The Highbury Four: the case for a defence

After donkey's years of success, Arsenal's miserly back four are still together and still cleaning up against all comers as the side is rebuilt by Bruce Rioch. Glenn Moore tackles the supreme offside trap
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The Independent Online
There have been some very unlikely Highbury tales told in the last few weeks, but the Independent can today exclusively reveal the most unexpected claim of them all: Arsenal do not play an offside trap.

So asserts Lee Dixon who, together with Tony Adams, Steve Bould and Nigel Winterburn, has formed arguably the most impregnable defence in the game, and easily the most enduring unit in the top division. In an inappropriate phrase, they have been together for donkey's years.

It is just over seven actually, an extraordinary record of longevity in game of such flux. Of the 76 other defenders who lined up in the (then) First Division on the quartet's first day as a unit, 27 August 1988, only a dozen remain with their clubs, and two of those have played with other teams in the interim. During this time the Arsenal back four have been collectively vilified for being boring and individually accused of not being good enough. Yet they have all played for England and have been the bulwark of a side which has won two championships, the FA and League cups, and the European Cup-Winners' Cup. Not bad for a group that cost just over a million.

The arrival of Bruce Rioch in the summer was thought to herald their break up. Instead, while Rioch has sought to overhaul the personnel and philosophy of the attacking players, the defence (after an uncertain couple of years) is playing as well as ever. So well in fact that they go into today's north London derby having conceded six goals in the first 15 games of the season.

Tottenham possess one of the most thoughtful centre-forwards in the Premiership, but one prospect is inevitable. At regular intervals Adams will raise his arm, the linesman will put up his flag, and Teddy Sheringham will be offside.

However, Dixon said: "We don't play offside; it is not a trap. It is just organisation. Because we have played together so long we know there are certain areas of the pitch we do not go into, and if a forward makes a run which the back four think is a silly one, we will just hold the line and let him run offside.

"You never see us all run up towards the half-way like the old Milan trick. But I can see that it looks as if we play offside when four of us are all stood in a line with our hands in the air. There have been a lot of jokes about that - like the Arsenal Subbuteo team with the back four having their hands in the air."

Dixon was the third member of the quartet to arrive at Highbury. Only Adams was there when George Graham took over as manager from Don Howe in the summer of 1986. Adams, a former apprentice, had progressed slowly after making his debut three seasons earlier. Now, at 19, Graham put him alongside David O'Leary, Viv Anderson and Kenny Sansom, three experienced internationals. Adams played every game, was capped by England and voted PFA Young Player of the Year.

But though that defence was tight, it was also growing old, and within the next year, Graham bought Winterburn from Wimbledon and Dixon and Bould from Stoke. Total cost: pounds 1,197,000, less than Sansom alone had cost six years earlier.

"Mr Graham took a gamble signing us and I would like to think it paid off," said Dixon at the club's London Colney training ground. "We clicked straight away and we won the League in our first season." Two years later, Arsenal won the title again, conceding just 18 goals and keeping 24 clean sheets in 38 League games.

"The secret," Adams said, "is hard work." Brian Marwood, who was at the club during the first success, agrees. He recalled: "George would work them for half an hour to three-quarters on their own every day. He put a tremendous amount of effort into getting them to work as a unit."

Graham would then play attackers against defenders and, Marwood recalls, the defenders usually won. "It would be loaded in our favour; we would be six against their four. We had a good forward line - David Rocastle, Alan Smith, Paul Merson and myself - but we would struggle to break them down. He got them into a frame of mind in which it was a sin to concede a goal in training. They then carried that attitude on to the pitch.

"When he formulated the back four, George signed players people may have questioned at the time. But they had different strengths and they complemented each other. Any defensive unit relies on its communication and theirs is tremendous. Better than anyone around."

