George Graham enjoyed his centre-backs while he was Arsenal manager. Tony Adams, David O’Leary and Gus Caesar were there before he arrived as manager, but Steve Bould, Colin Pates and Andy Linighan were all recruited while Martin Keown was re-signed.
Competition for places was stiff, but it was eased slightly by Graham’s predilection for playing a sweeper system, especially so in both of his title-winning seasons, 1988-89 and 1990-91. When a five-man defence would be deployed, the centre-back coming into the side would take the number of the midfielder or attacker he had replaced. As a result, every outfield number ended up playing as a centre-back:
2: Lee Dixon was injured against QPR in February 1989, and for the next game against Coventry, O’Leary moved to right-back and retained number 5, with Steve Bould coming in at 2.
3: In 1989-90, Nigel Winterburn got injured on New Year’s Day against Crystal Palace. The next outing saw Paul Davis come in at 3, with number 4 Michael Thomas playing left-back but then against Sheffield Wednesday, Pates replaced Davis and partnered Adams, with O’Leary once again wearing 5 at full-back.
4: The natural choice for a third centre-back, it didn’t always turn out this way when Arsenal operated the system. It wasn’t until 1991-92 that we had the first instance of it, Linighan partnering O’Leary and Adams in a loss at Aston Villa. O’Leary then wore 4 alongside Bould and Adams against Luton Town and Manchester City and in 1992-93, Pates donned 4 as the sweeper system failed to prevent defeat at Wimbledon. Later that season, with Graham resting players ahead of the FA Cup final against Sheffield Wednesday, Scott Marshall wore 4 twice, in a league game against Wednesday and then against Tottenham. Incidentally, in both of those games O’Leary was 5 with Bould wearing 6, unusually for him.
5 and 6: Generally the first-choice numbers for Arsenal’s centre-backs under Graham, so you’ll forgive us for not listing every instance.
7: Quite possibly the number that O’Leary was seen in most after 5, as he featured heavily in it in the 1990-91 season, sharing it with Perry Groves and the late David Rocastle, though the emergence of Kevin Campbell saw him take it at the end of the campaign. When Tony Adams was in prison, there were a couple of instances of Arsenal playing 4-4-2 and it was Linighan – the temporary owner of 6 – who made way for Groves, meaning that the defence was 2-5-7-3 and the midfield 6-8-4-11. Which, let’s be honest, nobody wants to see.
8: Worn by O’Leary for four consecutive games when he replaced Kevin Richardson towards the end of the 1989-90 season.
9: Bould wore it against Aston Villa on Boxing Day 1989 and O’Leary took it against Leeds in 1991-92.
10: There was outcry in 2006 when William Gallas – originally said by arsenal.com to have taken the number 3 vacated by Ashley Cole – decided instead to take Dennis Bergkamp’s number 10, but it wasn’t the first time the number had been worn by an Arsenal centre-back. Instead, what was arguably the most famous night in the club’s history had Bould in the traditional playmaker’s shirt. Beginning with the 1-1 draw at Old Trafford at the start of April 1989, Graham went with a safety-first approach, Bould coming in for Paul Merson to aid O’Leary and Adams. When Merson came back into the side it was in the number 11 shirt and for the rest of the season, up to and including the famous win at Anfield, Bould wore 10.
11: The only instances we can find are away games against Oldham Athletic and Sheffield Wednesday in November 1991, with the shirt worn by Pates. Perhaps Sinisa Mihajlovic saw those games and was inspired, because we can’t think of too many other good reasons for a central defender wearing 11.