Arsenal History proves squads can improve and win without signings – 71 and 02 Double Winners?

Current Squad Improving?

Current Squad Improving?

Post transfer-window, one of the arguments I saw posed by fans was that the current squad cannot win the league because the current squad hasn’t been able to do so for the last two seasons.

On paper, that makes sense.  How can the same group of players, who have failed to put up a challenge for two consecutive seasons, somehow turn that around in one season?

Of course, we all know, football isn’t played on paper.

My counter-argument was that squads DO improve.  Players DO improve – whether individually or collectively.  I’m not talking about adding new players, though, of course, that can help or even backfire.

It’s a difficult thing to explain and I can only think of personal examples from my university days where both I and my team have felt completely out of depth versus certain opposition when playing them for the first time; but, over time, the loss versus those certain opposition turned into draws which eventually turned into wins.  University squads usually don’t change too much unless there’s an overload of graduating students in a team.

For me, personally, in those particular games that we lost, it was about the opposition being quicker than us – passing and moving quicker, closing you down quicker – and that panic would also make us commit silly mistakes as committing early on the flair players.  The panic was a result of not being used to it i.e. till then, most of the opposition we played weren’t as good as us, so, suddenly we were in the unfamiliar position of being on the back foot.

However, next time, because of those one or two experiences, we were a lot more aware of what we have to do how we need to play – ‘we’ is the key word because it would take an effort in all parts of the field.  We would organize better to counter the pace, we figured out how to help each other out or improved ball protecting and/or passing combinations to counter the pressing.

Moreover, it’s a collective improvement; it’s a result of better understanding your team mates – knowing the positions they take up in certain situations, knowing who needs to be helped when, who likes the ball how and where, etc.  Of course, the talent needs to be there as well; some players really were limited and could not improve.

So, this was the experience that helped form my argument and/or theory, so to speak.

The problem is, professional football is of a much higher level so it would be quite naïve for me to apply that theory blindly.  So, I thought I’d do a little exercise to help support my theory to an extent. 

Let’s take a look, primarily, at two squads in Arsenal’s history who have won trophies.  The first squad is the ’71 Double winning side and the second squad is the ’02 Double winning side.  Let’s have a look at the data first before I make my points.  Whole squads will not be shown; rather, only players who played regularly i.e. more than 15 appearances in a season.  The data has been taken from

’71 Double Winning Side


In 1966, Bertie Mee was appointed manager of a team that had not won a trophy since 1953 and whose league performances grew increasingly disappointing year-upon-year – 8th in ’64, 13th in ’65, 14th in ’66.

8 out of 10 outfield players played very regularly for Mee’s first three seasons.  The team finished 7th in ’67, 9th in ’68 but almost won a cup, ‘4th in ’69 and almost won a cup again.

That’s virtually the same team for three consecutive seasons – they not only improved league form eventually but came close to cup glory twice.

In ‘69/70, 3-4 players were included in the regulars and the team finished 12th in the league but went on to win Inter-Cities Fairs Cup aka UEFA Cup later on.  Was the lowly league finish due to the Cup run or the new players brought in?  Or both?

The ’71 Double winning side consisted of almost full season appearances by the 7 out of the 8 mentioned above players.  The 3-4 players who were relatively regular the season before made more appearances in ‘70/71.  Imagine that though, the same squad finishes 12th the season before whilst winning a European honour then goes onto win the Double the next season!

The same core squad minus Samuels but plus Alan Ball, finished 5th the following season!  In the Arsenal History documentary McLintock speaks of players relaxing after the Double win and not being as serious as they used to be.  Plausible?

The same core squad then went on to challenge again and finish 2nd in ’73 though one or two of the regulars can be deemed to have played relatively less than in previous seasons.

Graham and McLintock left the club at the end of the ’73 season; leaving 5 of the 8 players mentioned at the start of this section.  The team finished 10th at the end of the ‘73/74 season; that’s a big drop!

Before I try to figure out if any of this means anything, let’s take a look at the Double winning side of ’02.

’02 Double Winning Side

71 02

The ’02 Double winning side is a slightly different story.

Arsenal finished 2nd two seasons in a row – ‘99/00 and ‘00/01.  You can include ‘98/99 as well if you want; the squad was changing so I did not include that year.

In fact, I have excluded Overmars, Petit, and Winterburn from the ‘99/00 squad as they were to leave at the end of that season hence having little bearing on the outcome of ’02.

