Arsenal's Top Gunners: Ranking the Best Midfielders in Club History
In football, attacking and defending is the way to victory. But there is a line that connects those two vital aspects, without which the gradual flow from one to the other would be impossible.
These people in football are called midfielders. They are the footballers that connect the defenders to the attackers, brake up play and are responsible for keeping the ball and distributing it forward.
In modern football, the midfielders are some of the most expensive and important players. Just remember how influential midfielders like Diego Maradona, Michel Platini, Socrates, Roy Keane and Johan Cruyff and were to their teams.
Without them, the game would have never been the same.
There are some people without whom Arsenal would not have been the same.
Let’s see who they are. are the best midfielders to ever play for Arsenal:
No.11: Alan Ball
“I remember thinking that he must have been some player to wear those white boots—and Alan Ball was some player.” said David O’Leary. Indeed, Alan Ball was some player.
When things are going wrong for you in football, buy a World Cup winner.
Despite winning the Double a few months earlier, Arsenal was felt to undergo a change in generations. Alan Ball was brought for a record signing-fee, but it was money well spent.
Ball possessed wonderful technique and perfected passing ability. On top of that, he wore white boots, drawing white blurred lines as he moved on the field.
A leader blessed with skills; soon Alan Ball was made captain.
His influence grew as the other players, most of which young, were looking up to him. Liam Brady was one of those players.
His presence was most intensely felt when at the beginning of the 1974/75 season when he sustained an injury. Results suffered and Arsenal was soon threatened by relegation. Upon Ball’s favorable return, the team gathered speed and averted the relegation.
But it was to be Ball’s last year. In the next season, he left for Southampton, but not before he helped Arsenal stay in the Premier Division for a second time. He played five years at the North London club, started in 217 games and amassed 57 goals.
No.10: Ray Parlour
Some players just don't get the recognition they deserve. Such is the case with Ray Parlour.
He joined the Arsenal ranks in 1989 but it didn't go his way for a number of years. It took him a couple of costly mistakes, the most memorable against Liverpool where he conceded a penalty, before he fully broke into the first team in 1994.
His tenacity and indomitable will to win cemented his position in midfield as he became instrumental for Arsenal's success.
Already consistent and progressing slowly but surely, Parlour's development was boosted significantly by another set of events in his favor—the arrival of Arsene Wenger.
The French manager would encourage a freer expression of his players on the field—something that would add another dimension to an already very good defensively Ray Parlour. Taking the right side of midfield, Parlour battled alongside the towering Patrick Vieira to control the territory.
In fact, they did their job perfectly well, but Vieira's physique, style, and more central role overshadowed the incessant hard-work of his partner in midfield. Ray Parlour certainly deserved more recognition for his contributions on field.
What Vieira could not overshadow was the newly-found taste for spectacular goals that Parlour developed after the ascension of Wenger as manager of Arsenal. Often he would score spectacular long-range drives that threw the thousands of fans embracing each other in the ecstasy of witnessing the beauty of it.
Serving 14 long years for the club, Ray Parlour managed to contribute for four major trophies—three times winner of Premier League, four times of the FA Cup, and once of the League Cup and European Winners Cup.
In total, he managed to play 339 games for Arsenal and despite the failure to come to full recognition for his skills; he will never be forgotten by the Arsenal faithful.
No.9: Brian Talbot
Tireless and tenacious, the Suffolk-born Brian Talbot was instrumental in the 1979 success in the FA Cup although it was his first year at Arsenal. His timely run into the penalty box provided the first goal in a famous 3-2 win over Manchester United that year.
But his influence stretched over the entire time of his tenure in the Gunners’ midfield. He was the backbone of it, staying behind talented, more-offensively-oriented players like Liam Brady and Graham Rix. With his tireless work, he provided the needed cover to ensure the freedom of action in which those players could work their magic.
But it wasn’t only that; he was perfectly capable of making penetrating runs himself which earned him 49 goals in 327 club games.
Talbot possessed such stamina that he set a club record in the 1979/80 season. He took part in a mind-boggling 70 matches, missing only six games for the duration of the entire campaign. He, then, went on to start in almost every game in the next five seasons, becoming an integral part connecting defense and midfield.
