Arsenal's Top Gunners: Ranking the Best Forwards in Club History

Stefan Vasilev@ IJune 22, 2011

Arsenal's Top Gunners: Ranking the Best Forwards in Club History

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    “Invincibility lies in the defence; the possibility of victory in the attack,” Sun Tzu

    Logically, the same applies to football. A football team comprised of individuals have one purpose in mind: to defend well, build their game and ultimately score goals by which to shorten the gap toward victory.

    Many years of development of game has put the emphasis of importance, especially in modern football, on attacking. The attackers are the most expensive footballers, the guys who bathe in the spotlight and come out with all the glory of their teams’ efforts.

    And with some logic, they are the guys counted on by the whole team to finish what everybody else has started and reward their hard work.

    They are the thrusting of the sword after every movement of the body has added up to make it possible to do so.

    Some are better than others at doing it, but who are the best? How about Pele, Diego Maradona, Ronaldo, Marco van Basten, Romario? They all ring bells, right?

    However, we are here to discuss a more specific topic. Here comes the $60 million question: Who are the best forwards Arsenal has ever had?

    Click on the Next Button to travel through time in a quest of finding out the 60-million-dollar answer.

    As part of the series:

    Best Goalkeepers in Arsenal history

    Best Defenders in Arsenal history

    Best Midfielders in Arsenal history

10. Alan Smith, 1987-95

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    A great opportunistic striker with unbelievable positioning and reactions, Alan Smith bagged 115 goals in 347 matches for Arsenal.

    He joined the club from Leicester in 1987 in what was an uncharacteristically protracted transfer deal which involved loaning him back for the remainder of the season.

    Moving south must have required some adapting as Smith endured a goal drought for several months before he could start the goals flowing. He scored several goals that season, but his true self was hinted at the beginning of the 1988/89 season, when he scored a hat trick in the opening game against Wimbledon.

    With a suitable opening, the talent of Alan Smith was unleashed. He won the Golden Boot as Arsenal famously defeated Liverpool at their own Anflield to snatch the title from them.

    In the next season, Smith found the net for another 22 times, but the League medal eluded him.

    He did not have to wait long, as Arsenal finished top in the First Division in the next year. From there on, more success followed: another Golden Boot, FA Cup (1993), League Cup (1993) and a European Cup Winners Cup (1994).

    One of his best goals was responsible for overcoming Parma in the Cup Winners Cup final. Once again, Smith’s immaculate positioning allowed him to make a beautiful left-footed volley in the 21st minute of the match—a goal that proved deciding in Arsenal’s first European success in more than a decade.

9. Paul Merson

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    Paul Merson rose through the ranks of Arsenal’s youth academy to play his first game for the club in 1986. By that time, he was already a hot prospect but lacked experience. As part of his development, he was sent to Brentford on a loan spell.

    Despite playing only seven games for Brentford, Merson was on the right track and soon after returning to Arsenal, he was given the chance to prove himself. He seized it with both hands, scoring three goals in his first five appearances.

    His initial success put him on the map but was insufficient to gain him a regular starting place until two years later. From there on, he became an integral cog of George Graham’s machine.

    Paul’s blend of graft, energy and creativity fit into Graham’s vision perfectly.

    He was utilized on the wing, often tormenting the opposition, along with partners Andres Limpar, Alan Smith and, later, Ian Wright, with his incisive runs, smooth passing and unmistakable commitment to every arisen situation.

    The crowd favorite helped Arsenal win two League titles (1989, 1991), Cup double (1993) and the Cup Winners cup (1994).

    In 1995, Merson’s career took a hit after he admitted his addictions to alcohol and cocaine.

    In a well-documented battle with substances and his personal demons, Merson never surrendered his love for football.

    After three months of rehabilitation, the talismanic striker returned to the green meadow to do what he loved best. He was to start in over 100 more matches for Arsenal as he paved his way into the fans' hearts.

8. Reginald Lewis, 1935-53

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    Ifs or maybes come to mind when we speak about Reg Lewis.

