I did not ever imagine that there would be any cause for an Arsenal fan to express gratitude to the esteemed institutions that are Barcelona, Manchester City and Chelsea FC. But had it not been for these superbly run establishments that call themselves football clubs, this article would not have seen the light of day.
Up to three or four years ago, there were primarily two types of former Arsenal players of the Arsene Wenger era that were “still playing”: (a) those who were released when they were young, because the manager didn’t rate them highly enough; or (b) those who had passed their prime, and were on their way out of the game.
But thanks to the aforementioned institutions, and a similarly classy genre of individuals better known as player agents, we now have what could almost be termed an embarrassment of riches, or the embarrassment that the rich are—or something like that.
I’ve put together a first XI and a subs bench too. My criteria for selection were that the player should have played for some Arsenal team (first team, reserves, youth) at some point in time, should not be on the club’s books today (ruling out the Bendtners, Denilsons, etc.) and should be on the books of some other club at the time of writing, thereby disqualifying veteran free agents like Sol Campbell and Robert Pires, who have not yet officially retired but are both unemployed. They would have otherwise been shoo-ins into my team.
I guess I’d better apologize in advance, because some of the names are not going to be the most appealing, but I’ve tried to judge this on merit. Or else we might have seen names like Amaury Bischoff and Efstathios Tavlaridis in the slides ahead.
Wait a minute, are they even still playing??
Arsenal career: 1997-2002, 64 appearances
Now plays for: Juventus (Italy)
Not surprisingly, this was one of the only positions where there was a dearth of available talent. With Jens Lehmann now retired and Manuel Almunia not being able to engineer a permanent transfer for himself, this was the best I could come up with.
Manninger was a decent keeper, and a long-term understudy to “Safe Hands” David Seaman. The big pitfall of being a backup to a legendary player in this position is that you don’t get much playing time, and when you do, you are under the spotlight, with every mistake being magnified and crucified by the press—and compared to the legendary incumbent, which is essentially a hiding to nothing.
A testament to his talent is the fact that in Arsenal’s double-winning season of 1997-98, the Austrian was given a league winner’s medal by the Premier League even though he did not make the minimum number of required appearances.
This was due to his sterling performances in the few games that he did play, which included a six-game run of clean sheets in the league (a club record), culminating in the historic 1-0 win at Old Trafford. This even won him a Premier League Player of the Month award.
Sadly for him, though, he was never good enough to challenge Big Dave on a consistent basis and he was eventually sold to Spanish club Espanyol.
I’ve watched a few of his recent performances for Juventus, where again he is the understudy to a club legend (Gianluigi Buffon). While he has put in the odd heroic performance for the “Old Lady," there have been a number of glaring bloopers.
Still, due to a lack of worthy competitors, Alex Manninger is my first-choice goalkeeper.
Arsenal career: 2004-2011, 214 appearances
Now plays for: Galatasaray (Turkey)
Emmanuel Eboue must be one of the most frustrating players I have ever seen playing for Arsenal. When he burst onto the scene in 2005-06 as a replacement for the injured right-back, Lauren, he was like a breath of fresh air. He was a part of the back five that claimed six back-to-back Champions League clean sheets against Real Madrid, Juventus and Villarreal, and started the final against Barcelona in Paris.
He was first choice the next season as well, but Wenger justifiably opted for more solidity the following season and signed Bacary Sagna. Eboue was moved into midfield, and was also Sagna’s backup. However, this proved to be the Ivorian’s undoing as he lost his identity as a footballer.
His more prominent role at the club was that of court jester, and I have personally seen him display nearly as much energy and passion while posing with junior Gunners and Emirates Airlines cabin crews as he did on the pitch.
His nadir as an Arsenal player undoubtedly came at the Emirates in December 2008, where, having come on as a substitute, he himself got substituted after a shocker of a performance, when he couldn’t put a foot right. He left the ground shattered, almost in tears.
Eboue did stage a brief recovery in the following seasons, but could never supplant the excellent Sagna as first-choice right-back. He now plays his football at Galatasaray in Turkey, where he has recently been embroiled in a racist row with Besiktas fans.
Emmanuel Eboue—we miss you at the club, but not on the pitch. A classic case of wasted talent.
Left side story
Arsenal career: 1998-2006, 228 appearances
Now plays for: Chelsea (England)
When I think of Arsenal magic, I think of the axis of Ashley Cole, Robert Pires and Thierry Henry destroying rival defenses down Arsenal’s left between 2001 and 2005. Those were heady days if you were an Arsenal fan, days when we had the best attack and the best defense in England—days when you could say with a fair degree of confidence that Arsenal were among the top two or three club teams in world football.
And like it or not, Ashley Cole was very much a part of that indestructible force.
Arsene Wenger took the plunge early with Cole, fearlessly drafting him into the first team as a 20-year old when there were issues with Sylvinho’s work permit. Cole justified his manager’s faith in him, and in a matter of two years, became one of the world’s best left backs.
