MARTIN KEOWN was unlike any of his team-mates in his Arsenal playing days.
He confessed: “I never went out drinking. I must have been quite different but I was brought up with the attitude that I wasn’t going to waste money or energy doing that.”
Tony Adams and Martin Keown winning the 2002 Premier League titleCredit: Getty
Gabriel and Ben White are forming a new partnership at ArsenalCredit: AFP
Keown, 55, was a part of the famous Gunners side of the 90s where alcohol consumption was not just the culture, but the law, headed up by his centre back partner Tony Adams.
Off the pitch then, Keown and Adams weren’t arm-in-arm sinking pints until dawn before and after games, but on it they were one of the Premier League’s most formidable duos.
Together they won Prem title and FA Cup Doubles in 1998 and 2002, taking on Manchester United in their pomp.
And since Sol Campbell partnered Kolo Toure in the 2004 Invincibles campaign, no Arsenal centre back combination has come close to leading the club back to the title.
William Gallas and Philippe Senderos. Laurent Koscielny and Per Mertesacker. David Luiz and Shkodran Mustafi.
So, Keown’s message to Arsenal’s latest defensive double act hoping to reach new heights in Ben White and Gabriel: Forget about bonding off the pitch. On it is where it counts.
Speaking to SunSport, Keown said: “You don’t need to be best mates, especially as a lot of the time you are in competition with the guy next to you to keep your own place.
“I was very lucky to be part of some very successful partnerships and back fours at Arsenal.
“And as much as I enjoyed the banter and teamwork, I didn’t really drink when I played, yet on the pitch we had an understanding.
“Tony and I were in the same youth team at the club so the bond went back many years, but you have got to have a skill set that compliments each other.
“The likes of Adams, Campbell, Steve Bould and David O’Leary were all a few inches taller than me so I preferred to be with someone who was better in the air.
“I then prided myself in being there for them when they messed up. That’s what you need to have.
“And with White and Gabriel there is that real bond and togetherness blending now. They seem quite proud of their clean sheets. That develops over time on the pitch.”
Injuries meant that White and Gabriel had to wait until the fourth game of the season to start a Prem game side-by-side – their first win against Norwich.
Since then, they have been inseparable with the Gunners now on a nine-game unbeaten streak in all competitions.
They are yet to taste defeat together in the Prem and, alongside keeper Aaron Ramsdale, have kept four clean sheets from their last seven league games.
Keown has spoken in the past of the best defensive partnerships having a Yin and Yang feel to them. He now believes Liverpool’s Virgil van Dijk has changed that.
The ex-Arsenal defender explained: “Van Dijk is rapid, a great striker of the ball, comfortable in possession and a giant in the air. That’s the benchmark.
“You need to have all of these skill sets, not just some of them otherwise you will be found out. Overall, I like seeing these two Arsenal defenders defend.
“But there will be times when White comes out with the ball and he does that exceptionally well, and Gabriel will need to protect him.”
Keown’s only concern with White and Gabriel are their ages.
Virgil van Dijk is the benchmark. You need his skill set otherwise you will be found out
The Englishman is 24 and the Brazilian just 23, yet Keown and Adams were 32 when they won the title in 1998, and 36 in 2002.
Keown added: “It helps if you’ve got plenty of football under the bonnet. If you’ve had a good experience of playing against certain opponents it starts to repeat itself.
“I lost count of the number of times I played against Mark Hughes or Rudd van Nistelrooy and Alan Shearer. You start to work out ways of stopping them.
“They say goalkeepers are better when they get older. The same can be said for central defenders.”
White and Gabriel are among a number of new signings introduced by Mikel Arteta since he took charge back in December 2019, all with the same characteristics.
Young, hungry, technically gifted but also physically impressive and highly competitive.
They are finally coming good, and after losing their opening three matches this campaign, Arsenal could jump into the top four with victory over Watford.
Keown said: “It is a return to the early years of Arsene Wenger. Technical players but more athletic, more physical. That’s what the Premier League requires.
“The team now is in the process of rebuilding its reputation, just like under Wenger. We had to chisel out a reputation with the new players like Emmanuel Petit and Patrick Vieira.
“It didn’t come easy, but the fixtures became much simpler to win because everyone knew we were not a soft touch.
“Now for Arteta’s side it is about consistency. They seem like spirited young men. This is just the start.”
Speaking at St George’s Park promoting the McDonald’s Fun Football Hub, he added: “Children who are inspired watching players like Bukayo Saka can now access the hub and try out their new skills in their living room.”
Bukayo Saka is an inspiring young player after his Arsenal breakthroughCredit: Getty
***Martin Keown is an ambassador for McDonald’s Fun Football programme. Go to mcdonalds.co.uk/football for fun video challenges you can recreate at home to keep your kids active***