The 6 Most Bruising Defenders in Arsenal History
Arsenal were once a defensive powerhouse.
It might not seem like the Gunners ever inspired much confidence at the back, but during the late George Graham and early Arsene Wenger eras, Highbury was home to one of the meanest defenses in the world.
In the 1998-99 season, for example, Arsenal set a Premier League record by conceding an astounding 17 goals during the entire season. Many fans can remember this seemingly ancient time at the turn of the 21st century.
Arsenal have actually had a reputation as a defense-first team for decades, going back to the Pat Rice era of the 1970s. With so many illustrious hard men to choose from in the club's history, here are eight who stand out above the rest.
The rankings are based on toughness, style of play and the historical period in which each man played.
Few men have the courage to confront Roy Keane, and almost none were able to during the Irishman's playing days. Vieira not only refused to whither in front of Keane, he fought back, forming the base of one of the best football rivalries of the early 2000s.
A midfielder as crushingly strong as he was graceful on the ball, Vieira was Arsenal's enforcer in the middle of the park throughout his tenure with Arsenal.
There are two reasons why he does not make this list: He is not a defender, and he got outmuscled by a 17-year-old Cesc Fabregas.
He still deserves a mention, though.
Before his departure a few years ago, the Ivorian was one of Arsene Wenger's defensive stalwarts, adding a physicality and, sometimes, brute force to the defense that has been missing since.
Toure declined a bit in his latter years at the club, though, and never was as bruising as the other players on this list.
A fixture in the Arsenal sides he played in for over a decade, Lee Dixon flanked the other side of Arsenal's famous back line of the 1990s.
Retiring at the age of 38, Dixon was a fantastic right-back from 1988 until 2002, constantly marauding forward despite being very solid in defence—keeping with the priority of the Arsenal team of that era.
It is amazing that, despite all the hard work he put in over decades on the pitch, the hard-charging Dixon was able to stretch his body as much as he did.
Dixon is also one of the only players in English football history to have won a League title in three different decades with the same club, accomplishing the feat during the late '80s, several times during the '90s and in 2002.
All told, the Englishman made a total of 458 league appearances for Arsenal at the time of his retirement, which is a remarkable feat in itself.
As a right-back, Pat Rice was an ever-present leader for the Arsenal sides of the 1970s and appeared in an Arsenal record five FA Cup finals, defeating Manchester United in the famous 1979 victory.
Tough and tenacious, Rice was handed the captain's armband toward the end of his 14-year Gunners career and had amassed almost 400 league appearances for Arsenal when he left at the age of 31.
It was amazing that Rice was able to remain in the team for such long stretches during Arsenal's best years of the '70s. He was always ready to commit to a challenge or hurl his body into the fray to win a game.
One of the greatest man-markers of his generation, Martin Keown blended a superb knowledge of the game with brute force and strength to become a fantastic all-around defender.
Together, he and Tony Adams formed the meanest central defensive pairing of their time, and they were instrumental in Arsenal's success during the period in which they played.
As with so many players on this list, Keown will be forever remembered and revered for his heart and the manner in which he played the game.
Luckily for Arsenal fans, they were treated to watching Keown man the back line over 300 times.
They were also treated to him doing this to Ruud van Nistelrooy.
There can be no greater indication of greatness and stability than holding Arsenal's all-time appearance record, and David O'Leary appeared for the Gunners 722 times over the course of his career.
Over 18 years in the senior squad, spanning from 1975-93, the Irishman was an ever-present force in many Arsenal sides and eventually played the role of mentor to club legend Tony Adams, who O'Leary relinquished the captain's armband to in the 1980s.
O'Leary combined his excellent positional sense, elegant style of play and cool demeanor on the ball to become an absolute stalwart at the club for decades. There have been few better than him in the history of Arsenal Football Club.
Now here is a man who knows a little something about defending.
When Steve Bould was appointed Arsenal's assistant manager before the start of this season, fans were extremely hopeful that he would improve the Gunners' lackluster defense.
Perhaps their old defensive stalwart and Grade A bruiser would be able to instill a little of the old-style no-nonsense defending that made the Arsenal sides of 10 to 15 years ago so great.
He has not exactly done so, but that expectation is nonetheless a testament to the tremendous clout and respect that Bould commanded as a player.
He is, and was a man who understands all aspects of defending—especially the more painful aspects.
It could be none other than a man immortalized in bronze to conclude this list of bruising defenders.
Indeed, Tony Adams was as solid as the metal that will forever bear his likeness, with supreme aerial ability, an uncanny ability to read the game, an ability to time and execute his tackles with expert technical precision and, of course, his unparalleled leadership skills.
Such was Adams' presence that he was named captain at the tender age of 21 ahead of the much more experienced David O'Leary. He served as Arsenal's unquestioned and universally admired skipper for all of the next 14 years.
Even after his alcoholism was brought to light, the great man cleaned himself up and returned to add extra years onto his career and accomplish the unbelievable feat of lifting the Premier League trophy as captain in three separate decades with the same team.
"Mr. Arsenal" was truly one of a kind, and Arsenal would undoubtedly choose Adams, their best defender of all time, if they could have one old player back in their squad.