Arsenal legend draws comparison with past title winners but explains key difference

Ryan Baldi
Arsenal defenders William Saliba and Tony Adams
William Saliba has channelled Tony Adams this season

William Saliba has impressed Arsenal legend Nigel Winterburn, who sees similarities but one key difference between this side and George Graham’s vintage.


On the eve of the final weekend of the 2023/24 Premier League season, Arsenal find themselves in contention for a first title in 20 years.

With five defeats this term, Arsenal will not complete the league campaign unbeaten as Arsene Wenger’s Invincibles did. But a victory over Everton at the Emirates on Sunday would put them on 89 points, just one shy of the 2004 team.

Wenger’s last title winners – replete with eye-catching talents such as Thierry Henry, Jose Antonio Reyes and Robert Pires – were known for their free-flowing attacking play. Yet Arteta’s men, with one game to spare, have already vastly out-scored them 89 goals to 73.

It could be argued that Arteta’s title challengers have as much in common with a different crop of past Arsenal champions.

The Gunners won the old First Division twice, in 1988/89 and 1990/91, under notorious disciplinarian and defensive mastermind George Graham. During the Scot’s eight-year Highbury reign, Arsenal built their identity around the rigidity of their backline and, in their latter title triumph, set a league record for the fewest goals conceded in a season, with 18.

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Now, as Arsenal threaten City’s supremacy while boasting a league-leading defensive record, one member of Graham’s famous backline sees echoes of his old side in Arteta’s set-up.

“I can’t speak for the current players or Mikel Arteta, but when we were playing, your aim is to keep a clean sheet,” former Gunners left-back Nigel Winterburn says. “That’s what you’re being paid to do. Even if you win by three or four, you don’t want to let a goal in because it gives you so much confidence and belief in what you’re doing. I see that in the Arsenal team this season.

You see the fist-pumping and hand-slapping with Raya and Gabriel and Saliba when they’ve made some important blocks. People deride that a little bit, but for a defender that’s as big as a striker scoring a goal, particularly at a crucial stage – 1-0 up or 0-0. Those are huge moments in a game and I love it when I see a defender making an unbelievable block or a challenge, particularly when you do it inside the box, and these guys are hyped up, knowing how important it may be at the end of a game. It shows you’ve got a pride in what you’re doing.

Arsenal have conceded just 28 goals in the league this season. The only other side in England’s top flight to have shipped fewer than 40 are City (33). Gunners goalkeeper Raya tops the clean sheets table with 16 – perhaps in spite of himself – and their expected goals against total of 32.2 is the lowest in the Premier League.

But while Arsenal’s rear-guard performance might evoke images of the old line-up of David Seaman in goal, captain Tony Adams partnered by either Steve Bould or Martin Keown in central defence and Lee Dixon and Winterburn in the full-back positions, the art of defending has moved on in the modern game and Arsenal are at the forefront. The legendary left-back believes Arteta’s side have achieved their impressive defensive displays in a very different way to how Graham’s teams used to operate.

“I’m not sure it’s the same now,” he says. “If Arsenal go with the high press, they’re almost inclined to leave two against two at the back, or two against one, with both full-backs going in [to press]. When we were playing, that was a no-go. One full-back could go in but the other one would be round almost making a third centre-back. That was the structure that we had.

And the idea was that we all moved the same distance forwards and backwards together to keep that continuity. It’s slightly different now with the Arsenal team because of the way that they press. They’re not afraid to go in, push both their full-backs up, which wouldn’t have happened when myself and Lee were playing, that’s for sure.

A lot of teams now want to play out from the back. Arsenal, with Saliba, White, Gabriel and whoever plays at left-back, they’re not slow players; they’ve got a bit of pace to them, particularly Saliba. If you get good positioning, with pressure on the ball high up the pitch, then it’s a long way to your goal. Even if there’s a slight mistake, there’s a good chance someone can recover.

The structure of your defence always starts with the first player up front. That gives you a rhythm and an idea of where you’re trying to make a team play into certain areas of the pitch and where you want to shut a team down. We’ve seen Arsenal win the ball high up in the final third many times this season. In essence, that gives your defenders a lot less to do.

And although Winterburn values team structure as the key to defensive success, there is one individual he feels has been especially important with regards to the Gunners’ outstanding backline.

“Saliba has been incredible this season,” he says. “Gabriel likes contact; he likes being aggressive. Saliba is a bit more of a reader of the game. They combine very well together. And then the two full-backs fit in around that. And Ben White has been very strong. It helps when you get continuity, understanding what the guy next to you is going to do nine times out of 10. That consistency has been very high this season.”

It’s a consistency that has brought Arsenal to within touching distance of a first title in two decades. And irrespective of Sunday’s outcome, the defensive formula Arteta has hit upon will keep the Gunners primed for success in the near future.

“These guys have got obvious quality,” Winterburn concludes. “We’re playing really well and the defensive side of it doesn’t really surprise me.”

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