Remembering... 1997/98

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‘We surprised him and went on and on and on’

Lee Dixon, Tony Adams, Steve Bould, Nigel Winterburn.

From right to left, that was THE classic Arsenal back four.
Forged in 1988 by George Graham and supplemented over the years by the likes of David O’Leary and Martin Keown, that famous foursome was still going strong when Arsene Wenger arrived at the club.
By then we were playing a back three - Bruce Rioch’s preferred formation - and Wenger waited a year until returning to a back four. When he did, the defence played a vital role in our 1997/98 league and cup double.
“He actually kept [the back three at first],” Steve Bould told “He arrived in the September [of 1996] and he kept the back three until the following season, and then we played the four.”
Tony Adams added: “Credit to him, things that were working he just went ‘OK, well done. Bouldy, great player, get on with it. Dicko, get on with it’. All these guys, especially the older ones, they all surprised him and just went on and on and on.
“I sat down with him and I said to him that we’ve just converted after all these years of playing a back four and Bruce Rioch had us in a back three,” Adams went on. “I said ‘Look, we’re fourth in the table so maybe it’s not a good time to change’, and he said OK and left a lot of things alone.”
By then, after 10 years together, that defensive understanding was almost instinctive.
“Well, it had to be because I couldn’t run!” joked Bould. “What was I, 34 or 35 then? No, of course it was ingrained.”


‘I knew Marc would rip defenders to pieces’

Lee Dixon will never forget the first time he witnessed Marc Overmars’ devastating pace.

England were lining up against the Netherlands in a 1994 World Cup qualifier at Wembley and our right back faced the unenviable task of trying to keep the rapid winger, then of Ajax, quiet.
Overmars would go on to join forces with Dixon at Arsenal four years later, terrorising opposition defences on our way to the double in his debut season, but Dixon will always remember the struggles he had trying to cope with the wide man on that evening back in April 1993.
“Before he came to Arsenal, I played against him for Holland at Wembley,” he told Arsenal Player. “I was right back and he was left wing.
“His movement… I knew as soon as we signed him, I knew his movement would rip defenders to pieces because he was so sharp at being able to know when the player was coming in to hit behind, and when the player drops off to come short.
“He would get it short, turn and then run at you. I knew that combination because in the end I had to kick him so hard that he went over to the right wing to get rid of me.
“I did my job but the trouble was that when he went over to the right wing, Martin Keown was playing left back. He soon came back over after Martin had given him a double whammy!”


'They were so confident... they had no fear'

As assistant manager to Arsene Wenger during the 1997/98 season, Pat Rice is perfectly placed to assess what made that team one of the greatest in our history.

The Arsenal legend won the Double himself during his playing days, and says that the squad that emulated that 1971 side had some unique qualities - as could be seen in that season-defining win at Old Trafford.

"They were confident, they were so confident," Rice told Arsenal Player. "They knew they were going out [to win], and they had no fear. 

"They knew in their own hearts that they would create chances to win the game. Of course, with the speed that they had up front, anything can happen. Of course, it did happen. The flick on, and then Overmars is in, and then the goal is scored. It was fantastic. 

“When we were up against it and whenever we were playing at that time, even when we were a goal down and sitting on the line, you thought, 'Don’t worry, somebody else will pick up the bat and somebody will do it’.

"The other thing as well is that with those type of players, they weren’t frightened of having a go at each other. They would have a go at each other, but they had so much respect for each other – I can remember players really getting into a tussle out there but coming off the pitch they would be arm in arm."

Every member of the 1997/98 squad played an important role as we won the Double, but Rice picked out three of the newest members of the side as being particularly key.

“The thing I found with Patrick [Vieira] is that when he is up against it, when his reputation is on the line or his pride is on the line, he just goes up another level," Rice said. "Manu Petit, he was a great reader of the game. He had a brilliant left foot. He could not only play in midfield, he could play at centre back, he could play at left back – he smelt danger. He could create goals, he was a brilliant player as well. 

"Anelka, we know about Anelka. He was so quick, once he was off, boom, you had no chance of catching him. He had a great build for a young man. His reputation came before him, and it wasn’t one of those where the reputation was false, the reputation was true. He could play with players, he had tricks, he was quick, he could finish – he was a brilliant acquisition.”


'It was one of the best teams I played in'

It is exactly 20 years since the run-in to the 1997/98 season, when we won 10 games in a row to snatch the Premier League title from under the noses of Manchester United.

Nigel Winterburn can still recall it vividly, and says the signings that Arsene Wenger made the previous summer - the likes of Marc Overmars and Emmanuel Petit - helped create an unstoppable force.

"I always say that it is one of the best teams that I played in terms of its power and its ability to play," the legendary left-back told Arsenal Player. 

"But not only that, when it wasn't going so well we could usually tough it out and get a result. 

"Arsene's first signings were absolutely sensational, and people forget about the likes of Christopher Wreh as well who came in and got important goals.

"He didn't play a massive role [with the number of games he played], but in terms of what we achieved, he played a huge part as well."