Arsenal seem to have made something of a habit of cashing in on their star players each summer. As well as this year's departures of Robin van Persie and Alex Song, the likes of Cesc Fabregas, Samir Nasri, Gael Clichy and Emmanuel Adebayor have all made way within the last three seasons.
It is something that manager Arsene Wenger has at times been criticised for.
But despite this, the Frenchman has always had the uncanny knack of unearthing some realm gems for the club—the likes of which have gone on to establish themselves as some of the greatest players to ever pull on the esteemed Arsenal shirt.
In a digression from the current talk surrounding those leaving the club, this article ranks the best signings that Wenger has sanctioned during his 16-year reign at the North London side.
Note: the success of the transfers has been judged in terms of the length of the player’s stay at Arsenal, the success of their performances, the number of trophies won and also profitability. This is reflected in the order of the list.
Previous Club: Ajax
Transfer Fee: £5,500,000
One of the earliest signings of Wenger’s tenure, the speedy Dutch winger was an instant hit, winning a domestic League and Cup double in his very first year.
However two trophy-less seasons followed, and Overmars moved to Barcelona in a £25,000,000 deal—at the time making him the most expensive Dutch player ever. Three years previously, the deal represented a near fivefold profit for the club, thus demonstrating Wenger’s astuteness in signing the 24-year-old.
In the 1998 double-winning season, his highlights at Arsenal included scoring the opener in the FA Cup final and finishing his successful debut season with an impressive tally of 12 Premier League goals.
Had he stayed with the club longer, he would no doubt have finished higher on this list.
Previous Club: Marseille
Transfer Fee: £6,000,000
As a direct replacement (signed with the money from Overmars’ exit), Pires went on to match and eventually surpass his predecessor’s achievements at the club.
During his time at Arsenal, he amassed 84 goals and countless more assists, winning a domestic double in 2002 and helping the Gunners to a famously unbeaten season—resulting in the 2004 title.
He was even named FWA Player of the Year in 2002 despite missing the end of the season with a cruciate ligament injury. Other highlights include scoring the winner in the 2003 FA Cup final and managing 14 league goals in three successive seasons between 2002 and 2005; a remarkable achievement for a midfielder.
Though he left on a free transfer, it's his accomplishments alone that make Pires a great signing on Wenger's part, and perhaps one of the best Arsenal players in recent history.
Previous Club: Halmstads
Transfer Fee: £3,000,000
A real favorite with the fans, Ljungberg was perhaps best remembered for the trademark red stripe in his hair as well as his exceptional footballing achievements with the club.
He emulated the success of Pires with the 2002 Double win and the 2004 unbeaten title-winning season. He also scored in the FA Cup final, sealing a 2-0 win against rivals Chelsea in 2002 with a beautiful curling effort. That campaign yielded his best return in an Arsenal shirt, with 12 League goals in just 25 games.
Though he left for West Ham on a free transfer in 2007, Ljungberg remains fondly remembered by the Arsenal faithful. He ranks above Pires as he was signed for half the price and spent three more years at the club in total.
Previous Club: Borussia Dortmund
Transfer Fee: £0
The first free transfer on this list, Lehmann arrived with the daunting task of filling the void left by legendary goalkeeper David Seaman.
And he got off to the perfect start, playing every game of Arsenal’s unbeaten campaign on the way to winning the league at the first time of asking. The following season brought an FA Cup triumph, though it was 2006 that saw arguably his greatest accomplishment.
The German stopper went 10 successive Champions’ League games without conceding a goal, a record that still stands to this day. He was then sent off in the final though, and his replacement, Manuel Almunia, conceded two second half goals as Arsenal lost 2-1 to Barcelona.
Had Lehmann remained on the pitch it could have been a different story, though his achievements are nonetheless worthy of securing a place on this list, especially as he was signed for nothing at all.
Previous Club: PSG
Transfer Fee: £500,000
Anelka broke into the first team aged 18, before crucially weighing in with 17 League goals the following year in Arsenal’s 1998 Double success. He also scored in that season’s FA Cup final after Overmars’ opener, and it seemed the young Frenchman was destined for big things.
But his notoriously sulky attitude did not sit well with the fans, and in 1999 he signed for Real Madrid for a fee of £22,000,000. The transfer marked one of the greatest financial gains made by Wenger, and it facilitated the signing of a certain other young French striker as his replacement—more on that later.
Despite his brief spell at Highbury, his achievements and the colossal profit that the club made on him are what justify his position on this list.
