It is a very subjective subject, of course, so I hope it inspires some discussion below the post in the comments, but here are my Dozen Best Wenger Signings, from 1996 – 2015. Why 12? Why not?! It’s like a reverse ‘Dirty Dozen!’
Fees are those as stated on the superlative Arsenalreport.com’s Transfer Centre.
These players have been chosen for three reasons; their transfer fee, their contribution and I also considered the price/profit that many were sold on for, thus making them great pieces of business.
12 – Jens Lehmann, 2003, Dortmund, £2m. Jens Lehmann is, by far and away, the best goalkeeper Wenger has brought to the club. His signing, to replace David Seaman, was a masterstroke and it surprised me at the time. Lehmann brought a controlling dominance to the defence and was the foundation that ‘The Invincibles’ were built on. How the Champions League Final would have played out if he hadn’t have been sent off is a ‘Sliding Doors’ moment to haunt every Arsenal fan.
His unedifying scraps with Manuel Almunia were a touch embarrassing, but after watching Almunia’s Arsenal performances since he became the first choice goalie, you can understand his stance. Lehmann also briefly returned in 2011 to help out Arsene during a goalie crisis and again performed admirably. Lehmann has arguably never been replaced in many fans’ eyes, although the signing of Petr Cech this summer may finally make this feeling redundant.
11 – Lauren Etame Mayer, 2000, Real Mallorca, £7.2m. Lauren was a signing that took many by surprise (but just how many signings does Wenger complete without giving the press prior warning, to be fair) and initially it was unclear just where he would play – what with Emmanuel Petit leaving for Barcelona that summer and the Arsenal backline not getting any younger. As it transpired, Lauren ably replaced the veteran Lee Dixon perfectly. Lauren was a supremely powerful and capable player and two title winning campaigns were aided and abetted by the muscular Cameroonian. Lauren had an eye for a decent shot and took a mean penalty. I miss Lauren…you just didn’t mess with Lauren.
10 – Freddie Ljungberg, 1998, Halmstad, £3m. Freddie was bought off of the back of an exceptional performance against England with Sweden, after he had been scouted by Arsenal for over a year. Handed the #8 shirt that Ian Wright had worn with such reverence, Freddie instantly captured the hearts of Gooners with a delightfully chipped debut goal against Manchester United at Highbury.
Ljungberg went on to score a further 70 goals for the club and was an instrumental part of Arsenal’s 2001/02 and 2003/04 title winning campaigns. Ljungberg was a versatile attacking midfielder who was capable of scoring with either foot. He was sold to West Ham in 2007 for £2m. Recently he has been a club ambassador and visited Asia to represent The Arsenal pre-club-tour.
9 – Nicolas Anelka, 1996, PSG, £500K. The original Arsenal L’Enfant Terrible,Anelka exploded onto the scene in 1997-98 and thus effectively consigned the legendary Ian Wright into the chapter titled ‘Arsenal strikers of times past’ as the England frontman struggled that season with an injury. Anelka was the first striker that Wenger could hone his tactic of fast, direct, counter-attacking assaults up the pitch with and when he left in 1999 for Real Madrid, my main concern was that the sheer speed and precision Anelka gave the Arsenal frontline wouldn’t be replicated. I was, as they say, somewhat incorrect.
Le Sulk fell out with the fans quickly after his poor attitude and sordid flirtations with Lazio, Real Madrid and others, but as his sale for £23m funded the purchases of Henry and Suker, as well as the development of Arsenal’s world-class training facility at London Colney. So we can’t be too down on him, can we?
8 – Marc Overmars, 1997, Ajax, £7m. I have a real soft spot for Overmars. He was a key player in the swashbuckling Ajax side of the early to mid 1990s and I recall watching him wearing the Dutch club’s famous white and red strips and being in awe of his sheer pace. When, on a balmy summer’s day in 1997 it was announced on Teletext that Overmars had signed for the club, along with Emmanuel Petit and Gilles Grimandi, I was ecstatic. Overmars scored the vital goal in a tight 0-1 win at Old Trafford that season as Arsenal won Wenger’s first ‘Double’ for the club.
Overmars scored 41 goals in 3 seasons and his left wing marauding with Thierry Henry in 1999-2000 was magical at times. and after a decent Euro 2000 performance, It is ironic that I was in Amsterdam when it was announced that Barcelona had signed him for an astonishing £25m (along with Emmanuel Petit, who left for £7m, another profit). I was, I admit, rather distraught. But a certain Frenchman soon wiped that frown off of my face…
7 – Kolo Toure, 2001, ASEK, £150K. The bargain signing to end all bargain signings. If only a deal for his brother could have also happened, eh? Kolo Toure arrived below the radar, and started off almost as an old-fashioned utility player. It was only after his more permanent switch to centre-back that his talent to calmly defend and impose a decent work ethic really came out. Toure was a more than decent partner for Sol Campbell and later on William Gallas, and he has shown since his departure from the club that he can still put in a decent shift at Liverpool. For me, however, he lost pace and recovery speed; his form never really reached the heights he had demonstrated before for the team, after he contracted a strain of Malaria whilst in Africa. Toure’s eventual sale gave Arsenal a huge profit too when he was sold to oil-money-rich Manchester City for a fee of £12m+.
