If Arsenal were a clock, Cesc Fabregas would be the ticking second hand, reliably keeping everything moving, dictating at all times. His performance against Bolton on Saturday was extraordinary, setting up three of Arsenal’s four goals, and he could have added more to his assists tally has Andrei Arshavin had his shooting boots on. Signed at 16 by Wenger, and nurtured into one of the Premiership’s best, fans new to Arsenal might presume he is the boss’s best ever signing – but they would be wrong. And so I have done my best to create a list of Arsene Wenger’s 10 best signings for Arsenal.
When ranking these players, I’ve taken into account the following:
How much they were bought for
How much they were sold for
Their impact at Arsenal
And how unheard of they were before signing for Arsenal
Despite having a system to work with, it was still very difficult to place them in order. So if you have any comments or feedback (positive or negative), let me know what you think, and maybe I can adjust the order.
Let me start with the honourable mentions. I could name at least twenty players here, such is the expertise that Wenger has displayed in his career at Arsenal, but I’ve narrowed it down to five:
This leggy Nigerian was bought in to Arsenal in 1999 from Inter Milan, after a disappointing spell in Italy. While he was never prolific at Arsenal, because of his build, his attitude, and his ball-on-a-string control, he developed a cult following. “KANUUUU” could often be heard cascading from the terraces of Highbury. He will forever be remembered for his hat trick against Chelsea, which turned a 2-0 loss into a 3-2 lead. The final goal, from an almost impossible angle, is one that if you haven’t seen it, I encourage you to. His time at Arsenal also paved the way for other West Africans to join the club, most obviously Emmanuel Adebayor, who Arsenal were able to make a huge profit from.
Signed from Bastia in 2006 for £1 million, Alex Song is very stereotypical of an Arsene Wenger signing. While he has taken a few years to become accustomed to the speed and strength of the Premiership, he is now a crucial cog in the Arsenal midfield. He has the presence of mind to be able to drop back and help in defence, and he shows maturity beyond his years.
Before Alex Song, the dominant force in defensive midfield was Gilberto Silva. He became the captain of the Brazilian national team while played at Arsenal, for his “invisible wall” style of play, modelled on Claude Makelele but with a far stronger attacking potency that you can only expect from a Brazilian. But what endeared him to the fans was his lack of Latino fiery spirit. Instead he played with a calm, almost Zen-like approach. With Gilberto in midfield, Arsenal became the Invincibles. He left Arsenal in 2008 to join Panathanaikos, I was personally very sad to see him go.
Robin Van Persie
So far, it would be fair to say that “RVP” has not reached his potential, because of repeated injuries. But when he is fully fit, there are not many strikers with the dangerous capacity that Van Persie has. He can shoot from distance, or in a one-on-one situation, he has quick feet, is intelligent and is quick. He may not be the next Dennis Bergkamp, but if Shunsuke Nakamura’s left foot can open a tin of beans, Van Persie’s can make breakfast. If he avoids any more injuries this season, he will score 20 goals. And all for £2.75 million.
While the pressure of emulating the success that Bergkamp had at Arsenal might keep Van Persie awake at night, following in the foot steps of one of the world’s best left backs was made to look easy by Gael Clichy. Wenger signed him as a teenager, playing in the lower divisions of French football, and confidently traded away the ever popular Ashley Cole, knowing he had a ready made replacement waiting in the wings. If it weren’t for the form of Patrice Evra, Clichy would be France’s number one left back – not that Arsenal fans mind.
As they both left at the same time, to join the same club, they shall go together in this list.
Kolo Toure is perhaps not the most popular player in North London now, there was a time when the Arsenal number five was called King Kolo. He joined the club for £150,000 from ASEC Mimosas, was converted from an attacking midfielder to a right back, to a centre back, and eventually became a dominant, responsible defensive player. After disputes with William Gallas, he eventually left the club to join Manchester City for £14 million, meaning Wenger sold him on for 93 times what he paid, in just seven years.
Adebayor has burned all bridges he had with the Arsenal fans after his antics last season. But while he was at the Emirates, he scored 62 goals, and had a particuarly impressive 2007-2008 season. Unfortunately, his head was turned and his attitude worsened, and it was a relief to most Arsenal fans when he joined Manchester City. Wenger and Arsenal made a cool £22 million profit.
Wenger, knowing Petit from his days in Monaco, added the long haired Frenchman to his team in 1997. He converted the player from a defender into a midfielder, and partnered him with Patrick Vieira. The two of them were the perfect couple, winning a double for Arsenal and the World Cup in 1998 for France – Petit scored in the final, prompting the Daily Mirror to run a special print in North London announcing on the front page that Arsenal had won the World Cup. He moved onto Barcelona in 1999 as part of the Overmars trade, and like many other ex-Arsenal players, found life outside Highbury to be a little tougher.