    A forward with lethal instincts, Lewis scored 116 goals in 176 matches, officially, for Arsenal. But had it not been for the Second World War to render the matches played during it as unofficial, his total number of goals would have been a beastly 392 in 451 games.

    Just thinking about the goal-scoring ratio of Reg Lewis could make the biggest skeptic shiver in recognition.

    He made his debut for the North London club in 1938. Aged only 18, he managed to start in only four games this year, as Ted Drake was considered irreplaceable in front. He got more playing time in the next season, netting the ball seven times in 16 games before WWII erupted.

    Lewis’s spent most of the peak of his playing career during wartime, and his natural goal-scoring ability shone as brightly as ever then. He was main culprit in the 7-1 demolition of Charlton Athletic in the 1943 War Cup by scoring four goals.

    He went on to score 143 in 130 games before he joined to serve the British Army of the Rhine in Occupied Germany. Upon the ending of the war, he went back to playing for Arsenal.

    The great side of 1930s had started to fade out as 26-year-old Lewis rejoined them. He regularly topped the club’s goal-scoring charts for the rest of the decade. In 1946/47, he scored 28 in 27 matches. A year later, he formed a deadly partnership with new signing Ronnie Rooke, scoring 47 goals between them.

    In 1949/50, Lewis stroke twice to give Arsenal a 2-0 win over Liverpool in the FA Cup.

    In the 1950s, the front man was often tormented by injuries which eventually curtailed his career 1953 at the age of 33.

    Jeff Harris, the author of Arsenal Who's Who, wrote about him, "His ability and knack of scoring goals were attributed to his fine positional sense when finding space in the box as well as being cool, calm and collected."

7. John Radford, 1964-76

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    Not the most flamboyant of strikers, John Radford was nonetheless a very effective one.

    In an Arsenal career that span over 12 years, he played 475 matches and bagged 149 goals (a tally that puts him fourth in Arsenal’s over a century of goal-scoring ranking).

    Radford made his professional debut in 1964, but received only one match in his first season. His second was better: 15 matches and a record that still stands today. Aged 17 years and 315 days, the forward from Yorkshire bagged three goals against Wolverhampton to become the youngest player to score a hat trick for Arsenal.

    As he matured, his knack for goals did not wane.

    Radford kept scoring goals, sometimes even when Berite Mee utilized him on unnatural for him positions, but he also had another side to him that benefited the team—he had the ability make the killer pass, the assist.

    He also had the useful ability to occupy oppositional defenders, giving freedom for his team-mates to operate. Charlie George, Joe Baker, Ray Kennedy and George Graham all had the pleasure to shine alongside Radford who was busy with the dirty work.

    Eyes inevitably turned toward Radford once in a while in recognition for his contributions.

    One such case was the FA Cup final in 1971. On paper, Eddie Kelly and Charlie George have given Arsenal the victory, but it was John Radford who provided the assists.

    By that time, Radford’s love affair with goals had been spotted by England’s manager Sir Alf Ramsey. He was called up to represent his country but only managed two caps in two years.

    Not put off by his lack of luck on international scale, Radford continued to casually escort the ball back to the net for his club in the following seasons.

    As the Arsenal double winning side of 1971 began to disband in the mid-'70s, so the form of Radford began to diminish, and after an injury-ridden 1975/76 season, he moved on to greener pastures, putting an end to his Arsenal career.

6. Charlie George, 1968-75

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    Some people end up on a list for top people for entirely different reasons than usual. Charlie George was one of those people.

    He was not a great goal scorer. What he had going instead was a story worthy of Hollywood script. Charlie George was a football fan who turned footballer who scored in the dying moments of the FA Cup final to secure his favourite team’s first ever “Double.”

    The stepping stone for George’s dream was first laid when he joined the Arsenal youth ranks in 1966. He showed good promise to progress quickly, while never ceasing to watch Arsenal’s first team play from the stands of Highbury.

