30 November: Arsenal top of the league for the first time ever

On Saturday 28 November 1925 Arsenal were top of the league for the first time in history and Athletic News (the leading weekly sports newspaper of the time) on 30 November marked the occasion big-time, celebrating the work of individual players such as Bob John at left-back, and the tactics of the team deployed by Herbert Chapman. (The whole story of Arsenal under Henry Norris is told here).

It was seen as a triumph of style, tactics, and an excellent footballing brain, which had taken a club that only last season had seemed to be on the edge of crashing back into the 2nd Division, to the very top of the tree.

Indeed as Arsenal entered November 1925, things under Chapman were better than they had been under Knighton, for Arsenal had won three and lost three of the last six – the sort of balance of results that Knighton had rarely achieved in his last two years.

But Arsenal’s transition from relegation contenders to possible champions was not going smoothly.  For in Chapman’s first season Arsenal had already lost 7-0 and 4-0, while on other occasions winning 5-0, 4-0 and 4-1. It all seemed rather chaotic, although the multitude of goals was good fun and certainly drew in the crowds.

At the start of November, Arsenal had been fourth in the league, four points and 12 goals behind Sunderland at the top – with just two points for a win of course.

This was a clear improvement on the dire days of Knighton, and at the start of November the signs were very good.   For the first match of the month, away to Manchester City, Chapman picked the same team as had beaten Everton 4-1 at Highbury on 31 October.   And that proved to be very much the right decision as Arsenal won 5-2.

As a result, Arsenal were second in the table, three points behind Sunderland but with a game in hand.  Huddersfield were in fourth, two points behind Arsenal.  We should also record that it was also the final first-team game for John (Jock) Robson – the shortest ever Arsenal keeper at 5 feet 8 inches.  He played 101 times for Arsenal, including 9 games in 1925/6.

Now, you may also know that this was the first season of the new offside law, where only two defenders had to be behind the ball for the attacking player to be onside rather than three.   Most if not all clubs were still experimenting with the system, and high scores were the order of the day.   The first Saturday in the month included relegation-threatened Cardiff City 5 Leicester City 2, Manchester City 2 Arsenal 5, Tottenham Hotspur 4 West Ham 2 and West Bromwich Albion 4 Notts County 4

For the second match of the month, Arsenal played Bury, and the match saw the return of the Jock Rutherford.   The result was Arsenal 6 Bury 1; Brain got another hat-trick, Buchan got two.

Interestingly at halftime, the score was Arsenal 0 Bury 1 – and this was not the first time Arsenal changed tactics halfway through the game in order to confuse the opposition – which it did.

For the next game on 21 November away Arsenal were at Blackburn Rovers who were 16th in the table.   Arsenal won again, with the result Blackburn Rovers 2 Arsenal 3, Buchan and Brain getting the goals with an own goal from Rollo completing the victory. Arsenal were second.   Elsewhere we might note it was Notts County 4 Tottenham Hotspur 2.

In the Islington Daily Gazette “Norseman” was full of how dramatic was the change in Arsenal, and all done with the addition of just two new players.  He did not mention the adoption of the WM tactics however which more recent histories of Arsenal have emphasised. Indeed very few reports ever did – the notion that Arsenal under Champman revolutionised tactics simply by dropping the centre half into the backline is another myth invented later to explain Arsenal’s change of fortunes.

But this was not because the papers didn’t talk tactics.  Athletic News, the leading weekly sports journal of the time, on 30 November however did take up this theme of players and tactics – but not WM.  It did however note that Arsenal were now top of the league, one point ahead of Sunderland.

For details of the videos sorted by club, and videos in the order we published them, plus our 21 golden great videos please see here.

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