Unfortunately, he also became one of the world’s biggest idiots, turning his back on Arsenal at the end of the 2005-06 season because he wanted £5,000 more per week than what the club were offering. Reports of his clandestine meetings with Chelsea CEO Peter Kenyon were all over the back pages for the longest time, and he kick-started an extended period of bad blood between Arsenal and Chelsea.
Fans across England never truly recognized his talent, which was undoubted, preferring to focus on a variety of indiscretions. The final straw for the public was his repeated mistreatment of now ex-wife Cheryl Cole, an episode that will ensure continued booing till the end of his career.
It is sad that Ashley Cole will be remembered for all the wrong reasons, when he could quite easily have been remembered as an Arsenal and England legend (93 caps—all starts—and counting).
Arsenal career: 2006-2010, 140 appearances
Now plays for: Tottenham Hotspur (England)
When Arsenal and Chelsea swapped Ashley Cole and William Gallas in the summer of 2006, I, for a while, thought we had done a great deal. Gael Clichy was the natural successor to Cole, and in Gallas, I believed we had brought in the league’s most outstanding and versatile defender.
What I hadn’t accounted for was that we had also acquired the league’s biggest moaner and nut job. And the longer he stayed at Arsenal, the more I believed the crazy rumor that he had threatened to score own goals were Chelsea to not sell him!
I could also not reconcile myself to the fact that Arsene Wenger had handed Gallas the treasured No. 10 jersey, then recently vacated by the Dutch legend, Dennis Bergkamp. And the longer he stayed at Arsenal, the more I wished he would go.
In fairness, Gallas was a good defender, even at Arsenal, and although he slowed down over the years, his tactical and positional awareness more than made up for his lack of pace. He was more than useful at the opposite end of the pitch as well, scoring a most respectable 16 goals during his time at the Emirates.
Gallas’s fortunes at Arsenal took a turn for the worse during the “Eduardo” game at Birmingham in February 2008, when his sulk and spat with the crowd first called his captaincy into question. He then gave a shocking interview in November that year, where he revealed fighting within the squad and criticized some of Arsenal’s junior players. This caused him to lose the captaincy permanently.
Gallas then proceeded to endear himself to Arsenal fans even further by joining arch rivals Tottenham. His early performances won him rave reviews and the captain’s armband from Harry Redknapp, but then he gradually settled into a role on the bench, where he continues to dwell till this very day.
Arsenal career: 2002-2009, 326 appearances
Now plays for: Manchester City (England)
Kolo Toure was a fan favourite when he started at Arsenal. Mainly used as a substitute, he was like the Energizer Bunny. All energy, nonstop action. He was initially used as a versatile midfielder, but then, in a moment of Wenger-esque magic, he was shifted to the center of defense at the start of the 2003-04 season.
What followed was six seasons of silent endeavour and consistent excellence. Toure generally shied away from the public eye, preferring to spend his time away from football with his family. And on the field, he kept putting in one solid shift after another.
Which makes his sudden downward spiral all the more bewildering. In the last six months of his Arsenal career, he was involved in a very public spat with his central defensive partner William Gallas, which led to Toure demanding a transfer away from the club. While many, myself included, felt that Gallas should have been the one sacrificed, Wenger sold Toure to moneybags Manchester City.
Having been made club captain at City, Toure appeared to settle in well, but then failed a drug test, following which he has never made it back as a regular first-team player.
Flamini and Fabregas: Dream combination
Arsenal career: 2004-2008, 153 appearances
Now plays for: AC Milan (Italy)
Yes, I can see the scowls.
But as I said, I’m picking this team on merit. And if you’re perfectly honest, you will admit that for a majority of his four years at Arsenal, Mathieu Flamini was worth his weight in gold.
He first rose to prominence in a stint at left-back, that was as unexpected as it was successful. And when he finally supplanted Gilberto Silva in central midfield (Arsenal played 4-4-2 in those days), he formed a nexus with Cesc Fabregas that I thought would stand the test of time.
Sadly that was not to be, and the proverbial leopard did not change his spots.
Having joined Arsenal from Marseille in an act of “beautiful treason," he left the Gunners in the same way, allowing his contract to run down and opting for the greater riches of AC Milan.
Sadly for him, his career has floundered at Milan, and he has been a bit-part player for most of his time there. He has also failed to make the cut for the French national team for a number of years, and while few Arsenal fans would wish him well, most wonder what might have been had he and Cesc allowed the budding partnership to truly blossom.
Arsenal career: 2002-2008, 237 appearances
Now plays for: Gremio (Brazil)
Signed by Arsene Wenger as a relative unknown in the aftermath of a successful World Cup-winning campaign in 2002, Gilberto Silva went on to become a fan favorite in his six seasons at Arsenal.
Initially signed as a central-midfield partner for club legend Patrick Vieira, Gilberto also formed successful partnerships with Cesc Fabregas and fellow Brazilian Edu. In my fantasy team, he would play alongside Flamini in central midfield, much like Alex Song and Mikel Arteta presently do for Arsenal, with Cesc playing further afield.