    Three years later he would finds himself on the opposite end of the view he had been accustomed to.

    Unshaken, 19-year-old George performed terrifically in his debut season, scoring vital goals in Arsenal’s conquest in the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup.  A year later, he could already brag with a European medal and 39 games under his belt.

    George became one of hottest prospects around. The future looked bright. Then in an afternoon in the beginning of the next season, he had a drawback that threatened to end his career. After a collision with Everton’s goalkeeper Gordon West, George’s ankle snapped, interrupting his speedy progress for five months.

    However, the boy from the stands had not sung his song.

    He came back in early 1971 and gradually worked his way back into the first team. He finished the season with five goals in 17 matches, but the goals he scored had more weight than usual.

    George scored in the fourth, fifth and sixth rounds of the FA Cup and then scored in the final’s extra time to secure the FA Cup and eventually Arsenal’s first “Double.” His celebration, on his back with arms thrown in the air, would become a trademark image for this historic victory.

    He played four more seasons for his favorite club, but his rebellious character and niggling injuries finally overshadowed his brilliance on the field.

    Ironically, in 1975 he joined the club to which he had shown the V-sign two years earlier—Derby County.

    Charlie George was a fan of Arsenal who realized the dream of every fan. To play for the club their support and lead them to success. For that, he occupies a special place in Arsenal supporter’s heart.

5. Ted Drake, 1934-45

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    A classic centre-forward, Ted Drake was one of the most feared footballers in the 1930s. His commitment and fearlessness, often going where no one else would dare, earned him the reputation of one of the bravest players around.

    In the '30s, football was a rather different game—a much harsher one, with fewer rules. Physicality was a must if you were to prosper under those circumstances. Drake had it in abundance.

    He started to play football for Southampton in 1931. Not much later, his talent was noticed by the legendary Arsenal manager Herbert Chapman, who tried to sign him, but Drake refused, initially.

    Chapman’s will to sign him was to materialize posthumously, when in 1934 George Allison signed him for Arsenal for £6,500.

    Drake’s career took off immediately.

    He scored on his debut against the Wolves and broke the all-time goal record for the club in the following season by scoring 42 goals in 41 league games. His record still stands unscathed almost seven decades later.

    Even that was dwarfed by what he was going to do a season later.

    Drake single-handedly ripped Aston Villa to shreds by scoring seven times to carve the result of 7-1 in favor of Arsenal. He scored another goal, eighth, when the ball hit the bar and bounced off behind the goal line, but the referee decided that seven were enough.

    Seven goals by a single player: Nobody broke that astonishing record in the decades of football to come.

    As if to underline the goal-scoring ability of Ted, those records were backed by unrivaled consistency. He went on to top the goal-scoring charts in every of the five seasons at Arsenal. You must have been blind not to see his quality—and the England manager was not.

    Ted was soon called up for international duty. He did not disappoint. He scored six in five matches, and in 1935, scored the winner against Italy in the “Battle of Highbury” to clinch a valuable 3-2 win.

    Undoubtedly, his physical prowess and bravery brought him astounding success, but injuries inseparably loomed over him. Drake was in constant battle with injuries inflicted by his almost reckless style of playing.

    Against Brentford in 1938, he had to be carried off the field unconscious after breaking his wrist and receiving a bad head wound.

    He went on, changing nothing in his style, remaining the same old brave Ted Drake.

    In 1939, his career was abruptly interrupted by terrible event with global consequences: the Second World War.

    Enlisted in the Royal Air Force, Drake continued to play for Arsenal in friendly matches.

    All in all, Drake scored 139 goals in 184 games which puts him at the fifth place of Arsenal’s all time top scorers.

    Jeff Harris wrote about him, in Arsenal’s Who’s Who, “Drake's main attributes were his powerful dashing runs, his great strength combined with terrific speed and a powerful shot. Ted Drake was also brilliant in the air but above all, so unbelievably fearless.”

