Arsene Wenger's greatest signings
CREG LEEDHAM, 18 08 2006
Signing players is not easy these days. Astronomical transfer fees, extortionate wage demands, and meddling agents all serve to make the process a risky business. When high profile signings flop, a manager can soon find himself under fire from both fans and the media alike. Yet despite all these pressures, and after a decade at the club, Arsene Wenger’s judgement has proved to be remarkably astute and his actions in the transfer market have been crucial in minimising the impact of our rivals’ superior financial clout.
By discovering players of the calibre of Patrick Vieira, Nicolas Anelka and, more recently, Emmanuel Eboue, Wenger has earned himself a reputation for turning unknowns into stars. While at Monaco, he signed future FIFA World Player of the Year George Weah, and on collecting this honour in 1996, it was to Wenger that the Liberian dedicated his award.
Drawing up this list has been a difficult process. Wenger has made dozens of excellent signings. How does one whittle these down to a mere ten players? The impact of each signing must be the key factor but the transfer fee must also be considered. Finally, if a player does move on, how much money was recouped? With these questions in mind, here is my top ten.
10. Emmanuel Petit (1997-2000)
Hailing from Dieppe in France, Emmanuel Petit came to London in 1997 as a defender. Soon though, like so many of Wenger’s acquisitions, he found that his manager had other plans for him. He was to become a defensive midfielder, and a very good one at that. He was partnered with the fledgling talent of Patrick Vieira in central midfield and the duo quickly gelled. Opposition sides attempting to breach Arsenal’s defence first had to overcome the seemingly impenetrable wall that the two Frenchman formed.
His three seasons at the club saw the Gunners win their second double and facilitated a return to the French national team. It was a timely development for him; he came on as a substitute against Brazil in the 1998 World Cup final, scoring the last goal in a resounding 3-0 victory. Petit will be best remembered by fans for his trademark blonde ponytail and the tenacious manner in which he went about his duties. In 2000, he moved to Barcelona for £5m, double what Arsene Wenger had paid for him.
9. Fredrik Ljungberg (1998- )
Signed from Halmstads for £3 million in September 1998, the Swedish winger made an instant impact on his debut, coming off the bench to score the final goal in a resounding 3-0 home victory over Manchester United.
It proved to be a sign of things to come and he quickly earned a reputation as a big game player finding the net in two consecutive FA cup finals and scoring arguably the most significant goal of the 2001/02-league campaign against Liverpool at Anfield. Industrious as always, he sprinted over half the length of the pitch before darting in between two defenders to slot home Robert Pires’ cut back. The goal proved a turning point both in that match and in Arsenal’s push for the league title. Ljungberg’s contribution that year was vital and he scored six goals in the remaining seven league games. Today, the Swede is a fans’ favourite idolised for his gutsy performances on the pitch and his eccentric nature off it. His place in Arsenal folklore is secure.
8. Sol Campbell (2001-2006)
Fans from both sides of North London were left pinching themselves after hearing of Sol Campbell’s arrival at Highbury in summer 2001. Once the news sunk in, however, only the red half was smiling. Arsene Wenger had pulled off the most unexpected coup of his reign and the towering defender became only the ninth player to move from Tottenham to Arsenal since 1913.
He enjoyed immediate success with his new club, winning the league and cup double in his first season, and with Tony Adams retiring and Martin Keown ageing, Campbell cemented his place as Arsenal and England’s most important defender. Ever present during the unbeaten season of 03/04 (he only missed three Premiership games), it is perhaps surprising that he played no part in both the 2003 and 2005 FA cup final victories.
Although last season was turbulent for Campbell, it ended on a high note. He shook off a long run of injuries and returned to the starting line-up to help steer the team past Villarreal in the Champions League semi-final. In the final, Campbell rose to the occasion against Barcelona and was unlucky to be on the losing side after a strong, goal scoring display.
7. Marc Overmars (1997-2000)
Standing at a mere five foot eight inches the Emst-born winger should be held up as a role model to vertically challenged teenagers overlooked by their football coaches. For what Marc Overmars lacked in height he more than made up for with his ferocious pace. If Henry glides like a swan, Overmars was more comparable to Walt Disney’s Roadrunner, his legs moving so quickly that to the human eye they appeared just a blur. A winner of 86 caps for Holland, the £7m signing from Ajax in June 1997 could be ruthlessly direct - especially on the counterattack - collecting the ball in space and charging at the heart of the opposition defence.