Between them, the back four have played nearly 1,500 games for Arsenal. As a unit they have played together 171 times - keeping 74 clean sheets and conceding 137 goals. Contrast that to England, who have fielded 10 different back fours in 14 games under Terry Venables. No wonder Adams snorted when he was asked at Bisham Abbey this week if they were developing a similar understanding to that he had at Arsenal.

When Rioch arrived at Highbury he sat down with the incumbent staff, Stewart Houston and Steve Burtenshaw, and talked about the team. "They said to me: 'Whatever you do, do not change the back four.' When I began to work with the players I could see they were right. They were well organised and I had to build a team around that."

"Any new manager starts from the back," Marwood added. "I am sure Bruce has been delighted to inherit a back four to build around. He has been able to try and create fluency and excitement on the rock of the defensive unit. The four are very good at getting tight on people, they never give them time to turn and run at them. Tony is not frightened of the space behind him if he goes in short. He knows the others are there to cover. You rarely see much distance between them.

"The central pair are very commanding and very competitive, but they are also very mobile. Tony leads by example, he is inspirational. He has come through a lot of abuse and showed a lot of character. He never knows when he is beaten, you see him winning tackles and headers all over the pitch and it stimulates other players. He could do that even when he was young.

"Nigel Winterburn is a defender first and foremost. He likes to play with a left-winger in front of him so he can pass and sit. He is very good defensively, one of the most under-rated in the Premiership. Lee Dixon's strengths are different. He is very competent defensively but he likes to get forward. Arsenal have not used traditional wingers on the right because he gives them that option.

"Bould and Adams have also scored and made their share of goals, especially with the emphasis Arsenal put on set-pieces. I can remember taking corners, Steve would flick them on and there would be Tony, diving in head first among the flailing boots."

Indeed only four players have scored more than Adams' 28 goals during this period. Bould, meanwhile, has seen off a string of centre-halves: David O'Leary, Gus Caesar, Andy Linighan, Colin Pates and Martin Keown. Some have had their moments. Linighan replaced the injured Bould during the FA and League Cup successes of 1993, even scoring the winner in the FA Cup final. O'Leary played in much of the first title season, often as a sweeper behind Adams and Bould.

The quartet have had to adapt to various changes. "People said the pass- back rule would cause us problems, but I cannot imagine playing without it now," Dixon said. "When you watch it happening on the old Match of the Days, it even drives me mad." Then there was the change in the offside law which, added Dixon, "just means we have to be more careful."

More teams are playing with one striker up and another off. A new problem? No, said Adams. "Liverpool did it with Kenny Dalglish and Ian Rush. In that situation do you push one in and leave Rush, with his pace, against the other centre-half? We tended to keep our shape, the four."

Then there are the new balls. "I do not care what anyone says," said David Seaman, the goalkeeper. "They fly all over the place and we have had to work on closing people down much further out."

"What's the matter with him? He can stop them," responded Adams, before confirming that was the case.

In recent years, it has been the European campaigns which have often seen the Arsenal defence at its best, notably against Parma in the 1994 final and at Auxerre last year. "We were battered for 90 minutes at Auxerre," Dixon recalled. "That sort of performance gives you a lot of satisfaction - although I would rather win 5-0 every week. It was not just the back four, we had a lot of defence in front of us. That is when a team shows it has good team spirit."

They were equally resolute in Arsenal's last game during which Manchester United were kept at bay. Dennis Bergkamp afterwards described the defence as the best he had played with, while Alex Ferguson noted: "The defence is still Arsenal's cornerstone, their great strength." David Platt added: "They are the main reason I came here. I knew the defence gave the club a good base."

It is largely a working relationship. "It is difficult to get together socially as we live all over the place," Adams said, "but the boss is into camaraderie, so we occasionally pop out together."

Their average age is now 31. How long can they go on for? Don Howe, one of the game's leading coaches, said: "Their sell-by date is a long way off yet. They will be good for this season, and a couple more."

Good news for Arsenal, but bad news for forwards and linesmen.