4. Cliff Bastin, 1929-47

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    Cliff Bastin was the most prolific goal scorers until Ian Wright in the 1990s. Playing as an inside forward initially, he was moved to outside left in an innovative tactical move by Herbert Chapman.

    Wingers had a secondary role before Chapman. They were then supposed to feed centre-forwards with passes and create chances, but under Chapman, they were presented with a new objective: to cut inside, creating chances for themselves as well.

    Cliff Bastin was the man who benefited from this the most.

    He formed a terrific partnership with midfield maestro Alex James on the left side. Often, he would stalk near the touchline, remaining alert and waiting for the brilliance of James to unleash his own deadly scoring abilities.

    It was to become a trademark move for Arsenal in the 1930s—Alex James to Cliff Bastin into the net.

    Bastin was blessed with an accurate shot, but it would have been not nearly as effective as it was if not for his ice-cold nerves in front of goal.

    This effective formula of goal-scoring allowed Bastin to score 33 goals in the 1932/33 season—the highest ever scored by a winger. He scored 15 in the next season, making him the club’s top goal scorer for the second season in a row.

    In 1934, Ted Drake arrived at Arsenal and Bastin was forced to reconfigure his functions as Drake was chosen for the goal scoring function. He dropped back a bit, and with Alex James’ increasing of age, he gradually took over the position of distributing the passes in the final stages of the attack.

    His appetite for goals never waned.

    Devoid of James’ wonderful mind Arsenal slipped to sixth in the following season. But “Boy” Bastin still scored 17, including six in the FA Cup to get himself another medal, and 17 more in the following season, which was title-winning.

    An injury restricted Bastin from fully contributing to Arsenal’s last season before the beginning of the Second World War.

    Aged 27 by the time the war started, Bastin had already scored enough goals to ensure he had topped the club’s top goal-scoring charts. He continued to play during war time in unofficial matches, but his hearing problems that had tormented him for years, and his niggling injuries were already taking their toll.

    With the war over, Bastin would only manage seven more official games for Arsenal before he hanged the boots. He scored 178 goals in 395 matches, his record broken almost a half-decade later by Ian Wright.

3. Ian Wright, 1991-98

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    The sizzling passion and natural flair for goal-scoring of Ian Wright is what every manager in the world would want to have at his disposal. The striker could score from everywhere—chance or half-chance it was safe to bet Ian Wright would be on the score sheet.

    His repertoire of goals was as diverse as the game itself. 

    Starting his career a bit late, at the age of 22, it took some time before his nose for goals was noticed by Arsenal’s scouts. In 1991, George Graham signed Wright for a record-braking £2.5 million. At the time, the transfer was viewed as unnecessary as Arsenal already enjoyed a good share of effective strikers.

    Andre Limpard, an emerging Kevin Campbell and Paul Merson had already rooted themselves in the Arsenal forward line.

    But it seemed Ian Wright held his fate hostage.

    He scored a goal on his debut against Leicester City in the League cup and then scored a hat trick in his league debut against Southampton. The explosive striker finished with 31 goals in all competitions and a Golden Boot in his accolade cabinet this season.

    Southampton suffered Ian Wright’s merciless goal-scoring as he completed his second hat trick against them, his third goal remaining the last in the history of the “old” First Division.

    He would then go on to become the club’s top goal-scorer in each of the next six seasons.

    With the offloading of Andres Limpar and David Rocastle in the mid-nineties, Ian Wright cemented his place in attack. It was one of the first steps that George Graham initiated in transforming Arsenal into a cup side, often winning by 1-0, with the meanest defense in the country.

    Disciplined, tough and well-organized Arsenal became known as “boring Arsenal,” but the showmanship and spectacle of goals of Ian Wright remained a constant threat to that image.

    In 1996, Dennis Bergkamp joined from Inter Milan to form a great partnership with Ian Wright.

    The Dutchman’s vision and passing ability allowed Wright to gorge on a cannonade of spectacular defense-splitting passes, often resulting in goals for Arsenal.

