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03 Sep 2004 00:00
No sooner had Arsenal first equalled and then broken Nottingham Forest’s 26-year-old record of going 42 league matches without defeat, than doubts were being expressed about the likelihood of such an achievement ever being repeated.
The longer the present run lasts the stronger this feeling will become.
Arsenal’s next five league matches will see them visit Fulham and Manchester City with Bolton, Charlton and Villa going to Highbury.
Defeat in any of these games would be a considerable surprise. So, by the time Arsenal face Manchester United at Old Trafford on October 24, they could well be on the brink of an unbeaten half-century.
Yet it is hard to believe that another quarter of a century will pass before a team at least approaches Arsenal’s new record, always assuming Arsène Wenger’s team do not remain unbeaten for another 38 matches, in which case they would be entitled to consider their record as unbreakable as a steel-plated CD.
The polarisation of the Premiership surely makes it more likely that the outstanding team of the day will enjoy long spells without being beaten. At present, and for the foreseeable future, the English national league is about Arsenal, Manchester United and either Chelsea or whichever club happens to catch the eye of a future foreign oligarch.
Inevitably, comparisons have been made between Arsenal and the Nottingham Forest side that won the old First Division in the 1977/78 season after avoiding defeat in their last 26 matches and then went unbeaten for a further 16 games the following season. It is a harmless yet idle exercise, for so much in football has changed since then.
Half of Forest’s 42 matches were drawn whereas Arsenal have won 31 of their 43. Then again, it should be remembered that in the late 1970s a win was worth only two points, which made the draw a better option for prospective champions than it is now.
It was a commonly held view among managers that a team started a match with a point and if they did not concede a goal then they would still have a point at the end of it. Brian Clough and his assistant, Peter Taylor, rivalled the strictest hospital matron in their belief in the sanctity of clean sheets.
To that end, no sooner had Forest won promotion from the old second division in 1977 than Clough signed Peter Shilton from Stoke to keep goal. Word had it that Shilton was earning £3 000 a week. What was the game coming to?
Backed by Shilton, a Forest defence built around the daunting figure of Kenny Burns gave Clough’s team the solid foundations essential for success in that era.
At that time, defenders could tackle from behind and pass back with impunity, and move up for offside confident that a flag would be raised whatever the circumstances.
Arsenal’s 4-1 victory against Norwich on Saturday brought their goals total during this unbeaten Premiership sequence to 99. In dour contrast, Forest managed only 58 in 42.
While the difference undoubtedly reflects the greater attacking talent available to Wenger, it is also the case that, since the offside law was liberalised, teams are defending deeper, which means that the play has become stretched, leaving more space for the talents of Thierry Henry, Robert Pires, Dennis Bergkamp and the like.
Yet, when Arsenal’s opponents attempt to press up behind the ball in the old manner, they are apt to be caught by counter-attacks which for speed, vision, invention and execution are surpassing even the best of Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United sides, not to mention a succession of outstanding Liverpool teams.
Even so, it is hard to believe that even this Arsenal team would have performed with such fluency on the English pitches of the late 1970s, many of which became mud heaps once winter had set in. The City Ground at Nottingham was much inclined to churn up in the rain, when the ability of John Robertson to produce outstanding centres from the relatively firm wings proved invaluable to his side.
Arsenal’s style depends heavily on the ball running true. Wenger’s players would not have taken kindly to the old Highbury pitches which, while they drained better than most, were often bumpy and unpredictable.
Clough’s Forest were functional; Wenger’s Arsenal are infinitely more fun to watch. At the same time, the season Forest won the championship was the last in England before the bar on overseas imports was lifted. Clough used only 18 players during Forest’s unbeaten run: 12 Englishmen, five Scots and a Northern Irishman, Martin O’Neill. Wenger has employed 31 multinationals.
If Arsenal’s feat has been more watchable, that of Nottingham Forest was arguably more remarkable considering they had only just won promotion. And the other record Forest set in 1978, undefeated in 40 matches in all competitions, surely remains the more impressive feat.
In fact, between November 1977 and December 1978, Clough’s side lost one match out of 62, an FA Cup quarterfinal at West Bromwich Albion. Oh, and they also went on to win and retain a European Cup which, for Arsenal, remains a distant grail. —
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