Pires is a player that became a phenomenon at Arsenal, under the tutelage of Wenger. Snapped up for £6 million from Marseille, Pires was brought in to replace Marc Overmars. But “Bobby” became a better player than even Wenger would have anticipated. His touch, eye for goal, team play, and imagination turned the winger into one of the best midfielders in the Premiership. Scoring 14 goals in three Premiership seasons is something not many midfielders will accomplish, and his input in the trophies won at Arsenal can not be underestimated. Unfortunately, as he aged, he and Wenger could not agree on a contract and he moved to Villarreal, where he winded down his career.
Signed from Arsenal’s fiercest rivals in 2001, Arsenal fans joked that his route was the quickest way to get into Europe. But in reality, this signing was crude and intelligent from Wenger. Not only did he weaken Tottenham, he signed one of Europe’s best defenders, one that was used to the rigours of the Premier League, for nothing. Campbell won seven trophies at Arsenal, before leaving in 2006. He came back last season, and his presence in defence helped Arsenal maintain their automatic qualification to the Champions League.
Midfielder and sometime underwear model, Freddie Ljungberg and his bright red hair lit up the stands of the Emirates. Ljungberg had an engine that Ji-Sung Park would be jealous of, pace to burn, a one in five scoring rate, and a mutual understanding with Dennis Bergkamp and Robert Pires. But most potently about Freddie, was his ability to get the crowd behind him. Signed for just £3 million, he endeared himself immediately by scoring on his debut against Manchester United, flicking the ball over a hapless Peter Schmeichel. Nine years later, Arsenal fans were sad to see a mature, but slower Ljungberg leave the club. There will never be another like him.
Signed for £5.5 million in 1997, Marc Overmars was brought in to accompany fellow Dutchman Dennis Bergkamp at Arsenal. His pace on either wing helped to inspire Arsenal to the double in 1998. Wenger made nearly £20 million profit when he sold Overmars to Barcelona in 2000. Knowing the best of his career was behind him, it was a master stroke by the cunning French man.
Only number four you say?! Let me explain why he is not higher. Despite having one of the most complete footballers skill sets Arsenal have been able to boast since Liam Brady, costing Arsenal a pittance, and being coveted all around Europe for fees in excess of £30 million… the only notable trophy that Fabregas has won with Arsenal is the FA Cup, and that was when he was 18, and his influence over the team wasn’t as great as it is now. If we do sell him next season, or if he is able to captain Arsenal to some glory, then he will deserve to be moved up the list.
“Le Sulk” came to Arsenal in 1997, as a precocious, but talented young striker. Wenger paid £500,000 for the privilege. Two and a half years, a double, and 27 goals later, he was shipped off to Real Madrid for a whopping £22.3 million. His career has been a chorus of highs and lows since then, until he eventually settled in Chelsea, but with the money acquired from the Anelka transfer, Wenger was not only able to build the training facilities that he wanted, but he was also able to buy another Frenchman, unhappily plying his trade in Juventus – and we all know what happened there.
Plucked out of the AC Milan reserves, Patrick Vieira became – along with Roy Keane – one of the most dominant central midfield players the Premiership has ever seen. He had the stature, the determination, the intelligence and the hunger to take Arsenal onto a plateau they had not seen before. Becoming the captain after Tony Adams, Vieira won three league titles and four FA cups. He was eventually sold for a great profit to Juventus, just as he began to feel the strain of old age. Vieira, who could so easily have spent his career in the wastelands of Italian football, must still be thankful to Wenger for seeing the potential in him that no one else did.
This was an obvious choice, and one that the first chapter of Wenger’s legacy will write extensively about. The two worked together in Monaco, and after going separate ways, Wenger bought Henry – who was playing on the wing for Juventus – to Highbury in 1999 for £10.5 million. Nobody could have guessed the player that Henry would become. Encouraged to hone his trade as a striker, Henry eventually broke the club record for goals scored. He left the club with 226 goals in 369 games, and indicative of his style of play, 92 assists. Henry was not a regular striker – he could strip defenders for pace and happily put it on a plate for his strike partner. He could just as easily strike the ball with so much venom it was safer for the goalkeeper not to save it. He was the complete striker, even his heading was better than most give him credit for.
It was a sad day when Henry left for Barcelona in 2007. Arsenal made a profit, of course, but the warning signs were there. He had just had the worst season of his Arsenal career, his ego also intimidating the younger players. At Barcelona he never found the form that made him so exciting at Arsenal, and now finds himself exciting New York fans in the MLS. It’s almost certain he will always be Wenger’s greatest ever signing.