On the 2nd of January, 1989, I stood on the North Bank to watch Arsenal beat Spurs 2-0, goals from Paul Merson and the winner from Michael Thomas, galloping through the midfield reminiscent of the goal he’d score at Anfield five months later. The Highbury clock was unveiled above the recently re-developed Clock End and the weather was freezing. The pitch by modern standards was a disgrace (they all were at the time), the atmosphere before, during and after the game was hostile to say the least and the walk to and from the tube station, really dangerous.
But, looking back, it was one of my favourite games at Highbury, I think I paid a fiver to get in and the thing I remember most, as opposed to the goals, is the way the entire Arsenal team defended as if their lives depended on it. I think we might have started with three centre backs that day, the Spurs team of the late 80’s was very strong, and the tackles that went in (from both teams) were crunching, but I don’t remember a rash of yellow cards. It was a real blood and thunder north London derby; all of our squad that day were born in England, half of them in London.
How things change, it’s the north London derby on Saturday and I’m not looking forward to it. I’m sure I’ll get pre-match nerves and will be on the edge of my seat come 12.45 but I don’t have the same gut feeling as I used to have before previous derbies.
The feeling I refer to is an absolute confidence that the manager and team will have prepared comprehensively before the game, leaving nothing to chance, knowing that, as far as their support is concerned, this is the biggest game of the year, the won we can’t lose. I would also be totally confident that the players would put everything on the line during the game and leave nothing in the changing room. Last season we saw a great comeback from falling behind to two early (and fortunate) goals, but I don’t want to think what will happen to this team if we go two goals behind, to be honest, after the Fulham game, I’m not that confident about what will happen if we go two goals ahead!
If we scroll on two years from that bleak, brilliant afternoon in 1989 to 1991, Arsenal won the title again, having only lost one game, away to Chelsea. Unbeaten at home that season, the club was also docked two points for an unholy scrap at Old Trafford (we won 1-0, Limpar) and let in only 18 league goals all season, a record which will surely never be equalled. That is an Arsenal team to be truly proud of.
Move into the Wenger era and of course we went one better by going unbeaten all season in 2003 – 2004. However, early on in Mr Wenger’s reign, a clutch of senior players (known as the best back four ever to play in English football) asked for a team meeting to put across their case that they were receiving insufficient cover from the midfield. Afterwards, the shape of the team changed slightly, Vieira would now cover when Petit went forward and vice versa and the wide players would tuck in when we didn’t have the ball, it worked, we won the double that year, Tony Adams administering the coup de grace in the final match against Everton, volleying in after a lovely through ball from Steve Bould.
Those were the days eh? One difference between those teams from 1989, 1991, 1998 and 2004, they could really defend, they had players who knew what to do, where to be on the pitch, which positions to adopt depending on the attacks being mounted by the opposition.
Ask yourselves this – what is the most frustrating score line you can remember? I’ll give you two that spring to mind (probably in anticipation of this weekend’s fixture) from recent north London derbies:
2004-2005Spurs 4 Arsenal 5
2008-2009Arsenal 4 Spurs 4
Admittedly we won the first won, but the “Invincibles” leaking four goals against an average Spurs side? The portents were already there, championship winning sides rarely let in four goals. In the second game we capitulated, Spurs flooded through the acres of space left by the midfield as our defenders looked around baffled to see who was marking who as we threw away a two goal lead.
I think that many of us had high hopes when Steve Bould was appointed number two pre-season. But something isn’t right; we seem to be making the same mistakes week after week, even our most accomplished defender (to my mind) Vermaelen, looks shell shot. What’s the answer? I would suggest the following:
• Practice, practice, practice. Give Bouldy 100% responsibility for working with the defence and introduce drills where the whole team focuses on aspects of defence. Furthermore, try practicing set pieces; our most effective “defender” at set pieces is Giroud!
• Buy a replacement for Song, Arteta is struggling a little of late, the balance of the midfield is biased towards attack, I think we need two players capable of screening the back four.
• If the club (Wenger) isn’t prepared to spend any money, try Koscielny as a defensive midfielder, his performance against Barcelona in the 2-1 victory was one of the most accomplished I’ve seen at the new stadium. During that game he subdued three of the best players in the world by patrolling the danger area in front of the box brilliantly.
• Relax a bit! Our players look strained and over wrought, only Cazorla seems to be “enjoying” his football and that will pass if he stays with us.
• When you’re 2-0 up, that’s a game winning margin, there’s no need to attack the opposition at all costs, tighten up, tuck in and hit them on the counter. Herbert Chapman once said “you can attack too much”.
Having said all that, good luck to the lads against Spurs on Saturday, I hope we annihilate them.
By Ian Byrne