Forest, which remains a Premier League record for an away win. The run-in was slightly less of a relentless sprint, as they drew four of their last eight games. Not that it mattered too much, as they took the title, the FA Cup and the Champions League.
2004-05 Manchester United — 20 — third
For a few years in the mid-2000s, Sir Alex Ferguson seemed to have lost his way, a few wilderness years between his second and third great teams in which United ceded domestic supremacy to Arsenal and Chelsea. They did have this terrific run though, coming in the middle of a season that started so badly United won just one of their first five games and were essentially out of the title running by October. The 20-game unbeaten run took them up to second, but in Jose Mourinho’s first season in England, the other 19 teams in the Premier League were competing to be second best.
2008-09 Arsenal — 21 — fourth
There have been many seasons during the past 20 years when it looked like Arsenal wouldn’t qualify for the Champions League, but they always have. The 2008-09 season was one of those, where for spells they looked like missing out but eventually made it. Their run began with a surprise 2-1 win against league leaders Chelsea in November thanks to a Robin van Persie brace, and ended with a 4-1 defeat to the same team in May. The intervening games featured some impressive wins, as well as an eventful 4-4 draw with Liverpool, but it also saw a run of four successive 0-0 draws. Unbeaten, yes, but it didn’t do Arsenal much good.
1998-99 Chelsea — 21 — third
For a while in the 1998-99 season, it looked like Chelsea would be the team to deny Manchester United their historic treble. Under player-manager Gianluca Vialli, having spent big on players like Marcel Desailly and Pierluigi Casiraghi, Chelsea only lost three times all season. One was on the opening day against Coventry, but for the next 21 games their record remained unblemished, a run that took them to the top of the table for a short spell in the winter. Again, there were plenty of draws in the run — 10 — and eventually that caught up with them, slipping down to a still-impressive final position of third, behind Arsenal and United.
2007-08 Chelsea — 21 — second
The 2007-08 season was perhaps the most surreal in Chelsea’s recent history. By the end of September, Mourinho had left Stamford Bridge by mutual consent after a draw with Rosenborg in the Champions League, while domestically they had won just three of their first eight games and were seventh. Avram Grant, friend of Roman Abramovich and widely regarded as a beneficiary of the most obvious cronyism, took over, and from the start of October they played 51 games in all competitions, losing just five, one of which was on penalties. Stories abounded that it was the players that essentially managed the team, but it was still a pretty remarkable record, and included the 21-game unbeaten league run that lasted from December until the end of the campaign. In the end it would be the ultimate “nearly” season: they lost the finals of the League Cup and the Champions League, went out in the sixth round in the FA Cup and came second in the league, just two points behind Manchester United.
2001-02 Arsenal — 21 — Champions
It’s strange how seasons can turn on single performances. Arsenal had started the 2001-02 season indifferently, dropping points to Charlton, Bolton, Sunderland and Blackburn. Just before Christmas they headed to Liverpool and despite having Giovanni van Bronckhorst sent off after just 35 minutes, they dug out a 2-1 win which put them back in touch with the Premier League leaders. From there they barely looked back, dropping just six further points in the remaining 21 games, and remarkably winning the last 13 games of the campaign. They eventually sealed the title, Arsene Wenger’s second, at Manchester United. A sweet denouement to a remarkable season.
1993-94 Manchester United — 22 — Champions
Ferguson’s first great side won their first title for 26 years in 1993, but the following year was arguably a greater achievement. His side dominated the league from start to finish, only briefly occupying a place other than first a couple of times in the early weeks, and then threw in the double — back then a rare achievement — for good measure. This unbeaten run of 22 games, featuring 15 wins and seven draws, was bookended by defeats to Chelsea — at Stamford Bridge in September and Old Trafford in March — but by the time of the second they were already well on their way to winning the Premier League. They would eventually do that by finishing a handy eight points ahead of Blackburn.
2010-11 Manchester United — 24 — Champions
Not many would describe the 2010-11 United side as their greatest, but it did feature their longest in-season unbeaten run, which also saw them equal their overall unbeaten record of 29 games, five carried over from the previous season. This was a side that was entertaining to watch, if nothing else, a slight loosening in a previously tight-as-a-drum defence allowing a few high-scoring draws (a 3-3 against Everton and three 2-2s in their opening eight games) but they also scored plenty. As they rolled into February still unbeaten, talk inevitably turned to whether they would match Arsenal’s “Invincible” season, but they lost surprisingly to Wolves. It wouldn’t stop them from claiming the title though, in the end by nine points.
2004-05 Chelsea — 29 — Champions
Mourinho features quite heavily in this list, either as a key player or a peripheral one, but this was perhaps his most notable achievement, and arguably still his best season in England. Chelsea lost just once in his first Premier League season, a 1-0 defeat to Manchester City in October (which featured just the second goal they had conceded to that point), but from that point they were a juggernaut, flattening everything in their path. They only drew six of the remaining 29 games, keeping 18 clean sheets (including a run of 10 consecutive shutouts) and only letting in more than one goal in a game twice. The title was officially confirmed at Bolton in April, but really they had it in the bag for much longer than that.
2003-04 Arsenal — 38 games — Champions
When it comes to Arsenal’s “Invincible” season there have been overreactions either way: some regard it as the great achievement in English football, some think it was overrated because Arsenal drew 12 games, five of which came in the last nine fixtures. But it’s important to regard this as one of the great seasons, a brilliant feat, without going overboard. The psychological achievement of starting a season in August, then finishing it in May, having not lost a league game in the intervening nine months, is staggering, as was some of the rapid, free-flowing football played. An unbeaten season like this might well be matched and repeated, but that won’t diminish what Arsenal did.
Nick Miller is a writer for ESPN FC, covering Premier League and European football. Follow him on Twitter @NickMiller79.