So much has changed across the landscape of English football since the day, 20 years ago precisely, that George Graham was sacked by Arsenal.
It was on 21 February 1995 that Graham, who had led Arsenal to six trophies in eight seasons, lost his job after a Premier League inquiry found he had received bungs totalling more than £400,000 from the transfers that took John Jensen and Pal Lydersen to Highbury.
One small detail of The Independent’s report of his sacking which jumps off the page is mention of the then 50-year-old’s £300,000 annual salary; yet, if the contrast with today’s rewards is huge, so too is the philosophy shift that has occurred at Graham’s old club.
The cosmopolitan, free-flowing Arsenal of Arsène Wenger typify as much as any team how English football culture has altered. Graham’s team may have delivered the most exciting climax to a league season when Michael Thomas’s injury-time goal at title rivals Liverpool won the Scot his first championship in 1989, but they are best remembered for a defensive game that made “1-0 to the Arsenal” a terrace anthem.
Today this is often used as a stick to beat Graham with, yet after a season where it has been hard to turn on Sky without seeing Jamie Carragher or Gary Neville pick over clubs’ defensive failings, perhaps it is worth remembering his singular biggest achievement.
The record books tell us that at Highbury he gave the English game the best defensive unit it has ever seen. Only four times since 1888-89 has a top-flight team ended the season with a goals-against tally below 20. Chelsea, in Jose Mourinho’s first season (2004-05), conceded 15 from 38 games, while Liverpool shipped 16 from 42 games in 1978-79. Yet Arsenal achieved the feat twice – with 18 goals against in their 1990-91 title-winning season and 17 against in 1998-99 after Wenger had added style to the substance of Graham’s still-intact defensive base.
Lee Dixon, the ITV pundit, was an integral part of that rearguard and he recalls the “relentless work” that went into making that famed defence of Dixon-Adams-Bould-Winterburn – perhaps never better than when smothering a superior Parma in the 1994 Cup-Winners’ Cup final – so stubbornly efficient. He says: “George was chipping away at us five days a week, saying, ‘Be in this position when the ball is here’. He would put us in our positions with nobody else around. He would have a ball in his hand and jog around from the wings to the edge of the box and then the halfway line. All we had to do was react to where the ball was, keeping our positions and our spaces.
“Come Saturday, the ball would never be in a position George hadn’t put it in 10 times in the week gone by. You could stop the action at any point and I could close my eyes and tell you within one yard where Martin Keown or Steve Bould or Tony Adams or Nigel Winterburn would be.”
For Graham’s Arsenal, attacking preparations were largely restricted to shooting practice and Friday set-piece sessions. Instead, each day they would play defence versus attack – “It was us in position on the pitch with one midfield player and you’d play the rest of the team” – and there were also “closing-down sessions in small squares designed to work in little groups to win the ball back”.
Twenty years on, Graham is spending much of his retirement in Spain and some voices in the game wonder if the balance has tipped too far the other way. According to Neville, only 20 per cent of coaching work with young players at academies is on their defensive game.
This reporter heard this week of an eight-year-old boy at one leading Premier League club who was instructed not to tackle. A youth coach with experience at a top-flight academy cites other factors: the non-competitive nature of academy football and the wish of parents with pounds signs in their eyes for their sons to be attacking players.
Wenger himself spoke last month of the demise of old-style leaders like Adams. Graham’s Arsenal defended zonally just as their 2015 counterparts but, tellingly, they had individuals who wanted to head the ball. Looking across London, the fact the 34-year-old John Terry is poised to be rewarded with a new contract by Chelsea underlines the absence of such figures.
As for England, Dixon sees good young defenders like Calum Chambers at Arsenal and Everton’s John Stones emerging, yet wonders how a coaching culture so focused on the attacking game will affect their development. “The way players defend now is quite instinctive,” he says. “There is so much emphasis on full-backs to be the wide attacking midfield men. The holding midfield player allows them a bit more freedom but I think it is overdone and the full-backs don’t understand the importance of cover. There are times I look at it and think a simple basic formula of where to be on the pitch at certain times in the game would eradicate some of the goals we see.”
For Dixon, defending is an underappreciated art and his old manager Graham, whose own legacy is sometimes similarly overlooked, would surely agree.
Note: Graham’s managerial career only ran six more years after leaving Arsenal, in which he led Leeds United into Europe and Tottenham Hotspur to the 1999 League Cup.
Teams who conceded fewer than 20 goals in a top-flight season:
16 goals in 42 games (0.38 per game)
Defence: P Neal, A Hansen, P Thompson, A Kennedy
15 goals in 38 games (0.39)
P Ferreira, R Carvalho, J Terry, W Gallas
17 goals in 38 games (0.45)
L Dixon, T Adams, M Keown, N Winterburn
18 goals in 38 games (0.47)
Dixon, Adams, S Bould, Winterburn
15 goals in 22 games (0.68 per game)
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