    Not long after, Arsene Wenger arrived to Arsenal.

    Ian Wright was 33 by then, but he went on scoring for another two years, and in September 1997, carved his name on the top of the all time goal-scoring list with a hat trick against Bolton Wanderers.

    Ian Wright played a significant part in Arsenal’s success in the mid-'90s.

    During his time with the Gunners, he won a League, FA Cup, League Cup and European Winners Cup medals. He scored 185 goals in 279 matches, beating Cliff Bastin’s record which stood untouched for more than half a decade.

    Ian Wright’s goals gave the club and fans many joyous occasions, but it was his positive character that left a trail in the hearts of all who care about Arsenal—a trail impossible to erase.

2. Dennis Bergkamp, 1995-2006

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    Words cannot describe this man.

    He was composed, ingenious, loyal, committed, influential, a great goal-scorer, an even better passer; you name it, Dennis Bergkamp was it.

    The cream of the talent-churning Dutch machine, Dennis Bergkamp was a one in a million player. Blessed and grateful are all who had the opportunity to observe this magician on the field.

    He transcended the game into something much more than sport. He transcended it into art.

    In 1995, Bruce Rioch, the temporary replacing manager after the dismissal of George Graham, signed Dennis Bergkamp from Inter Milan. It was to be catalyst in the transformation of Arsenal from a boring defensive side to a creative, attacking one.

    In fact, they signed a revolutionary. If Arsenal is now known to play beautiful football, Dennis Bergkamp must be known as the king of this kind of football.

    It’s hard to describe him and even harder for future generations to reach his level. Maybe it was his second to none first-touch, or his sublime technique, but most probably it was not only that. Many players have those skills and yet, cannot claim to have reached the status of Dennis Bergkamp.

    He had something else. An engine on alternative fuel: his brilliant mind.

    He saw things in his mind and could execute imagined moves perfectly with his technique. He had the potential and vision to paint masterpieces on the field. And he did, more often than not.

    The swivel against Newcastle was just one of those examples.

    He received the ball near the edge of the box from a low pass from midfielder Robert Pires, flicked it to one side, turned the other and rounded the defender, leaving him clueless of what was going on, gathered it and made a well-placed shot into the lower corner. Brilliant.

    His goal for the Netherlands, against Argentina, in the dying stages of the 1998 World Cup quarterfinal was another proof of pure genius.

    A long ball flew through the air to Dennis Bergkamp, hit by Frank De Bour 20 meters deep into his own field. The striker tamed the ball before it landed on the ground with an exquisite first touch, then did the most subtle of sideways flicks, eliminating the marking defender and hit the ball with the outside of his foot, curving it into the upper corner and beyond the reach of Argentina’s goalkeeper.

    Three Bergkamp touches were enough to defeat two-time world champions Argentina.

    At that moment, Bergkamp, much like his compatriot Rembrandt, completed the masterpiece of his life.

    The Iceman, as he was called by the Arsenal faithful, scored 120 goals for the Gunners and won seven trophies (Premier League– three, FA Cup– four).

    But this is irrelevant when we are speaking about an artist.

    What Dennis Bergkamp will be remembered for throughout the football world are not numbers, but the images that he has imprinted in everyone’s mind—images that exemplify what football class is.

1. Thierry Henry, 1999-2007

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    Some players have done enough for their clubs and football to ensure they will never be forgotten by the fans—Thierry Henry has done more than that.

    Arsenal’s top goal-scorer has branded the club not only with his goals but with his attitude on and off the field. 

    A true gentleman, Henry created a bond with the fans that was cherished, and still is, from both sides.

    His Arsenal love story began when he joined the club to reunite with his former manager from Monaco Arsene Wenger, at the age of 22. Having showed glimpses of flair at Monaco and gone through tribulations of playing for Juventus in Italy, Henry found in his new club a paradise for development.

    Not long after his arrival to Highbury, Henry began to be recognized as one of the most feared strikers in the Premier League.

