1990-91 Or The Invincibles: Which Was The Best Arsenal Team Of Modern Times?
Comparing football teams across the ages is a dangerous pastime. To believe that one team is better than another, could be teleported to a different time and repeat their feats marks the claimant as arrogant. Believe the opposite, “Today’s footballers would not have last five minutes in my day“, leaves you open to being described as an old codger at best. The changes seen on the pitch inside a decade, let alone beyond that time span, render comparisons difficult, if not impossible. Despite this, that is the path being trodden in today’s post.
The Invincibles are often hailed as the best Arsenal team ever, rightly acknowledging their achievement in an undefeated League campaign. Every season that has passed since has seen the undefeated leaders of the Premier League hail themselves as being better than that Arsenal team, bragging which is usually brought to an abrupt halt by the inevitable defeat that soon follows such claims. Two seasons earlier, the squad had done the hard part by remaining unbeaten on their travels but were undone by three defeats at Highbury.
Yet both attempts at remaining unbeaten were old hat to some extent. It is often overlooked that The Invincibles were almost beaten to their feat by George Graham’s last title-winning side. 1990-91’s squad lost just once, at Stamford Bridge. Despite playing as badly as they would all season, Alan Smith’s late goal gave hope of an unlikely equaliser on a sandbox of a pitch. At that time, West London’s premier ground was one of the most inhospitable. Not because of the threat of violence or an air of malevolence – we were used to such atmospheres – but an exposed open terrace for the away fans left you at the mercy of the elements. Winter was not a time you wanted to visit a decrepit stadium that was light years away from being considered comfortable. The words of the old song tell it all; “Stamford Bridge is falling down, poor old Chelsea“. Add into that a chairman hell-bent on hairbrain schemes such as electric fences to pen in his own fans, you get the drift as to the depravity.
That tenacity was a trait common to both eras; neither were easily cowed, capable of recovering from unexpected defeats quickly. Both campaigns might have been derailed following defeats in cup competitions. Graham’s team were crushed by the counter-attack in a 2-6 home defeat to Manchester United in the League Cup, a night when it felt that every shot by the visitors found the back of the net. Four days later, defending champions Liverpool were beaten, picked off the floor and hammered back down again in a 3-0 victory that marked out where the title was most likely to be heading. The FA Cup defeat at Wembley was followed by the title being sealed shortly afterwards.
A decade or so later, each of the defeats were followed by strong performances in the League, not necessarily in events on the pitch, more in the character shown to recover. The added distraction of the Champions League offered more opportunity for disappointment, Internazionale and Dynamo Kiev both inflicted group stage defeats which might have derailed progress domestically; the character of the players was such that blips – and more serious defeats later in the campaign – never placed the title challenge in real danger. The real character came in April; consecutive defeats in the FA Cup and Champions League followed by a deficit to Liverpool in the League might have sent lesser men into a downward spiral; not The Invincibles. Drawing strength from their deep reservoir of experience, the clawed back into match at Highbury and then pulled away seemlessly, leaving the Merseysiders bewildered and mesmirised in the second half.
Graham’s men had distractions off the pitch to contend with. Adversity fostered a siege mentality when external forces imposed punishments that impacted the team. Tony Adams imprisonment just before Christmas had been preceeded by a two point deduction from the FA following a twenty-one man brawl at Old Trafford. The two helped Graham foster a team bond, even when a strong one already existed. The absence of his captain meant that Graham changed tactics to compensate with Linighan and O’Leary joining Bould in a 5-3-2 formation for two months. It had been used two or three times previously but came into its own when Adams was absent.
Too much of the manager’s reign is tainted by its descent into long-ball madness. This side were built from the defence forwards, were resolute and capable of strangling the life from a match; they were also a fluid attacking side, not yet beholden to one goalscorer with wizardry provided by Anders Limpar. Was that the pinnacle season for his career? Certainly in Arsenal colours. Merson was at his peak also, with a title-winning goal at Anfield emphasising how good he might have been had he not been derailed by other distractions whilst Alan Smith was more than a goalscorer, leading the way with 22 goals and only scoring once in the opening dozen games.
The already well-drilled defence – protected by Davis and Thomas – had been bolstered by Graham signing his long-term target, David Seaman, in the pre-season. I read that usurping Lukic was unpopular; my own recollection that the unpopularity of the move was bravado. We acknowledged Seaman was a better goalkeeper but Lukic had won a title and the problems with QPR over the fee meant the transfer was in doubt for a period of time. When he arrived, the soon-to-be England number one proved his worth; Arsenal conceded just 18 league goals all season with only Wimbledon, Manchester City and Chelsea able to breach more than once in a game. Liverpool’s record of 14 was under threat until April of that year. Wenger’s men by contrast were positively generous, conceding twenty-six goals in their campaign. 15 clean sheets suggests they were not overly generous but compared to the 24 of 1991, they were careless.
By contrast, the over-riding memory of The Invincibles is of art and skill. The perception of Bergkamp, the grace of Pires finding the goalscoring feats of Thierry Henry with Freddie Ljungberg ably supporting. That is to deny the role played by Gilberto and Patrick Vieira. The defence was not as fabled but even the inclusion of Pascal Cygan could not deter their charge to the title. Allowed to use three substitutes compared to Graham’s pair, Wenger’s season was born of a squad. There was a key core to the team but more of peripheral players contributed.
Lehmann, Toure, Campbell, Lauren and Cole were as pivotal to the their team as their predecessors were to Graham. They gave confidence to the others, knowing that any lead would be defended. In turn, the presence of Vieira and Gilberto gave a tough barrier for opponents to get through before they got that far, evidenced by only Newcastle United and Liverpool scoring more than once. Unlike Graham’s men, The Invincibles won those games. Both sides had identical home records, winning 15 and drawing 4. On the road, Wenger’s men edged it which is where the points totals varied.
Words cannot adequately describe their attacking prowess but would that have been enough? Graham’s team was well-drilled but they also scored one more than Wenger’s men yet are never given the credit in that respect. It is this organisation which I think might have given them the edge in a one-off match. The Scot was more willing to adapt his team to the opposition and the criminally under-rated Paul Davis along with a back five would have neutralised some of the attacking threat. But with the inventiveness of Bergkamp and Pires, a goal would have been inevitable. At the other end, Smith would have fancied his chances at least once with Limpar leading Lauren a merry dance. A draw seems to be an equitable outcome although if pushed, my feeling is that of ten meetings there would be 3 wins for The Invincibles, 3 draws and 4 for the 1991 team.
As it is, I consider myself lucky to have seen both squads first hand. I am not sure that their likes will be seen again.