11 outfield players were ever present during ‘99/00 – players who made more than 20 appearances.  That number became 13 for ‘00/01 as Pires and Wiltord joined the ranks.  Players like Ashley Cole and Lauren also started making regular appearances as well.  Arsenal reached the FA Cup Final that season whilst finishing second.

02 Double again

‘01/02 saw the arrival of Sol Campbell.  Club legends Adams and Dixon played enough games to ensure they get a medal; the former replaced by Campbell while the latter was replaced by Lauren.  Ashley Cole became a regular that season as well.  Once again, 13 players made more than 20 appearances that season.  Two out of the thirteen from the previous season were replaced by two very able players.

I won’t go into details for the seasons that followed but it might be worth noting that 9 outfield players that won the double in ’02, were ever present for the Invincibles season as well – 8 of those 9 were together since ’00/01.  Again, that’s almost the same team competing season after season.

So, What Does All This Mean?

It can mean several things from the manager matters to talent matters to how competitive the league was at the time matters!

However, one cannot deny that these teams made progress.  In the case of the ’71 squad, it took them longer than Wenger’s sides.  Either way, a consistent core of players went on to achieve.

Wenger’s side went through quite a makeover post-2005 but even then a consistent core formed and almost delivered the league in ’08.

These two squads are an example of how cohesion develops.

Implications for the Current Set Up

The current squad has a core of players that have been together for at least three seasons now.  Injuries have hampered a cohesive progress – players playing in different positions, some players never having played together much [read: Ozil and Theo].  Nevertheless, there are also players on the outskirts who can make contributions during the season – as with previous squads.

Rarely share the pitch in past 2 seasons

I believe we have the talent but also believe three seasons should be enough for the players to develop an understanding.  Consistent top 4 finishes and 2 FA Cups is a move in the right direction but a title push is rightly expected this season – new signings or no new signings.

I guess my whole point was that the argument of the current squad not being good enough to challenge because they haven’t been able to do so till now, is a myopic view of things.  I understand I could have strengthened my case with examples of other teams but I wanted to keep this relatively short!

Anyway, we’re actually quite lucky that we haven’t had major departures in the last three seasons otherwise it could have hampered the development of a cohesive unit.  Yes, so far this season the team has looked anything but a cohesive unit and I really can’t offer an explanation for it; especially after the showing in the second half of last season.  I can offer an explanation for lack of goals so far; you can read my own piece here or fellow blogger @AFCBVB1410’s piece here.

I’ll end this by saying keep the faith; this squad just might surprise us, COYG!

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5 Responses to Arsenal History proves squads can improve and win without signings – 71 and 02 Double Winners?

  1. Sean Williams September 10, 2015 at 1:44 pm #

    Yes teams have improved, but never in a situation where other teams can improve so quickly, as in modern day football. In the space of one season, one transfer window, other teams can improve exponentially. This will probably be proved by the end of the season, and Wenger will be proved to lack enough functional knowledge of the modern game. Arsenal will not win the league, even in this year in which they were expected to do so. Most supporters thought Wenger would be buying world class players to take the team to the next level. If I am wrong credit to you. I hope you are right but I doubt it very much. If we win the league I owe you praise. It won’t be us Arsenal fans, though, celebrating the team’s league winners parade at the end of this season. Wenger has failed to notice that his competitors have improved so much more ’empirically’ and dramatically, than this season’s ‘improved’ Arsenal team.

    • Omar Hasan Khan September 10, 2015 at 3:44 pm #

      Hi Sean,

      Thanks for giving this a read. Your name seems familiar, not sure if it’s from Twitter or if you’ve commented on my posts before..

      Just to be clear, I didn’t claim Arsenal will win the league but yes, I do expect a strong challenge and if we lose out, then no more than 3-6 points.

      What do you mean by ‘functional knowledge of the modern game’? I can’t comment on that because I’m not quite sure what you mean to be honest.

      I agree that teams can strengthen via signings in a transfer window, whether or not that means they improve is debatable.

      I did a piece recently for this site on signings and correlation to success. Not surprisingly, both United (under SAF) and Wenger bought fewer players each season as compared to Chelsea, and later on, City. Chelsea and City could afford to literally buy sets off 8-10 known names and dispose the same amount if they didn’t work out. In fact, almost half or more than half of the known names they bought, would be sold within two years.

      We can’t do that. It’s also an indication that established names aren’t a guarantee to improvement.

      Personally I don’t have an issue with no signings bar Cech this window. Do I have issues with the way the team plays at times? Yes, definitely. That’ll be our downfall more than the quality of players we have in my opinion.

