Arsenal’s greatest teams – or are they?

EVEN IN THIS age of “presentism”, it is hard to claim that the current Arsenal team ranks favourably against some of the club’s great teams. With such a glorious history, it is equally difficult to select a handful of teams to determine the Gunners’ greatest. Founded in 1886 in south London, Arsenal had an assortment of identities before they became the capital city’s most successful club. The current team is currently in the longest run without a league title since they won their first trophies – if they fail to win the Premier League in 2022-23, it will be 19 years. Arsenal’s first prize came in 1930 under Herbert Chapman, heralding the start of a golden period for the club. Here’s some of the Gunners’ best, a list that is by no means definitive.

1929-1931: Dan Lewis, Charlie Preddy, Tom Parker, Alf Baker, Eddie Hapgood, Bob John, Bill Seddon, Herbie Roberts, Joe Hulme, Alex James, Jack Lambert, David Jack, Cliff Bastin, Charlie Jones, David Halliday

Manager: Herbert Chapman

Achievements: 1929-30 FA Cup winners; 1930-31 Football League champions.
Five year league record: 9, 14, 1, 2, 1

Key men: Herbie Roberts, the first “stopper” centre half;  Alex James, gifted inside forward renowned for his baggy shorts and his ability to control a game; David Jack, £11,500 inside forward, one of the stars of the 1920s.

Perception: The first London team to win the league, this was Herbert Chapman’s first great Arsenal line-up. Set a record for points won in 1930-31 and scored 127 goals in 42 games.

1932-1935: Frank Moss, George Male, Eddie Hapgood, Bob John, Jack Crayston, Frank Hill, Wilf Copping, Herbie Roberts, Joe Hulme, Jack Lambert, Ted Drake, Tim Coleman, David Jack, Alex James, Ray Bowden, Jimmy Dunne, Ralph Birkett, Charlie Jones, Cliff Bastin, Pat Beasley.

Manager: Herbert Chapman, Joe Shaw (caretaker), George Allison.

Achievement: Football League champions 1932-33, 1933-34, 1934-35.
Five-year league record: 1- 2 – 1 -1 – 1

Key men: Eddie Hapgood, an elegant and cool defender, signed from Kettering in 1927, spending 17 years with Arsenal. Won 30 England caps; Ted Drake, powerful and brave centre forward signed from Southampton. Good in the air and possessing a powerful shot, he won five caps for England; Cliff Bastin, goalscoring  winger who joined from Exeter in 1929. Known as “boy Bastin” due to his youthful appearance. 21 England caps.

Perception: A well-drilled, functional set of players schooled in the ways of legendary manager Herbert Chapman. Sometimes accused of over-caution, but their quality was never in doubt.

1950-1953: George Swindin, Jack Kelsey, Laurie Scott, Walley Barnes, Alex Forbes, Leslie Compton, Joe Mercer, Freddie Cox, Jimmy Logie, Peter Goring, Reg Lewis, Dennis Compton, Lionel Smith, Ray Daniel, Cliff Holton, Doug Lishman, Don Roper, Joe Wade, Arthur Milton, Arthur Shaw.

Manager: Tom Whittaker

Achievement: Football League champions 1952-53, runners-up 1951-52; FA Cup runners-up 1951-52.
Five year league record: 5 – 2- 1 – 12 – 9

Key men: Joe Mercer, wing half who was a popular figure in the game, joined from Everton after the second world war at the veteran stage of his career; England international, five caps; Walley Barnes, Welsh full back (22 caps), joined from Southampton in 1943. A versatile player; Alex Forbes, Scottish international wing half who won 14 caps for his country. Went on to become a successful coach.

Perception: An ageing team possessing a strong defence. Frequently called “lucky Arsenal” by the media.

1970-71: Bob Wilson, Pat Rice, Bob McNab, Peter Storey, Frank McClintock, Peter Simpson, George Armstrong, George Graham, John Radford, Ray Kennedy, Charlie George, Eddie Kelly.

