A cursory glance through Arsenal’s results over the last 40 years shows that a fair number of crucial victories have been achieved away from home, at hostile outposts. Think of Ray Kennedy’s late header which won Arsenal the title in 1971 at White Hart Lane….Mickey Thomas’s last minute winner at Anfield in 1989…..and Sylvain Wiltord’s winning goal at Old Trafford in 2002, the night on which Arsenal were confirmed as Premiership Champions. It is a fact that Liverpool and Manchester United have won many more League titles than the Gunners, but Arsenal have traditionally been adept at rising to the challenge when the occasion has demanded it at the stomping grounds of their bitterest rivals. It’s why Arsenal’s phenomenal away record over the last few months has been such a pleasure to witness.
There are more variables surrounding away matches – especially when it comes to the Gunners, it seems. Players in the 30s spoke of the jealousy whipped up amongst home supporters whenever Herbert Chapman’s team swept into town in their private rail carriage, clad in immaculate suits, having quaffed smoked salmon on the way up to hostile Northern outposts in the Depression hit 1930s. “The Arsenal players looked like they’d stepped off a film set,” explained former Middlesbrough player Wilf Mannion, “and many of our fans turned up at Ayresome Park desperate to see our team win, because Arsenal represented the more wealthy and prosperous south.”
In the 1970s, late 1980s and early 1990s, Bertie Mee’s and George Graham’s teams often preferred playing matches away from home, for different reasons. For Mee’s Gunners, it was a welcome relief to escape the often suffocating defensive blanket which visiting teams would lay down when they visited Highbury. “We’d go out on a Saturday afternoon at home,” he recalled, “and the opposition teams would set up shop with four defenders, and usually three midfielders who could double up as defenders. And our critics wondered why we scraped so many 1-0 wins in our Double year in ‘71! It was because many other clubs were tough for us to break down at home. They came for a point. Away from home, the pressure was on the opposition to attack, and we could hit them on the break more, and actually relax into our game.”
Arsenal didn’t win the league for another 18 years, and George Graham’s class of ’89 won a highly impressive 12 / 19 matches on their travels, including massive victories at Wimbledon, Nottingham Forest and West Ham, as well as the famous 2-0 win at Anfield. Their superb away form contrasted with some fairly turgid performances at home, partly due to the horrendous state of the pitch, which became known as the “Highbury mudflats.” The groundsman Steve Braddock later won awards for the quality of the lush turf at Highbury, but only after the whole pitch was relaid on account of the poor drainage at Arsenal’s former home. Winger Brian Marwood recalled: “Home games often felt like wading through treacle. The pitch seemed almost to drain our creativity. It nearly proved to be our Achilles heel, and from my angle, it was a welcome break to play away and on better surfaces.” Graham’s team was able to use the searing pace of Groves, Thomas and Rocastle to break out from defence and hit sides on the break, having squeezed them for long periods during matches. His 1991 side, which Graham proudly described as “my Rolls – Royce team,” added Anders Limpar to its ranks, and was equally adept at soaking up punishment for long periods of the game, before breaking away and scoring at lightning speed.
With Arsene Wenger’s title teams willing to maraud forward at every opportunity, it’s little surprise that many of the Gunners’ stellar moments in the last 17 years have come away from home. Who can forget the exquisite moves – conjured up by Bergkamp, Henry, Pires and Vieira – at White Hart Lane on the day Arsenal won the title in 2004, or Marc Overmars’s superbly cool finish which did for United at Old Trafford in 1998, on the day the title pendulum swung decisively in Arsenal’s favour? With his team winning all their matches on their travels so far this campaign, former Gunners stars are waxing lyrical about Arsenal’s confidence on the road. A word of caution is needed though. The acid test will be when Wenger’s men travel to United, City, Tottenham, Chelsea and Liverpool in the months ahead. There will also be formidable encounters at outposts like Goodison Park and St Mary’s…in fact any away ground where the home team is prepared to get the ball forward and attack the Arsenal defence.
What Arsenal have in abundance is a raft of attacking players who can turn defence into attack in the blink of an eye. There isn’t a defender in the country who’d relish the likes of Ozil, Walcott and Cazorla galloping towards them, with their uncanny ability to create space and carve out openings. There’s no reason why these players can’t follow in the fine traditions of Arsenal teams past, and help their team destroy rivals on the break away from home. Whether, when it really comes to the crunch, the Gunners’ defence is able to withstand an onslaught from our rivals’ star studded attacks, or whether the Giroud spearhead will become increasingly blunted during the autumn and winter remains open to conjecture.
The very best Arsenal teams have always prevailed on the road, showing their fight, their spirit and their character in often difficult conditions. Despite their sticky start to the new campaign, a real test of Arsenal’s away mettle will come at Old Trafford on November 10th. If they can withstand a twin onslaught from Rooney and RVP in 6 weeks’ time, then the Gunners really will have to be taken seriously as title contenders.