Previous Club: ASEC Mimosas
Transfer Fee: £150,000
Having begun his Arsenal days as a utility player, it wasn’t until his switch to central defence that his career really took off. He featured prominently in the 2004 title win, and was pivotal in helping Lehmann keep his 10 consecutive clean sheets during the club’s 2006 Champions' League run.
By 2009 though, after a rumoured dispute with William Gallas, Toure succumbed to the riches of Manchester City, signing for around £16,000,000. Thus, in terms of a percentage increase, Toure's remains the most profitable deal ever sanctioned by Wenger.
After the retirement of stalwart defenders such as the great Tony Adams, it was Toure who accepted the passing of the torch and gave Arsenal some much needed solidity in an area that has widely been regarded as the side’s Achilles Heel in recent years.
Previous Club: Tottenham Hotspur
Transfer Fee: £0
After his controversial move, Campbell wasted no time in winning over the Arsenal faithful. His debut season saw Arsenal win the Double, and further success arrived in the form of the 2004 Premier League title, as well as 2003 and 2005 FA Cup winner’s medals.
He remains the only Arsenal player to score in the UEFA Champions League Final, though his opening goal of the 2006 affair turned out to be in vain, as the Gunners went on to lose.
Nonetheless he proved to be a key figure for the club, steadying the ship and overseeing the potentially hazardous transitional period between Adams’ retirement and Toure’s emergence.
Though he left on a free transfer, having arrived in the same way, Campbell represents a tidy piece of business from Wenger.
Previous Club: Milan
Transfer Fee: £3,500,000
The fact that even today, people talk about Arsenal looking to fill “the Vieira role” is testament to how important the Frenchman was to the team. Though the transfer was technically completed before Wenger’s arrival, Vieira’s signing was a prerequisite to the incoming manager’s acceptance of the job.
If it hadn’t been for Wenger, Vieira would never have been an Arsenal player.
The midfielder went to achieve considerable success at the club, as he won the Double in 1998 and 2002, and was the captain during the “untouchables” campaign of 2004. His toughness and commitment earned him the adulation of the fans, before completing a £13,700,000 move to Italian side Juventus.
With a total of 11 trophies and over £10,000,000 of profit, Vieira earns third place in this list.
Previous Club: Barcelona
Transfer Fee: £2,250,000
In his very first game, Fabregas became Arsenal’s youngest ever player. In his second, he became their youngest ever scorer.
It was a sign of things to come.
Though he only won one FA Cup medal, he became the driving force behind the side, with 2009-10 proving to be his most fruitful season. In what was his first full term as captain, the midfield maestro managed 15 goals and 15 assists in 27 Premier League games.
Understandably, he returned to hometown club Barcelona in 2011 for a whopping £35,000,000, but showed enough quality and passion during his 8 year stint to earn himself a place in the fans’ hearts.
Of course, the Spaniard has not ruled out a possible return to the club, and could return one day to add one final chapter to his Arsenal story.
Previous Club: Juventus
Transfer Fee: £11,000,000
Though he may not have yielded the supernormal profits of others, Henry earns top spot in this list for his achievements alone.
The 2002 Double, the 2004 unbeaten season, a 2006 Champions League runners up medal, and of course his club-record 228 goals; such a resume well and truly cements his place in Arsenal history. His sensational return last season to score the winning goal against Leeds United in the FA Cup only confirmed his heroic status at the club.
Wenger himself must be commended for making the decision to move Henry from the wing to the more central striking role where he flourished so spectacularly.
The greatest signing Wenger has ever made, and perhaps the greatest he ever will.
But what about the rest?
Emmanuel Petit was a difficult name to miss out, but due to the greater profit Wenger made on Overmars, the Dutchman just pipped his former team mate to the final place on this list.
More recent players such as Robin van Persie, Gael Clichy or Bacary Sagna were not featured as they did not win enough silverware during their respective spells at the club. Alex Song also falls into this category.
Others like Aliaksandr Hleb and Jose Antonio Reyes were omitted simply because they did not perform to the same standard of others. Both were capable of very special moments, but I feel that they didn't do enough on a regular basis to earn a place on the list. Similar reasons apply to Sylvain Wiltord and Gilberto Silva.
And finally, members of the current squad were not considered as their profitablity can obviously not yet be measured.
As ever, remember to comment below with your thoughts, and be sure to let me know if you feel I've left anybody out.