Achievements: Football League Champions, FA Cup winners. Football League Cup runners-up 1968 and 1969, Inter Cities Fairs Cup winners 1970. FA Cup finalists 1972.
Five-year league record: 4, 12, 1, 5, 2

Key men: Frank McClintock, veteran skipper; George Graham, strolling midfielder who went on to manage the club; Ray Kennedy, powerful striker who linked up well with John Radford and was later converted to midfield by Liverpool; and Charlie George, precocious local lad whose Arsenal career never lived up to the second half of 1970-71.

Manager: Bertie Mee

Perception: Functional, consistent and determined, refusing to give up in the title race with Leeds.

1997-98: David Seaman, Lee Dixon, Nigel Winterburn, Patrick Vieira, Steve Bould, Tony Adams, Ian Wright, Nicolas Anelka, Dennis Bergkamp, Marc Overmar, Ray Parlou, Emmanuel Petit, Giles Grimandi, David Platt.

Manager: Arsène Wenger.

Achievement: Premier League champions 1997-98; FA Cup winners 1997-98.
Five-year league record: 5 – 3 – 1 – 2 – 2

Key men: Marc Overmars, two-footed winer with pace and tremendous acceleration. Dutch international signed from Ajax, he spent three years with the club before joining Barcelona; Patrick Vieira, Senegalese born midfielder full of power and aggression, joined from AC Milan. 107 caps for France; Dennis Bergkamp, highly-skilled Dutch legend who joined Arsenal from Inter Milan in 1995. Top scorer in the double-winning season of 1998. 79 caps for the Netherlands.

Perception: Emerging power built on Wenger’s innovative methods, some of which changed English football for ever. Wonderful to watch.

2001-2005: Jens Lehmann, David Seaman, Ashley Cole, Lauren, Sol Campbell, Martin Keown, Kolo Toure, Oleg Luzhny, Patrick Vieira, Robert Pires, Fredrik Ljungberg, Ray Parlour, Edu, Gilberto Silva, Dennis Bergkamp, Thierry Henry, Sylvain Wiltord, Nwankwo Kanu

Manager: Arsène Wenger

Achievements: 2001-02 Premier League winners, FA Cup winners; 2002-03 FA Cup winners; 2003-04 Premier League champions; 2004-05 FA Cup winners.
Five year league record: 1,2, 1, 2, 4

Key men: Thierry Henry, pace and intricate skill in abundance and a phenomenal goalscorer; Robert Pires, a versatile midfielder/forward who had six good years with the club, rated by fans among the top six players to have represented Arsenal; Sol Campbell, former Tottenham centre half who had a massive physical presence in the Arsenal side.

Perception: Unbeaten in the Premier League 2003-04, the last great side produced by Arsenal and Wenger. Excellent footballing team who earned the tag “invincibles”.

Arsenal are in a turnaround project – Arteta needs time

MIKEL Arteta comes across as an earnest, decent sort of fellow, one that may not, ultimately, be successful but will get the benefit of the doubt longer than some less popular characters in the management game. After Arsenal were beaten by neighbouring Tottenham 2-0, their sixth Premier League defeat in 11 games, the fans had still not turned on their coach. Better to blame owner Stan Kroenke and the players themselves. 

When players are getting blamed, it is often because the mood is wrong in the camp. When that happens, more ruthless clubs than Arsenal would sack the manager – it is after all, easier to let players remain and dispose of one individual. In this era of necessary, but seldom exercised, belt-tightening, Arteta could find that if he’s “lost the dressing room” – arguably the next cliché to come out of the club – then a taxi will be pulling up outside the Emirates Stadium or London Colney. Arsenal are not at that stage yet, but just look at the league table and doubtless, zoom will be doing good business between the US and north London.

Abysmal

Arsenal didn’t play badly against Spurs, far from it, in fact they just happened to come face-to-face with a team starting to believe it has a very good chance of winning the title. As one pundit said, “it reminds me of Chelsea 2004-05 when José Mourinho took over and got a batch of young players believing in themselves.” By contrast, Arsenal don’t look to have much confidence, they are not well organised and their goal tally is abysmal – 10 in 11 games. 