In seven years in his prime, until 1986 when he left Arsenal, his most memorable, and only, trophy win was again Manchester United in the FA Cup. He won one major trophy, but his part on Arsenal reaching the finals of the FA Cup and Cup Winners Cup in 1980 was crucial, ensuring he would stay in the memory of the fans as one of the most important players to play for the Gunners.
He was voted 23th in Gunners’ Greatest Players by the fans on the official site of the club.
No.8: David Rocastle
Possessing electrifying pace, poise and sharpness, David Rocastle fit perfectly into the image of the ideal versatile midfield player.
The Lewisham-born Londoner signed his professional contract with the Gunners in 1984 and soon after, began to put a stamp on Arsenal’s style. In his first season, he made 26 appearances and scored a goal.
His reign in the first-team remained uninterrupted during the following two years, his efforts finally capitalizing in a much-deserved reward in 1989 when Arsenal snatched the title under the noses of a stunned Liverpool.
With the tear of the 80s page on the calendar, a tint of inconsistency began to creep into Rocastle's performances. Faced with this small hurdle, Rocastle resolutely fought back to reach top form again. A year later, in 1991, in spite of a niggling knee injury, a short cameo of 18 games was enough to ensure his vital role in Arsenal winning the title yet again.
His last season with Arsenal was stamped with flawless partnership with Andres Limpar and Paul Merson which provided a bottomless sea of goal-scoring opportunities. Then, he was sold to Leeds United to pave the path of short-lived stints with several other teams until the end of his career.
David Rocastle was an iconic midfielder for Arsenal, serving them for eight years in 228 matches.
In 2001, he lost the short battle with non-Hodgkins lymphoma, an aggressive form of cancer which attacks the immune system. He was only 33.
No. 7: Emanuel Petit
Knowing Petit’s abilities from the time when he was the manager of Monaco, Arsene Wenger, following his move to Arsenal, was quick to reunite with his player. At Monaco, the pony-tailed Frenchman was mostly used at the back, but at his new team, the transformation to a more midfield oriented position initiated.
It took some time to work out, and despite some criticism coming his way, Petit found his best position.
His days playing as a defender served him well, having learned impeccable positioning which helped him cover for his team-mates bound on attack. But Petit’s forte was moving along the field from back to front, off and on the ball, controlling the midfield with his bottomless tanks of energy.
He was good enough on his own, but when combined with the younger Patrick Vieira, he was part of a formidable partnership. For three years, while he was at the club, the Vieira-Petit partnership gained the status of one of the best, one that brought headaches to oppositions and glory to Arsenal.
As almost every good player part of an even better team, Emanuel Petit adorned himself with two important medals—the League Championship and the FA cup. Arsenal did the double in 1998 and the Vieira-Petit partnership was a major factor for that to happen.
The Frenchman’s skills received recognition on international level too. Most notably, he performed at his very best in the 1998 World Cup, snatching two assists and a goal in the final’s 3-0 demolition over Brazil.
Having spent only three years at Arsenal, from 1997 to 2000, he still managed to enlighten the Arsenal midfield. His contributions were confirmed by the Arsenal fans, who voted him 22th in the list of Best Arsenal Players.
No.6: Francesc Fabregas
Born in Vilassar De Mar, Catalonia, Cesc Fabregas was introduced since the age of nine-months-old to the colors of the Spanish football giant Barcelona. Influenced by the passions of his family and surrounding environment, he was shaped into a supporter of the Catalonian club.
Nevertheless, his first taste of football came very early in a club of a lower stature—Mataro. Soon after, aged 10, Fabregas' talent was spotted by the omnipotent Barcelona scouts who recommended him to their superiors.
And so, Cesc ended up in the club's famous youth academy. Cesc reaped huge success there, often scoring more than 30 goals a season despite playing as a defensive midfielder.
But it was to draw the attention of the outside world and, in this case, the attention of the Arsenal scouts.
Aged only16, Fabregas signed for the North London club, sensing that he will get a better shot at breaking the ranks of the senior team. And he was right.
He made his debut against Rotherham United in the League Cup, breaking the record for youngest player ever fielded, at the tender age of 16 years and 177 days. In the next season, fate, coupled with Wenger's assurance of the young Spaniard's skills, bestowed Fabregas with a first-team spot when injuries of key players, Patrick Vieira, Gilberto Silva and Edu, cleared the way for him. He made over 34 appearances that season, scoring three goals.