  2. Victor Thompson September 10, 2015 at 4:41 pm #


    I am in awe of your industry and your use of statistics. I cannot pretend to compete with that.

    There is obviously a core of truth in what you say but I believe that you are not comparing like for like in these comparisons.

    I know that Arsenal under George Graham was a team which every club hated to play against. They stifled the opposition wore them down, then scored to win 1-0. In the sixties, Spurs and Burnley were big clubs. Spurs did the double. Man utd. were still recovering from Munich but there were signs of a big club arising. Arsenal were a big club even then. West Ham performed well in Europe and Everton were known as The Academy of Science. Man City became a big club in the sixties and seventies with Summerbee, Bell and Francis. They disappeared just as quickly afterwards. Arsenal were still a big club but then Leeds and Liverpool took over and for years they dominated the game.In the midst of that domination, Arsenal did the Double. Man utd, were relegated and promoted again. The Best era came in and Man Utd. won the European cup, but so did Celtic and Notts Forest.

    1999: and the Man Utd. youngsters, Beckham, Scholes, Butt and the Nevilles sparked the revival of Utd. and the Commercial nous of the management of Utd. made them a super club. Leeds went into decline but Liverpool still performed at the top level and Arsenal also declined somewhat until the arrival of Arsene Wenger. A notable absentee during all of this was a small club from the Kings Road called Chelsea.

    Arsenal became the jewel of London. They played fabulous football and matched Man Utd. for the top trophies. Then the Oil money came and Chelsea who had been on the verge of Bankruptcy were able to pay for top players and pay unbelievable salaries. Man City, who were anonymous (and truthfully both teams were a guaranteed 4 points for Arsenal every year), followed them. Man Utd. carried on, almost able to match them thanks to their financial successes but Arsene to his credit has kept Arsenal in the top 4 within their own means.

    During all of these years, the top teams have changed and the makeup of the top tier has changed until now. After the advent of the sugar daddies. Even now, the rich teams ( to a lesser extent Chelsea ) regularly refresh their squads with boutique purchases which keeps them where they are. Until now Chelsea have kept to a core of regular players. It is a certainty that your statistics will soon be irrelevant. The only certainty is that the top 2 or 3 will remain constant because those clubs will continue to buy the top players.

    Arsenal may well keep a constant squad and they may continue to play at a high level. This year, with just a little bit more, we might just have given City a run. It is not unrealistic to say that our chance has gone already, 4 games into the season. We are 5 points behind and those are 5 points City have to drop. We can`t give a start like that away.

    The failure to sign a CF and DM will come back to haunt us.

    Please forgive me if I have not put exact dates in this comment. I am writing from memory so I cannot match Omar for the exact timeline. I believe it to be reasonably accurate. The beauty of being a football fan is that looking back on these events, brings back so many eventful times. Bob Dylan sang “The times they are a-changing”. For Arsenal, they have changed but the more they change, the more they stay the same. We are “The Arsenal”. The only club in the top league not to have been relegated and the only team from the 1930`s until now which can say that they have always been one of the elite. Times have changed, grounds have changed and the game has changed but Arsenal have been a constant. That is some statistic.

    Victor Thompson

    • Omar Hasan Khan September 11, 2015 at 5:33 pm #

      Hi Victor,

      Firstly, thanks for giving this a read and secondly, apologies for the delayed reply!

      I agree that it isn’t exactly a like for like comparison. I have discounted/ignored many other factors that can come into play such as manager competency, style of football etc.

      Has money helped Chelsea and City? Like you said, yes. It has allowed them to experiment A LOT; but like you noted, it’s been a core of players that have propelled them to success.

      Arsenal now have a core of players as well that have been together for 3 years at least. Are we a CF and a DM short? Personally I would like to see a better striker among the ranks but I also want to see if Theo can deliver in that role or not. Are we short of a DM? Depends on if you believe we need a DM in every game, I personally don’t.

      This blog post was more of a ‘tackle the myth’ that the same squad cannot improve year upon year. Does this post prove so? Not necessarily because of other factors excluded. Does this post at least suggest that yes, it is possible for the same squad to improve and compete more effectively? I believe so, yes.

      I also believe if Arsenal can sort out their youth academy to produce quality, it may help sustain title challenges in case finances don’t help.

      • Victor Thompson September 12, 2015 at 10:38 am #

        Thanks for the reply Omar.

        It`s hard to argue with points so well made. I enjoy diversity.


        Victor Thompson

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