Known at various times as the “invisible wall” and the “water carrier," these phrases perfectly described Gilberto’s contribution to the team. He did the small, un-fancy yet important things, like breaking up play and passing the ball to his more attack-minded teammates. Being Brazilian, Gilberto was no mug at the attacking end of the pitch, scoring a healthy 24 goals during his time with the Gunners, many of them crucial equalizers or winners.
He has the honor of scoring Arsenal’s first goal at the Emirates Stadium in a competitive match.
Gilberto joined Panathinaikos from Arsenal, and after spending three years in Greece, he has finally returned to his homeland with Gremio.
In the midst of all this club football, he squeezed in 93 international appearances for Brazil, many of them as captain.
Arsenal career: 2003-2011, 303 appearances
Now plays for: Barcelona (Spain)
There’s not much to be said about Cesc Fabregas that hasn’t been said (including by me) in recent months, so I’m not going to add to it.
Fifty-seven goals and 100 assists before the age of 24 says it all.
I wish you well Cesc. And wish you were here.
What a life - £150k per week, and you get to sit around all day
Arsenal career: 2008-2011, 125 appearances
Now plays for: Manchester City (England)
The latest in what might well turn out to be a long line of scum who have left Arsenal for the lure of “even more” money. Samir Nasri was given his big break by Arsenal Wenger, who signed him for £14 million in a massive leap of faith.
Nasri was developing extremely well at Arsenal, and displayed his real promise in a fantastic first half of the 2010-11 season. This, unfortunately, brought him to the attention of the moneyed clubs in Europe. Entering the last year of his Arsenal contract, the club offered him a squad-high wage of £90,000 per week. However, Nasri’s head was turned by cash-rich Manchester City, whose offer of £150,000 per week was impossible to resist.
Even though every Gooner might be sick at the sight of this Frenchman of Algerian descent, there’s no doubting Nasri’s quality. He could play on either wing in this fantasy team, and even operate effectively down the middle. His dribbling and passing are certainly of the highest standard, and now that he has added a goal-scoring dimension to his play, he is equipped with a quiver full of weapons.
Arsenal career: 1998-2007, 313 appearances
Now plays for: Shimizu S-Pulse (Japan)
I was almost certain that Freddie Ljungberg had hung up his boots after his brief stint with Celtic, and was going to pick Jose Antonio Reyes as my second winger. Thank God I double-checked!
Having read through the sordid tales of the acrimonious departures of Nasri, Cashley, Flamini and the like, here’s an altogether more pleasant personality to talk about.
Having joined Arsenal for £3 million as a relative unknown, most people wondered what this unheralded Swede could bring to the club. Well, we didn’t have to wait for long as Freddie announced himself in the best way possible, scoring as a substitute in a 3-0 home win over Manchester United.
In the seasons that followed, Ljungberg became one of Arsenal’s mainstays. Deployed on the opposite flank to the smooth-as-silk Robert Pires, the more workmanlike Freddie was no less intelligent or effective. Seventy-one goals and countless assists for Arsenal are more than adequate proof of that.
In spite of his relentless consistency, Ljungberg’s high point as a Gunner came in the season of 2001-02, when his and Dennis Bergkamp’s telepathic partnership literally hijacked the run-in. He scored in almost every game in those last two months, including in the FA Cup Final and against Manchester United and Liverpool (twice). He ended the season with 17 goals, and it was only his late surge that prevented an Arsenal collapse after the injury suffered by player of the year, Pires.
Ljungberg endeared himself to Gooners with everything he did—be it his inelegant yet effective playing style, his big-match goals, his interviews, his endorsement deals (especially Calvin Klein!) and his humane, fun-loving approach to life.
Arsenal career: 1999-2007, 369 appearances
Now plays for: New York Red Bull (USA)
Do I really need to say anything here?
He had 369 games, 226 goals and 92 assists for Arsenal.
He had 123 caps, 51 goals and 29 assists for France.
He is a world champion, European champion, Champions League winner, Premier League winner and La Liga winner.
The greatest player in the history of the Premier League.
Arsenal’s best-ever player.
Moments like this (yup, all 226 of them).
Not an often-seen picture
When I got done with my first 11, I decided to go the whole nine yards and pick a subs bench too. Not exactly a fan favorites Hall of Fame, but here goes:
Stuart Taylor: At Arsenal from1997-2005, 30 appearances for Arsenal, now with Manchester City
Gael Clichy: 2003-2011, 264 appearances, Manchester City
Matthew Upson: 1997-2003, 57 appearances, Stoke City
Lassana Diarra: 2007-2008, 13 appearances, Real Madrid
Jose Antonio Reyes: 2004-2007, 110 appearances, Atletico Madrid
Nicolas Anelka: 1997-1999, 89 appearances, Chelsea
Emmanuel Adebayor: 2006-2009, 143 appearances, Tottenham Hotspur