Forrmer Arsenal defender and current BBC football analyst reflects on a critical London derby for both clubs
Most Arsenal fans would probably agree that, were he available, Lee Dixon would walk straight into the back four for today's Premier League trip to Stamford Bridge. Perhaps it would be a closer call than some would think – but then, Dixon is 47 years old. Currently one of the regular studio analysts on Match of The Day 2, a natural home for hoary old sporting jokes, Dixon is in fact relatively optimistic about the prospects of his former club ahead of a derby that comes at an urgent moment for both teams.
"It is a massive game, for both of them," Dixon says, speaking at a North London all-weather football pitch thronged with junior Arsenal fans whose half term kick-about has just been furnished with an unexpected club-legend bonus. "Arsenal have had a mini-revival, they've won seven out of the last eight, so the Chelsea game takes on more emphasis. A poor result there and all the confidence that has been built up will just drain away overnight.
"It's also huge for Chelsea. They have to get the John Terry thing out of their minds and out of the dressing room. Until the loss last week [against QPR] Chelsea had been quietly going about their business and I think it has suited André Villas-Boas to be almost playing third fiddle, behind the Manchester clubs. But getting beaten last week and the two sendings off and suddenly people will be looking at Chelsea."
Dixon will be forever associated with the neurotic defensive parsimony of George Graham-era Arsenal. Despite being something of a buccaneer from right-back, he remains fixed in the memory as a corner peg in the beautifully grooved four-man defensive clamp that was Graham's gift to Arsène Wenger. The current defence, a carousel of new faces, juniors and regulars stolen away by injury, has been a source of some frustration at the Emirates Stadium, but Dixon is relatively optimistic on this score, albeit there is a long pause before he feels able to deliver his verdict on the £10m summer signing, Per Mertesacker.
"He will take time to settle in," he says. "You're not a bad player if you play 76 times for Germany. The big thing about a defence is unity and the amount of times they play together. With [Thomas] Vermaelen, [Kieran] Gibbs and [Bacary] Sagna all out there hasn't been time to get that unity. There is also a lot of work to be done on the training field."
This is something Dixon is eminently well qualified to talk about. As part of that geometrically aligned Graham back four Dixon, along with Steve Bould, Tony Adams and Nigel Winterburn, would run backwards and forwards in formation "for hours at a time", being drilled like a motorcycle display team. "The story about us all standing holding a piece of rope between us to keep us in line, that's true as well," he says. "It was days and days of boring meticulous details about stopping the ball even getting in the box, let alone net."
It is tempting to wonder whether such furiously puritanical methods could work today. "The game has changed," Dixon reflects."We would find it harder now. Nobody including myself seems to know what the offside rule is. Defenders aren't allowed to tackle any more. Hence the seeming lack of depth in good quality defenders. The art of defending has been diluted."
There is a welcome glimpse here of Dixon's other persona, as an uncharacteristically cliché-free and spikily articulate BBC football analyst, adopting a scholarly approach to the divisive job of football punditry. "I make load and loads of notes," he says. "It's a kind of stream of analysis while you're watching the game, and by the end something will be really standing out. The beauty of Match of the Day 2 is you can pull something out, you've got time hopefully to explain something that people couldn't have known otherwise, based purely on my experiences. Match of the Day is a different ethos. It's bang bang bang. You've basically got four minutes to talk about everything."
And is Alan Shearer really a great laugh away from the TV cameras? "Yes". Could he perhaps let that sense of humour out a bit more on camera. "You tell him that. Go on. Go and tell him." Dixon is also cautiously liberal when it comes to the traditional divide between career journalists and the ex-pro pundit.
"I hate that word pundit," he says. "If you look it up in the dictionary it says 'football expert'. I am not an expert. All I am is an analyst of what I see and what my experiences are. A journalist looking at the same piece of action might have a totally different opinion and that's fair enough. They'd be wrong, but they can have it."
Lee Dixon was speaking at a Barclays community led cycle ride in Islington. For more information visit barclaysbikes.com