He scored the pivotal goal in Arsenal’s double winning season in 1997/98 against Manchester United at Old Trafford. Running onto an Anelka flick-on, he nodded the ball past his marker before finishing through the legs of the onrushing Peter Schmeichel. It was the only goal of the encounter and along with the opening goal of that year’s FA cup final, he hit the back of the net 34 times for Arsenal. After two years at Highbury, he was sold to Barcelona for £25m in the summer of 2000, to this day a record transfer fee for a Dutch footballer. He retired from football after Euro 2004.
6. Robert Pires (2000-2006)
“Don’t compare me to Marc Overmars” was the plea from Robert Pires on arriving at Highbury in July 2000 for £6m. The Dutchman was a tough act to follow and the former Marseille winger was initially surprised by the Premiership’s physical nature. However, after a steady first season he lit up the 2001/02 double winning campaign topping the assists charts and scooping the Football Writers’ Player of the Year award despite a cruciate ligament injury sidelining him for the final two months of the season. Cruelly, he was ruled out of the 2002 World Cup finals.
The Frenchman’s greatest strength lay in his versatility. He could play with both feet and was an excellent finisher; in 2004/05 he was the Premiership’s third highest scorer despite some critics claiming he had a poor season. He could even score the odd headed goal, a rarity at Arsenal in recent years. No stranger to controversy, he was involved in a bizarre penalty miss last October against Manchester City, scuffing his attempted pass to Thierry Henry. Arsenal went on to win that match and the gaff was overlooked. After all, Pires’ brilliance always far outweighed any alleged flaws in his game. Out of contract, he moved to Villarreal in May.
5. Nicolas Anelka (1997-1999)
Signed from Paris St. Germain for £500, 000, an injury to Ian Wright opened the door for the then 18 year old after spending most of his first season in the reserves.
He registered his first goal with a rasping long-range effort in a memorable 3-2 win over Manchester United and quickly forged a rapport with strike partner Dennis Bergkamp. It was a great testament to his rapid rise at the club that he kept Ian Wright on the bench for the 1998 FA cup final. He did not disappoint, scoring the goal that sealed the club’s second double against Newcastle United at Wembley.
Some may question this choice for being too high up the list but I have chosen Anelka not only because he was one of the first youngsters Arsene Wenger gambled on and brought into the first team but because once it became clear that the shy teenager was to exit Highbury, Wenger pocketed £23m for the club. That’s excellent business by anybody’s standards.
4. Cesc Fabregas (2003- )
Only recently turned 19, the sprightly Spaniard, signed from Barcelona B on a free transfer, has been a revelation for Arsenal. Replacing Patrick Vieira would be daunting for anyone but for Cesc it has almost appeared easy. When the two came face-to-face in the Champions League quarterfinal in March the Catalan left his former midfield partner shell-shocked with a dominant performance.
If Vieira was surprised by Cesc’s maturity, Arsene Wenger was not. He had already tipped the youngster to be the best in his position by the age of 20, and in truth, Fabregas began breaking records the moment he walked through the marbled halls of Highbury. A debut against Rotherham United in the League Cup made him the club’s youngest ever first-team player and a goal in the same competition made him our youngest scorer. A first cap for Spain followed, as he became La Furia’s youngest player for over eighty years. World cup experience this summer will only have added to his pedigree and Wenger will enter the new season with Europe's best young midfielder in his ranks.
3. Kolo Toure (2002- )
Signed from Ivory Coast club ASEC Mimosas for £150, 000 in February 2002, Kolo Toure hails from a family of considerable football heritage. His brothers Yaya and Ibrahim play for Olympiakos and Toumodi FC respectively.
What was immediately evident early on in Toure’s Arsenal career was his boundless enthusiasm. The most pressing issue though was how to harness it. Listed as a utility man, his versatility prevented him from holding down a regular first-team spot.
