Picking an All-Time Arsenal Back Four
Throughout the years, Arsenal have had some truly great defenders. Some were there for a fleeting visit during their career path, while others stayed for over 20 years and had fulfilling, trophy-laden careers for the Gunners.
The current crop aren’t doing too badly at the moment. In conceding just 37 goals last season, they had the second-best defensive record in the league, only bested by Manchester City.
However, the task of picking an all-time best back four is one that takes some serious thought. Defenders have come and gone, but one thing has remained in the majority—class.
Here is a rundown of an Arsenal back four that would send shivers down the spines of most strikers.
All statistics shown were provided by Arsenal.com
Right-Back: Lee Dixon
The marauding right-back was part of the famous back five who yielded so much success for the Gunners. Dixon sits fourth in Arsenal’s list of all-time appearances, with 619 spanning over three decades.
Like most of his defensive teammates at the time, Dixon showed a perfect balance between frugality and gritty determination when defending coupled with the ability to pierce opposition defences down the right with crosses (it’s no wonder he started his career as a winger). His energy was boundless.
Dixon had an innate positional sense which enabled him to be so successful and go down in history as Arsenal’s finest right-back. His nine trophies, including a double, won with the club is representative of this fact.
This position couldn’t be left without a special mention of Pat Rice. As a player he was a fine defender for Arsenal, his crowning glory being part of the Gunners' first-ever double-winning side. After he hung up his playing boots, Rice took up a coaching position at Arsenal. In all he spent an astonishing 44 years at the club and was awarded for his services with an MBE in the Queen’s Honours list in 2011.
Right Centre-Back: Tony Adams
"Mr Arsenal" is the greatest leader Arsenal has ever had. He made the first of his 669 appearances aged just 17 and by 21 he was captain, a position he held for 14 years. His tally was only bested by his centre-back partner in this all-time back four.
Tony Adams endured some tough times during his career, including a stint in prison and an admission of alcohol addiction. These transgressions only go to show the mettle of the man and his incredible strength of character to lead teams the way he did.
The epitome of a one-club man, Adams won 10 major trophies with the Gunners, including a domestic cup double (1993) and two league and cup doubles (1997/98 and 2001/02), scoring 48 goals in the process.
Adams will go down in the history of the club quite possibly as the most tenacious, determined and success-driven player the club ever had, but he was also, in the end, a quality defender.
During the early part of his career Adams had to deal with donkey chants from opposing fans, but true to form he only used that to breed confidence.
Adams knew how to lead and could marshal a defence, but he knew how to play technical football—he could pick a pass or score a goal. Most importantly he knew how to not concede them.
After making the treacherous journey across north London from Tottenham to Arsenal, Sol Campbell went on to become one of the Gunners’ most impressive defenders in the modern era. He was influential in the "Invincibles" side of 2003/04 and scored Arsenal’s goal in the 2006 Champions League final.
Left Centre-Back: David O'Leary
A true class act in an Arsenal shirt, David O’Leary was almost balletic in his performances. He was a fine defender and the clubs record appearance-holder—with 772 games in a Gunners shirt.
He might not be most people’s choice to partner Adams in an all-time back four, but few else have or will leave a mark as indelible on the club as O’Leary did.
Much like Adams, he started as a cautious 17-year-old who seemed edgy in his judgement, but through hard work and flourishing ability he turned into one of the club’s great centre-backs.
Forwards weren’t to be fooled by his rangy physique either—he was a hard defender. He scarcely shrunk from a challenge and was never afraid to put the boot in when the time was right.
But O’Leary was a new type of footballer, a new breed of defender for his time. He was a hybrid of tough-tackling and elegant style—he knew how to play football and pass it out from the back. Aerially he was dominant too; his height proved advantageous in set-piece situations.
There is a plethora of fine defenders who have graced the Arsenal history books, and in the future there will be several more. But a player of this class comes around only so often. His loyalty to the club as a player was unwavering, and his commitment on the pitch was undoubted.
O’Leary paved the way for the likes of Adams and Bould. In a career that spanned over 20 years he won 6 major honours with the Gunners, but he did so much more for the club in his time there than simply winning trophies.
During two spells at Arsenal, Keown developed a reputation for being one of the most domineering centre-backs of his time. His tenacity and will to win was second to none and although he was never the most gracious of defenders, his ability to tackle and marshal the line were exemplary.
Left-Back: Kenny Sansom
Until Ashley Cole superseded his record earlier this year, Sansom was the most capped left-back in English international history.
His time at Arsenal was impressive, too. Lung-bursting runs helped to set up a myriad of attacks for the Gunners, and his positional sense whilst defending meant he had the most opposition wingers in his pocket.
Sansom was a pioneering full-back, and his devastating pace and accuracy paved the way for the modern-day defender. The likes of Nigel Winterburn and Ashley Cole moulded their careers on Sansom's methods. His style was passed through the generations at Arsenal.
As well as pace, Sansom had a measured sense of timing a tackle and despite his height was particularly strong in the air. To this day he is one of the most revered left-backs England has ever produced.
During his time with the Gunners, Sansom was voted in the PFA Team of the Year at left-back eight years running—a feat that no one has never come close to replicating.
A very close second is Nigel Winterburn, a fine exponent of the game and a name synonymous with Arsenal success and silverware. Winterburn racked up an incredible 584 appearances for the Gunners, and his time there was probably only surpassed by Sansom, due to the latter’s success with the national side and his formidable pace down the flank.