In the summer, the rock of Arsenal, Patrick Vieira, was sold to Juventus, which played a vital role for Fabregas to cement his first-spot. Over the stretch of five seasons, he grew from a young kid with mature football attitude into an irreplaceable player who dictated the tempo of the game.
His cutting passes and intelligence split defenses open in a fashionable style that became symbolic for Arsenal's game. Despite his small frame, which at the beginning brought doubts whether he would be able to fill the void of the tenacious, hard-tackling Patrick Vieira, Fabregas did a stellar job, bringing another dimension with his Guardiola-like style of play.
The young Spaniard's growing importance for Arsenal led Arsene Wenger to offer him a long-term contract extending to 2014, which Fabregas gladly signed.
Nevertheless, critics believed that he was far from being a complete player, and in a way they were right, up until the 2007/08 season. Before that season, Fabregas waved his magic wand in midfield but failed to capitalize on the scoring opportunities that had befallen him.
The process of transformation was transparent and soon he started scoring goals from long-range efforts. In total, he finished the season with 13 goals—a hugely impressive number when coupled with the number of assists he managed to produce. Despite another disappointing trophy-less season for Arsenal, Fabregas was set apart from all the others, amassing a small fortune of awards: PFA Young Player of the Year, Player of the Month for August, September and October, and was named in the PFA Team of the Year.
His football brilliance aside, Cesc had something else to help his team with. In 2008, he was granted the captain armband which he still holds, faithfully continuing to serve the club.
By then, even the blind could see the young boy from Catalonia has turned into a real gem of a footballer. Speculations started raining in the summer with the two main contenders in Spain—Real Madrid and Barcelona—in the front seats.
Cesc refused the veracity of the rumors and re-affirmed his desire to win silverware with his team. He stayed for the new season—2010/11.
Seven years after his signing, Cesc Fabregas has become a man that the team revolves around. Without a doubt in anyone's mind, he is the type of player that has the air of legend around him. Only time stands in the way of this sure path.
No.5: Freddy Ljungberg
An impressive 72 goals in 328 matches make Freddie Ljungberg stand out among the rest of the players who occupy the midfield position.
He beeped on the Arsene Wenger radar as he tore the English international side to ribbons in the European Championship qualifier in 2000. Le Professor didn’t waste any time and bought him from his club BK Halmstad.
The Swede was quick to make an impression when he scored in his debut game against Manchester United, sending fans into rapture. Unfortunately for him, he had to endure time away from the field as he was tormented by abdominal and ankle injuries.
As soon as he returned, his wonderful skills resurfaced.
His preferred position behind the strikers was perfect for him due to his versatility.
Binding on a deeper level with team-mates Dennis Bergkamp and Robert Pires, Ljungberg was able to dig up many scoring chances as he was gifted for timing his runs.
Pace and versatility made Ljungberg very difficult to mark, a thorn in the foot for oppositional sides. This was especially true for his performances in the FA Cup. The competition was special for Freddy.
By scoring against Liverpool in the FA Cup final of 2001 which Arsenal lost 2-1, and against Chelsea in the 2-0 victory in the next year, the Swede became only the third player to score in two consecutive FA Cup finals.
He was not content though. He went on to score in the semifinal of the next version of the competition.
Despite this, Ljungberg had eyes for other competitions too.
A memorable finish capping a great technical display by Dennis Bergkamp against Juventus in the Champions League comes to mind. He went on to help a 10-man Arsenal squash Liverpool at the mystic Anfield, and to defeat a dangerous Manchester United side at Highbury.
In 2002, Freddie was top of the crop as he netted 17 times before he moved into the position of on-fire Robert Pires who had sustained a serious knee injury. He did his job in a way that Pires absence was never felt. Five more goals followed as Arsenal snatched 15 points in five games.
The great form secured him the prestigious accolade Barclaycard Player of the Season.
By then Ljungberg had secured a fan favorite status and a place in the all-time greats of the club. But it was to be his highest point. From then on, niggling injuries became tormenting him and seeing less and less playing time, he moved to West Ham in 2007.
Emotional was the afternoon of 2008 New Year’s Day as Freddie made a return to the Emirates with West Ham. He once again sustained an injury and as he was carried out, the fans gave him a standing ovation symbolizing the love and respect for a player who gave his best for Arsenal.
No.4: Alex James
A pivotal figure in the domination of the Arsenal side in the 1930s, Alex James was branded the Dennis Bergkamp of his age. The comparison is understood due to the fact that he possessed the vision and passing second to none.
