“When I saw Highbury for the first time,” Dennis Bergkamp remarked of his first trip to the Arsenal ground. “[I thought,] Wow! This was football!”
Boy, have Arsenal played football over the years. This is a club who have been synonymous with innovation, with grinding out 1-0 wins and playing the most beautiful passing game that England perhaps had ever seen. In over 125 years, there haven’t been many decades in which an Arsenal team doesn’t put their stamp on the club’s history and delivered a big trophy.
But which is the greatest side in the Gunners’ past? We’ve trawled back to consider the entertaining, the pioneering and the simply unstoppable.
Note: For most of these sides, we're simply looking at one season that defined them, though others were defined by a longer period of time - perhaps they kept winning across that period or didn't have so much change over a few years.
This was when everything finally clicked for Arsene Wenger. After an injury-ravaged start to the season that saw Mesut Ozil, Theo Walcott and half of his defence sidelined, the Gunners came back firing in 2015, memorably beating Manchester City away and lifting a second successive FA Cup.
We all know how Arsenal only brought in Petr Cech that summer - and the subsequent failure to pip Leicester City to the title - but the balance in this team for a few months at least was glorious. Mesut Ozil at his devastating best, Alexis Sanchez running riot out left and one of the more stable Emirates back fours. It was all tied together by Santi Cazorla in a deep role. Arsenal played wonderful football in the latter half of this season, even if this side didn’t last long together.
9. 2007 - 2009
Another post-Invincibles Wenger side, another team capable of stunning football, seemingly built from untapped gems. The class of 2007 nearly won the league, while the 2008/09 side, was led by Cesc Fabregas, Robin van Persie and Samir Nasri, with the likes of Ramsey and Wilshere coming through, Theo Walcott and Carlos Vela as options in attack and Abou Diaby and Denilson as midfielders to choose from.
A Champions League semi-final and fourth in the league was about as much as this team could muster but despite not actually winning anything, this season was one that showed Wenger's nous. It came at a time when Manchester United and Chelsea still had beefier, deeper squads but the young guns sparkled that year.
8. 1987 - 1989
A season so dramatic that they made a movie about it, 1989 was the year that George Graham - one of the double winners of 1971 - delivered Arsenal’s first title in 18 years. He inherited a squad of misfits - they were to end Liverpool’s dominance in their back yard, come May.
Arsenal’s 1989 side was one born from grit and passion at its core, speed and flair on the flanks. This was the birth of that back four, Alan Smith in free-scoring form and David Rocastle at his sumptuous best. So why only eighth on the list? Well, they bottled a whopping 11-point lead at the top of the table and only won the title on goal difference. It was a stunning game but we’re deducting gloss off the achievement for that.
Arsenal’s final season at Highbury came down to one night in Paris, for the Champions League final. It was to end in heartbreak - but often, people forget just how phenomenal that side was.
Thierry Henry ascended to god-like status that season. Cesc Fabregas stepped up and a makeshift defence appeared to take evening classes in Beckenbauer studies. Real Madrid and Juventus were put to the sword. The Gunners didn’t concede in the Champions League knockout stages until the final - and even then, they were less than 20 minutes from victory.
Bertie Mee never had a managerial job before Arsenal. He never had one after. He was a physio who stepped up, assembled a side of battlers and won a league and FA Cup double - the title coming at White Hart Lane, of all places.
Stalwart defender Pat Rice and goalkeeper Bob Wilson were to work at the club for their following two doubles. Charlie George wrote his name into folklore with the winner against Liverpool in the cup - and subsequent Gazza-esque celebration, a whole 25 years prior - while Ray Kennedy, Frank McLintock and John Radford were all fan favourites, too. A proper football side that your mum or dad would’ve been to see, with a Highbury marching band at half-time. Lovely stuff.
After three years of being Manchester United’s bridesmaid, Arsenal wrestled back the title in 2001/02 - in some style. The Gunners went to Old Trafford for a midweek clash after clinching another FA Cup final against Chelsea, beating Sir Alex Ferguson’s team 1-0 without Pires, Bergkamp or Henry.
This was fully Arsene Wenger’s team by now. Ashley Cole had burst into the side, Kanu was the back-up option up top and Patrick Vieira had Edu and Ray Parlour for partners. This was when Arsenal really first became known for graceful football after securing Wenger’s first title with sheer power and might.
4. 1930 - 1933
Every football team since the Second World War can be traced back to Herbert Chapman and his revolutionary white-sleeved gentlemen of the 1930s. Arsenal won their second title in three years in 1932/33, scoring freely and ripping up the tactics book of everything that been established in the game up till that point.
Chapman’s incredible WM formation was implemented first by his Arsenal team before it was copied and tinkered with over the next 30 years. That particular season, Cliff Bastin netted 33 league goals - in time, he was to become Arsenal’s top scorer until Ian Wright broke his record in the 1990s. One of the greatest pre-WWII teams of all time and one of Arsenal’s very best.
Arsenal’s 1989 title-winning side were brave, young and daring. In 1991, they were hardened, experienced and under George Graham’s leadership, they conceded just 18 goals all campaign - despite losing Tony Adams at one stage when the Arsenal captain was sentenced to four months in prison.
This was where 1-0 to the Arsenal stopped being a song on the terraces and really wove itself into the DNA of the very club. Graham had added David Seaman between the sticks and Anders Limpar in midfield. The Gunners were absolutely formidable and cruised to the title.
Many would like to attribute Arsene Wenger winning a league and cup double, in his first full season in North London, simply down to a change of diet. Truth be told, Wenger assembled one of the most iconic Premier League sides ever to sweep the competition aside domestically - and it was far more than just banning Mars bars that delivered the silverware.
Petit and Vieira controlled the midfield with an iron fist like Arsenal sides of old, while the Gunners’ back four found new depths to the wily art of defending. This was the perfect synergy of Graham’s grit and Wenger’s continental flair, as Bergkamp, Anelka, Wright and Overmars ran riot that season. That side would probably still challenge for a title.
Were you expecting anything else?
It’s not just the style but the steel. Not just the elegance but the determination. This was one of the most complete football teams ever constructed and their ultimate legacy is simply that dreams - Arsene Wenger’s, precisely, to conquer the English game without defeat - really do come true.
Exactly how could you beat the Invincibles? Thierry Henry was a generational forward by this point, Bergkamp and Pires two of the most cultured creatives on the planet. Patrick Vieira won almost every tackle he stepped into, while Sol Campbell and Kolo Toure were as deft and technical as they were physically supreme. Ashley Cole, Freddie Ljungberg, Gilberto Silva and Lauren completed the outfielders - all of them have a case as the best at their role in Arsenal’s history - and they were all at their peak, here.
If you were a kid when Arsenal lifted that gold Premier League trophy, then we have news for you - you can support this club for the rest of your life and you will never see anything like it again. There will probably never be a more exciting side in North London. There may never be one in football, full stop.
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