Did George Graham's Arsenal Get A Bad Rap?

Hey, these guys were actually very good!

The George Graham Era was one of the more prosperous at Arsenal; 6 trophies, including 2 leagues and a cup winners cup, in 8 seasons. Yet, the time is often looked back upon with disdain by many non-Arsenal fans and some Arsenal fans, for the boring, turgid style of football apparently played by Arsenal. The 1990-91 Arsenal side epitomises that generalisation; they conceded only 18 goals, a record that would stand until Arsene Wenger's 1998-99 side conceded only 17. That however, ignores the 74 goals that they scored, and the 73 scored by the 1989 championship winning side, a record that saw the latter team win the league on goals scored.

While the back 4 of those two teams--Dixon, Bould, Adams, Winterburn--would become the famous members of those sides, with players such as Michael Thomas, David Rocastle and Paul Merson, Arsenal would never be a launch it up to the big man (Alan Smith) side. While not as fluid as today's Arsenal, or the Invincibles, the teams of the early reign of George Graham played quite good football, and should be remembered for that.

Generally, the style that Graham had Arsenal playing was somewhat similar to the style employed by Sir Alex Ferguson's Manchester United in the late nineties and early noughties. Direct from the back, looking for the midfield or target man to win the ball, and then play from there, either building through the middle, or using wide areas. Arsenal's excellent pressing in those seasons helped with playing from the midfield, with Arsenal quite often winning the ball back in the midfield areas, allowing them to counter quickly. At Arsenal, both Lee Dixon and Nigel Winterburn got forward to great effect, allowing David Rocastle and Brian Marwood to come inside, something that Rocastle took full advantage on numerous occasions. The midfield two, of Paul Davis and Michael Thomas, were an excellent midfield pairing. Davis would pull the strings from deeper, while Thomas was more of a box to box player, scoring 7 in the 88-89 campaign. The addition of Anders Limpar, who would add 11 goals and numerous assists in the 1990-91 season, would make Arsenal an extremely dangerous side in the final third.

Up front, there was Alan Smith, a man who scored 45 goals in Arsenal's two championship winning seasons. While there were a number from the good old, flicked on corner by Steve Bould, Smith did finish a number of excellent team moves, either with a header or with a simple poachers goal. Paul Merson, Niall Quinn and Kevin Campbell all got their share of the goals in the two title winning seasons, and Merson and Campbell especially were wonderful players, able to beat players with skill and pace.

Alan Smith in "501 Arsenal Goals" (via atime921)

Finally, it made more sense for teams to play a more direct style up until the lates 90s/early noughties. Before advanced pitch technology came into use, English pitches often became lumpy patches of green at best, and mudfields at worst, during the winter months. With the ball bobbling about as a result, passing became much harder, and also much more dangerous in your own half. While Liverpool were known for their build from the back style, even Anfield became a broken up pitch in January, and Liverpool were not adverse to hitting long balls to John Barnes on the left. Arsenal simply made the best out of the situation they had. Tony Adams and Steve Bould would become better ball players under Arsene Wenger, but under George Graham, their job was to defend. Dixon and Winterburn would put crosses in, but the best football came from the midfield trio of 4, as Arsenal scored 74 and 73 goals on the way to winning the league. After 1992, Graham became horribly defensive, but until that moment, his Arsenal sides should get more credit. There was direct football, goals from set pieces and flicks ons, but there was also some excellent football, a fact not often remembered when discussing Graham's Championship sides.

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