A few years back, Arsenal invested heavily in strikers, around £ 100 million worth of talent in the form of Lacazette and Aubameyang. It looked promising and certainly in the case of the latter, they have had their money’s worth – 56 goals in 96 Premier League games. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang has signed a new contract but he’s lost the habit – he has netted just twice in the Premier this season and one of those was a penalty. He’s 31 now and that three-year contract may now look very generous in the corridors of power at the Emirates. He’s a quality striker, so they need him to start scoring again – quickly, or Arsenal may have to buy a proven goalscorer in the next transfer window.

Not for the first time, Arsenal’s transfer policy is being questioned. Each season a new signing brings hope that they have pulled off a coup in grabbing a game-changer. Last season it was Ivory Coast international Nicolas Pépé, who was signed from Lille for £ 72 million, this year it happens to be Ghana’s Thomas Partey, who joined from Atlético Madrid for £ 45 million. These are both players in their prime, so basically, you get what you see. Both have looked good at times, but Partey’s progress has been hampered by injury and Pépé blotted his copybook with a headbutting incident against Leeds which earned him a red card.

More positively, Arsenal have started to see some benefits from their younger players, such as new England cap Bukayo Saka (19) and 21 year-olds Eddie Nketieh and Joe Willock.

They have spent significantly sums on transfers over the past five years, although their expenditure of £ 592 million is way behind Manchester City (£ 942m), Chelsea (£ 894m) and Manchester United (£ 776m). The club’s net spend of £ 343 million is higher than Chelsea (£292m), Tottenham (£ 226m) and Liverpool (£ 120m). 

How many of Arsenal’s big -money deals have truly been successful and what does the signing of the Chelsea trio, Cech, Luiz and Willian say about their medium-term outlook? Arsenal are certainly not the only club that fails to get full benefit from their financial outlay, but their transfer market activity has arguably cost them plenty in terms of status. For the time being, Arsenal are really a Europa League club and they are in danger of losing their place among the regular European qualifiers. They must be careful they don’t become indelibly linked to the past, rather than the future, of the game.

Stagnation

This is the price being paid for the stagnation of the club in the latter Wenger years. Most clubs that allow a manager to shape a club in his own image and think little about succession suffer in the aftermath of the dynasty. Every iconic coach that comes to the end of his reign leaves a legacy that proves to be an anvil around the neck of those that follow: Don Revie, Brian Clough, Sir Matt Busby, Bobby Robson, Sir Alex Ferguson and Arséne Wenger – in their own way and without malice, they made it impossible for the next guy. It is no coincidence that Arsenal and Manchester United have both struggled with their identity after saying farewell to two of the game’s longest-serving managers.

But fear not, Arsenal fans. The size of the club, its heritage, financial potential and the huge support base means that decline will not be permanent. If Arteta is to be successful, he needs time to build a team and patience from the club’s owner, directors and fans. They surely did not expect, in their owner’s language, a rookie to produce instant success, did they? The question is whether he will be given time in modern football’s culture of instant gratification.

Arteta is approaching the first anniversary in charge at Arsenal and he’s won the FA Cup and has a win rate of 55.32%, which is actually the second best in the club’s history. Yes, better than Bertie Mee (44.71%), Terry Neill (44.95%), George Graham (49.64%) and Unai Emery (55.13%) and even Herbert Chapman, whose total record was barely 50%. Admittedly, Arteta’s record this season is a lot lower than that figure, but isn’t the Premier League a marathon not a sprint, to use football jargon? While he continues the project in making Arsenal a contender once more, he needs some rope – the Gunners are very unlikely to drop into the danger zone.

They should look closely at the players they buy and ask themselves if they are doing right by their head coaches. Although they would hate to admit it, they are one of the big spenders, it is no longer a case of competing with the likes of City, Chelsea and United, their current status suggests they are effectively battling for supremacy against mid-table teams.  At the very least, they should be fighting for sixth or seventh, and in those circumstances, Arsenal would be the biggest fish in the second tier of the Premier League. Arteta did not take over a Champions League club, he took over a club in [temporary] decline and therefore should be judged on how he performs the turnaround, not the way he goes head-to-head with established coaches who are at the peak of their careers. Does football, its professionals, culture and politics have the attention span for that?

@GameofthePeople

Photo: PA