Fortunately for the Ivorian, fate intervened and injuries to Sol Campbell and the ageing Martin Keown ensured his inclusion at centre-back. Although born out of necessity, it proved to be another Wenger masterstroke. Toure’s contribution in Arsenal’s unbeaten season was immense; he missed only one league game.
Blessed with lighting pace, comfortable on the ball and always keen to roam forward, Toure remains the antithesis of the British defensive stereotype. His first European goal - the last ever at Highbury - proved to be crucial, taking the club to its first European Cup final. The opportunity to improve his skills at the World Cup in Germany can only have increased his standing. He must now be considered one of Europe’s best central defenders.
Always one to introduce fresh ideas into the English game, Arsene Wenger’s acquisition of some of Africa’s brightest young talents such as Kolo Toure, and later, Emmanuel Eboue, for sums of money considered cheap even twenty years ago, could prove to be a watershed on these shores. After all, why compete with Europe’s elite clubs for the star players when the likes of Toure can be signed for less than the price of a London house?
2. Patrick Vieira (1996-2005)
Born in Senegal but raised in Paris from the age of eight, Vieira was snapped up from AC Milan for £3.5m in August 1996 after making just two first team appearances for the Rossoneri. Milan’s loss was Arsenal’s gain and officials from the Italian club were to later remark that letting the midfielder go was a serious error of judgement.
Along with Remi Garde, he was Wenger’s first signing at the club and there were a few raised eyebrows on his arrival. Fans need not have worried though. Vieira quickly established himself and for nine long years he was the heartbeat of Wenger’s Arsenal team. As a centre-midfielder he had it all. He was strong, incredibly so in fact. Ever enduring is the image of him seemingly boxed in by two or three opposition players only to use his ample frame and (often overlooked) immense skill to swivel and muscle his way out of trouble.
He was quick too; so many of Arsenal’s famed counter-attacks passed through him, his ability to win possession and quickly release another player was critical to Arsenal’s style of play. Above all, he was Arsenal’s captain and a great leader. Vieira joined Juventus last year for £13.7m and it was with a heavy heart that Arsenal fans let him go.
1. Thierry Henry (1999- )
Three times Football Writer’s Association Footballer of the Year, twice PFA Player’s Player of the Year, twice runner-up in FIFA’s World Player of the Year award and Arsenal’s top goal scorer for every one of the seven seasons he has been at the club.
The curriculum vitae of a world-beater no doubt but, in truth, Thierry Henry arrived at Arsenal in August 1999 a shadow of his current self. His previous club, Juventus, had employed him on the wing, and after only twelve starts, the Old Lady of Italian football offered little resistance when Arsene Wenger came knocking.
£10.5m was the fee in what now seems like a bargain. Arsene Wenger knew Henry better than anybody in football. After all, he had given him his professional debut while manager of Monaco. Wenger saw in the young Frenchman all the qualities needed to succeed as a striker in England’s Premier League: electric pace, fantastic strength and stamina, and a powerful shot.
He appeared a rough diamond in his early days at Highbury; a heavy first-touch, the occasional jitters in front of goal, and a tendency to drift back out onto the wing. It was the latter of these flaws that in time proved to be an advantage and became one of the hallmarks of Henry’s play. Premiership defenders accustomed to shepherding more traditional strikers found themselves bemused by the Frenchman’s movement; one minute he would be dropping deep to collect a pass, the next he would be hovering on the edge of the box, but, more often than not, he would wander out onto the left flank and use his immense pace to run the opposition fullback ragged. Henry is anything but predictable.
For all of Henry’s excellence, two factors have led me to place him at the top of this list. Firstly, after a decade of steady progress, Arsenal’s breakthrough season in the Champions League was built around the Frenchman; by passing the quarterfinal stage for the first time and progressing to the final, his leadership, goals and assists helped move the club into previously uncharted territory.
Most importantly, Henry belongs at the top of the pile not so much for what he has already achieved at Highbury but for what he means to Arsenal’s future. He is the greatest all-round forward in the world today. His mere presence attracts new players while young players already at the club such as Theo Walcott are eager to learn from him.
Now 29, he is entering his peak. Already Arsenal’s all-time top scorer on 214 goals, how many more can fans expect given his desire to end his career in London? How many more trophies? It is a thrilling prospect and one that more of us will be able to witness now that we have moved to Ashburton Grove