From 1919-20’, since when Arsenal have been playing in the top flight relentlessly, there have been only two instances wherein the Gunners have conceded less than 20 goals in the entire season! The first one came in the penultimate season of the normal Top Division Championship, two years after which the Premier League was to start. That season, the famed Arsenal Backline under the cautious eyes of George Graham, conceded just 18 goals – putting up the second best defensive season in the history of the club.
Lee Dixon, Steve Bould, Nigel Winterburn played all games in the season, showing the importance of a fit Back Four, which is almost a myth in the current Arsenal system. Tony Adams, the Arsenal captain, played most of the season but had to give way to a capable David O’Leary as the former was charged with drunk-driving, for a few months. Despite his absence, Arsenal finished as Champions, ahead of Liverpool, with the meanest defensive record in the country. That season was all about determination, rather than skill. The team didn’t really have stars in the forward line-up (Limpar, Smith and Merson did provide the occasional magical moments) like most Arsenal teams do, but they knew how to win games without conceding goals.
It took eight years to reach that sort of discipline yet again, in the 1998-99’ season, Arsenal’s 79th consecutive season in top division, the Gunners finished agonizingly close to the title, Manchester United overtaking them by just a solitary point. The Back Four was quite similar to the one seen almost a decade back, in fact, this time around, Tony Adams, Arsenal’s inspirational captain, was a reformed figure, forming a deadly partnership with Martin Keown, which saw them going 21 games unbeaten in the league during the later stages of the season. Even though the Gunners conceded just 17 times in the entire season, Manchester United were better in front of goal, as they won the league, along with some more major titles. Dixon, Winterburn, Keown, Adams, Bould and Argentinian new recruit Nelson Vivas played in defense throughout the season and were an epitome of discipline and determination of ‘not conceding goals’.
From the greatest defensive season in Arsenal’s history to the most epic season – The Invincibles of 2003-04’, where Arsenal didn’t lose a single league game, it was a total makeover of that legendary Back Four. The Arsenal defensive shield now predominantly consisted of Lauren, Sol Campbell, the young Ivorian Kolo Toure and Ashley Cole. That season Arsenal conceded 26 goals, still one of their best seasons as far as the ‘Goals Against’ column counted. The entire team worked with the back four in making sure that the goals weren’t conceded. Patrick Vieira and Gilberto Silva, the defensive screen ahead of the Back Four, played a huge part in making sure Arsenal were not caught during the break.
So, if one studies the ‘Goals Against’ column throughout Arsenal’s history, they will find just six seasons wherein Arsenal conceded less than 30 goals (68-69’, 70-71’, 90-91’, 93-94’, 98-99’ and 03-04’) in the entire season, which makes one rethink about the importance of defensive record in winning silverware. Is it because of the new trend that Chelsea and Inter Milan have put forward?
These teams managed to win the Champions League recently and Chelsea even won two consecutive league titles a few years back with an extremely selfish defense. Or, is it the leaky Arsenal defensive record in the last few years that is causing this kind of panic among fans? They have conceded an average of almost 43 goals in the last four seasons. Whatever it is, the ‘concept’ of winning league titles with a mean defensive record is a complete aberration to the ‘rule’ as far as Arsenal are concerned. Over the years, The Gunners have won the title scoring a lot of goals and sporting an exciting brand of football.
Arsenal – Present Day
This season, so far, has been different, Arsenal are cautious; they are much more focused on the defensive aspect of the game. Pundits, fans and players are all obsessed with the ‘defense of Arsenal’. All are talking about the need to keep a defensive discipline and build an offensive game on top of it. All said and done, one understands such a need, especially because Arsenal were getting miserable at that particular art in recent times. But Pundits and fans are making too much out of this ‘new system’, a new way to win the league. Even Tony Adams has recently spoken about how much more this team needs to improve defensively though acknowledging Bould’s work done so far.
“They don’t defend as a team now. The problem for me in the last seven years is the defensive vulnerabilities as a team — the goalkeeper, the back four, even the central midfield players, the mentality of the team. I don’t think they are a team that are set up to do what Chelsea did last year in the Champions League and I don’t think Arsene wants to.
I don’t want to put these current players down because they are fantastic. But we used to train constantly with [manager] George [Graham]. We worked at it. We went out there and did it every minute, morning and afternoon. It used to drive us insane but on a Saturday you would know it inside out.”
- Tony Adams [Former Arsenal Captain]
This whole new aspect of ‘winning games with defensive discipline’ is a bloated up concept with media and former players adding the seasoning with their expert opinion. Arsenal just needs to win games by not committing any silly mistakes, like say, the one Szczesny committed in the last game. There have been a lot of individual mistakes, ‘elementary errors’ so to speak, which have costed Arsenal games in the last few years. This team, more matured than its predecessors, is capable of amending that, and the focus needs to be on that. The obsession with defense shouldn’t make this team forget about scoring goals. Thomas Vermaelen, the newly crowned leader, has been talking about the extra effort put on in the training field. If this extra work is done along with the normal training regime, it is fine, but not at the cost of any offensive routine. This Arsenal team shouldn’t get completely withdrawn from the actual motive of winning games and focus just on not conceding goals.
“He is our assistant now and has a lot of experience at a high level with Arsenal, we work a lot on our defensive play and you can see that with our three clean sheets.”
- Vermaelen [Arsenal Captain]
After all, Arsene’s brand always revolved around fantastic football, one-touch passes and terrific off-the-ball movements which was becoming a bit stale in recent times. From a purist’s perspective, that is one area Arsenal also need to concentrate on. Nevertheless, a few games into the season, the improvement is there for all to see and admire, but let’s not get overboard with it. It is time to acknowledge it, not get obsessed with it, continue with the good work, but keep the ‘Arsene Brand’ alive and kicking, literally. Good defense is a fantastic thing, but winning games is the ultimate objective.