    On the green meadow, he was the player that teammates could pass the ball to and watch the magic unfold before their eyes. It was obvious he possessed that extra bit of talent that made him stand out from all the others. You just knew you were witnessing true class with him.

    While his football abilities bedazzled, he also possessed that much needed ingredient for achieving greatness—character.

    He had a funny side to him. He would often joke around with his team-mates and in interviews, which he seldom refused to give. But he knew when to be serious too. His communicativeness undoubtedly raised his influence, and after Patrick Vieira left for Juventus, he was the natural choice for the captain armband.

    Most of all, his conviction to help Arsenal achieve greatness was unwavering. It’s what separated him from many others. In a world of constant changes, it was hard to believe a player of such quality could place his loyalty in a club that was still growing.

    He wanted to see the club perform well and win trophies, and did everything in his power to help it achieve that.

    And he did help, quite enormously. He won five trophies while playing at the mythical Highbury – twice the Premier League and three FA cups. In 2006, Henry played a major role in Arsenal reaching the final of the Champions League, but his desire to triumph met a formidable obstacle called Barcelona.

    By that time, Henry had won everything with Arsenal, but the Champions League, the only trophy he had not, slipped through his fingers on that day. Ironically, he later snatched it with the very team that denied him the trophy in 2006 – Barcelona.

    By all means, he deserved it. His breath-taking skill beguiled and demanded recognition. It came in the form of every type of trophy there is— French League title, English League title, FA Cup, La Liga title, Copa del Rey, Supercopa de Espana, UEFA Champions League, UEFA Supercup, FIFA World Cup (club and international),  FIFA European Football Championship, even the FIFA Confederations Cup.

    Thierry Henry was bound to claim the status of a legendary player, especially in North London, where he gave the best years of his career and where he was appreciated for the great player and man he is. He became the club’s all-time top goal-scorer, surpassing Ian Wright, with an amazing 226 goals.

    Such achievement alone could grant him his place in the history of the club, but he walked that extra mile by showing his humane side. A legendary player comes once in a while in football. Arsenal was very lucky to have one that they could call their own—Thierry Henry.

    A tiny fact: Thierry Henry has never won the FIFAWorld Player of the Year award…

Honorable Mentions

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    Sylvain Wiltord, 2000-04 – A record £13 million signing who scored the goal at Old Trafford to snatch the title away from Manchester United in 2002.

    Nwakwo Kanu, 1999-2004 – A lanky striker who devastated Chelsea with three goals in 15 minutes in a Premier League match.

    Marc Overmars, 1997-99 – Skillful scorer of vital goals. Played 101 games for Arsenal, scoring 35 goals.

    Malcom Macdonald, 1976-80 – Quick striker with great heading abilities. Played 108 matches, scoring 57 goals.

    Doug Lishman, 1948-56 – 137 goals in 244 games. Arsenal top goal scorer in five consecutive seasons.

    Joe Baker, 1962-66 – Prolific striker with 100 goals in 156 games.

    Jack Lambert, 1926-33 – Part of the formidable 1930s Arsenal. Scored 109 goals.

    Jimmy Brain, 1923-31 – Club’s top goal scorer in four seasons in a row. Impressive 0.60 goals per game ratio. Played 232 matches in red shirt.

    Frank Stapleton, 1974-81 – An Irish international hero with 300 matches for Arsenal. Netted the ball 108 times.

    Geoff Strong, 1958-64 – Bagged 77 goals in 137 matches.

    Ronnie Rooke, 1946-49 – Deadly striker. In three years at Arsenal, he scored 70 goals in 94 matches.

    Ray Kennedy, 1968-74 – Won every domestic competition with Arsenal and then with Liverpool.

    Robin van Persie, 2004-Now - Striker with bags of flair. Personally, I considered Van Persie and decided not to add him to that list as he is currently active at Arsenal, but after reconsidering, I've decided his place is in the honorable section. He's got the potential to reach the top. Only the blind would disagree.


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