James won four league titles and two FA cups for seven years at Arsenal and his assists were crucial for that to happen.
Alex James joined Arsenal in 1929 to join the revolution of Herbert Chapman. In his first year, he was burdened by injuries, his form suffering as a result. He nevertheless fought back to fitness in time for the FA Cup final in 1930. With a goal of his, the Gunners triumphed over Huddersfield Town, 2-0—their first major trophy win.
The forward line, comprised of deadly Ted Drake, David Jack and Cliff Bastin, fed by the assist-producing monster Alex James was irresistible for the other teams and Arsenal were clear title-winners at the end of 1931—once again their first Premier Division title. Just to emphasize how important Alex James was, in the next season, injuries kept him out for most of the time and, in result, Arsenal finished second, despite packed with tons of venom in attack.
The he came back. The result was phenomenal: Total domination of Arsenal in England for the next three years. They cruised to three titles in 1933, 1934 and 1935. In 1933, Arsenal broke a record by scoring the phenomenal 118 goals, most of which came from James’ passes, and two years later, he was largely responsible for Ted Drakes’ 42 goals.
In his final year, which was marred by injuries, the Scotsman wizardry summoned another title – the FA Cup victory over Sheffield United.
The career of Alex James, of which even the great Dennis Bergkamp would have been envious, closed gates with feelings of gratefulness for his services and regret that such a wonderful player is leaving football.
Alex James remains exemplary of the perfect midfielder.
No.3: Robert Pires
Robert Pires was bought from Marseille for six million as a replacement for Marc Overmars who had gone for sunnier pastures—to Barcelona. His first season in the Premier Division had its hurdles as he still groped the unknown ground.
As a reason for his slow start, Pires commented that it was the physical style of the English game that held him back. The comment only brought him criticism from football pundits. Nevertheless, gradually, Pires found a way to improve his form and scored some important goals—the first one after a great solo effort against Lazio in the Champions League and the second one against Tottenham in the FA Cup semi-final.
In the next season, Pires’s form continued to surge and eventually reached the mountain peak. It was one of the best seasons in his career.
He wreaked havoc in oppositional defenses and scored vital goals. In one of those matches, against Aston Villa, his sublime effort would remain one of Arsenal’s best goals ever. He picked up a long-ball from Freddy Ljungberg, lobbed it over George Boateng’s head and coolly chipped it over Peter Schmeichel.
The precision, composure and skill, with which it was done, spoke of extraordinary football brilliance.
All doubt was dispersed as Robert Pires, despite prematurely finishing the season due to a cruciate ligament injury, picked up a vote for FWA Footballer of the Year and was awarded Arsenal’s Player of the Season.
In the next season, he took his time returning to form after a lengthy absence from the field, but finished with 14 goals in 20 starts.
A year gone and Arsenal wouldn’t have been knighted “Invincibles”, finishing the season undefeated, something that hadn’t been done in 115 years of English football history, if it wasn’t for Pires.
He played a vital role in this stellar team of magic, finishing the season as the second top goal scorer with 14 goals, headed only by Thierry Henry, and shared his glory with Dennis Bergkamp for most assists.
Two years more of Pires magic ensured another FA Cup and a Champions League final against Barcelona—the turning point of his career.
Twelve minutes deep into the final, Jens Lehmann recklessly rushed out to bring down the oncoming Barcelona striker. The red card was imminent. Then, Pires was substituted to make way for substitute goalkeeper Manuel Almunia.
Pires was disappointed by Wenger’s decision and later shared: "I was very disappointed. When I saw my number on the fourth official’s board to be substituted, I couldn't believe it. It was my last game after six years at the club, a Champions League Final in front of all my family in Paris where I became World Cup champion and it lasted just 12 minutes. That was very hard to take".
In 2006, with a heavy heart, Pires left for Villarreal, saddening the Arsenal fans to part with their favorite. But they knew:
He gave them the joy of tasting a considerable amount of trophies.
They were blessed to have one of the best playing for their favorite club.
No. 2: Liam Brady
The “Chippy”, as he was called, Liam Brady was a man who made things click in the 1970s Arsenal squad. He was the type of player who, on the field, would stand out with his skills and football intellect—in the mould of those types of players that would unburden the minds of their team-mates with their ability.
In fact, something like what Cesc Fabregas is now for Arsenal. But there is a small difference. Cesc is not quite there yet.
Having been in the team’s youth ranks for three years, at the age of only 17, Brady signed his first professional contract with Arsenal. The manager in that time, Bertie Mee, hurried to involve the talent of that magnitude into the ever-so fierce battle of the Premier Division. Brady made a debut in October against Birmingham City.
Those first three years as a professional footballer were valuable experience for the Irish teenager. He was graced by the presence of the World Cup winner Alan Ball, from whom he went on to squeeze know-how juices for three years until Ball moved to Southampton.
After the departure of the master though, the disciple was up and ready for the midfield-maestro position. And was he able? A question out of the question.
Under his direction from midfield, Arsenal was able to reach three successive FA Cups from 1978 to 1980 and a European Winners cup final. His technique, ball control, vision, balance, strength, and ability to dribble past opponents almost at will favored his team every time he played.
His best season though culminated into the destruction of Manchester United in the 1979 FA Cup final.
First, he fed Brian Talbot and Frank Stapleton for a two-goal lead in the first half, and then after United equalized late in the game, Brady pre-assisted for the third and winning goal for Arsenal.
One year later, he announced his intention to leave at the end of the 1979/80 season. And it happened when he moved to Juventus, but not before he helped the Gunners win another FA Cup. Even that penalty miss against Valencia in the European Winners Cup final could not damage his reputation as a fan favorite.
Liam Brady spent seven fruitful years at Arsenal, and not long after his departure, he returned to the club to assume the position of Head of Youth Department—a position which he still holds today, conveying the learnt to young minds.
Ironically, and yet revealing of Brady’s love for the club, a man from the past is in charge for the future.
No.1: Patrick Vieira
In 1996, two unknown men came from France to rock the foundations of Arsenal forever.
The first one was Arsene Wenger, and second was no other than a young man by the name Patrick Vieira.
Immediately, the lanky footballer born in Senegal became an inseparable part of the reformed team. This was due to the fact that Vieira needed a lot less time to adapt to the physical style of the English game. In fact, in time, he came to be recognized as one of the leading figures of the physical aspect of the game.
Having adapted, Patrick found it as easily to express himself as sleeping.
The way he was not intimidated by physical contact, he kept the ball in his possession to distribute an pin-point pass afterwards, his thunderous shots and composure in front of goal made him a real gem for those who played alongside him.
Only two years after his arrival, two medals were already hanging on Vieira’s neck—the FA Cup and the Premier Division title. And they were well deserved.
In 2002, the great Tony Adams decided to put his shoes on the hanger, putting an end to a long and illustrious career, and there was no better choice to replace him as captain than Patrick Vieira. The trust put in him was repaid fully as he inspired his team to conquer on two fronts again—their second double in four years.
By then, the rumors that Vieira would leave the club for greener pastures had started flying around. But he stayed for another three years, his influence never ceasing to grow, helping the team win one more league title and FA Cup.
A historic clash in the FA Cup final against would be one of his last games for Arsenal. The match dramatically won by penalty shoot-out, it was Vieira’s decisive penalty shot that left team-mates and Arsenal supporters jumping in joy.
Six major trophies illustrate only a small part of one of the greatest ever players dressed in Arsenal colors. Patrick’s influence was omnipotent. His mentality was one of a winner.
Who could forget his clashes with Roy Keane? The personal rivalry exemplified his ambition to be the best and not get intimidated by anyone on his quest for glory.
After his departure for Juventus at the end of 2005, a huge hole was left gaping in the team—a hole that can only be filled by the right stuff.
Nevertheless, Patrick left on a good note and undoubtedly he will one day return.
Billy Blyth, 1914-29: Club captain for four years. Played 314 games and scored 45 goals for Arsenal.
David Jack, 1928-34: Midfielder converted into forward in his later career. Played 181 matches and scored the amazing 113 goals.
Bob John, 1922-37: Left-half with over 420 matches.
George Graham, 1966-72: Integral part of the Arsenal side of the late 60s and early 70s. Later, successful manager of Arsenal. Played 227 games and scored 60 goals.
Michael Thomas, 1984-1991: Played 206 games for Arsenal and scored 30 goals. Scored the second goal in the famous 2-1 win over Liverpool in 1989.
Gilberto Silva, 2002-2008: Nicknamed "The invisible wall". Played 170 matches for Arsenal.