6 – Robert Pires, 2000, Marseille, £6m. I can recall, during Arsenal’s pursuit of Robert Pires during Euro 2000, that it appeared to all that he was signing, sadly, for Real Madrid from Olympique de Marseille. When it transpired that Arsenal had signed him, I was delighted, but knew he was no speed demon like Marc Overmars. And I was right – he was so much more. Pires’ languid ’10 past 10′ running style was the opposite of Overmars’ pure pace. But he had far more skill, vision and overall ability than the Flying Dutchman.
Watching Pires was like observing a master artist at work. His goal return was frankly amazing and were it not for a cruciate knee injury at the peak of his 2002 abilities, his tally would’ve been many more (and France may not have had such a disastrous World Cup 2002). When Pires left for Vilarreal, both Arsenal players and fans were dismayed.
5 – Francesc Fabregas, 2003, FC Barcelona, £2.8m. The snaffling of Cesc Fabregas from under Barcelona’s noses was a perfect piece of Wenger transfer guile. In Cesc, Wenger signed a player who combined skill, aggression, cockiness, an unnerving passing ability and latterly in his Arsenal career, a deadly eye for goal and he developed, before our eyes, into a top-class playmaker come box to box athlete. Fabregas captained the side after taking over from Thierry Henry but he never had a consistent core of quality players surrounding him to help him push the side onto winning trophies.
I thought he combined brilliantly with Alexander Hleb for 2 years and his through-balls to the likes of Theo Walcott, Thierry Henry and Emmanuel Adebayor were perfection. But his departure was not pleasant, nor especially respectful towards a club that nurtured and then entrusted onto him such a major role at such a young age. His (initial fee of) £25.4m sale to FC Barcelona also represented a large profit for Wenger (I believe Arsenal used an outstanding Marc Overmars payment from FCB to help seal the original deal). The fact he has since signed for Chelsea does grate a bit, mind…the Gunners-badge kissing does seem in poor taste now…
4 – Alexis Sanchez, 2014, FC Barcelona, £30m. The ‘Sale Bin’ of La Liga’s big two is no bad place to scratch around for a bargain, especially the one located in Madrid. In recent seasons Spurs bagged a barely worn Rafael van der Vaart, Bayern Munich snapped up Arjen Robben with plenty of miles left on the clock, AC Milan landed Klass-Jan Huntelaar for a bargain fee and Internazionale basically stole Wesley Sneijder. West Ham have followed suit with a snaffling of Alex Song this summer.
Arsene Wenger is not adverse to these duty-free Spanish trips either. Mesut Özil’s record smashing transfer in 2013 was followed up last year with a Brasil-based wooing, and eventual seduction of the Chilean winger who’d found himself in a battle with the mercurial Lionel Messi, flamboyant Neymar Jr., local hero Pedro and premium-priced new signing Luis Suarez for a place in the Barca front three. Liverpool thought they’d signed him…they hadn’t. What followed was arguably the best Arsenal debut season since Thierry Henry in 1999/2000 (including an FA Cup Final golazo that still gives me dirty shivers…something that eluded Thierry…) and which ended with a genuine 1966 moment as his cheeky penalty delivered a first ever Copa America title for Chile in their homeland. Quite what awaits Arsenal next with Alexis in the ranks is well worth anticipating. The man is a hyperactive explosion of energy and he is fast becoming a true hero in N5. The La Liga ‘Sale Bin’ isn’t always fool proof though…as Manchester United are finding out with a vastly overpriced Angel Di Maria..!
3 – Sol Campbell, 2001, Tottenham, Free Transfer. Arguably the Premier League’s greatest Bosman Free Transfer, the signing of Sol Campbell from Arsenal was so ground-breaking that I am sure it caused a few heart concerns on both sides of the North London divide. I can recall rubbing it in a fair bit at my work at the time, and two Spurs fans probably remember that day like I know the Gooners that were there still do. Campbell was a seasoned international and a defender with poise, power, vision and determination like no-other. He fitted in beautifully to the Arsenal backline, and although he left under a cloud after an appalling game against West Ham, he was welcomed back in 2010 on another free transfer, this time after a failed experiment at Notts County, and performed well in his second spell. Campbell was a vital part of ‘The Invincibles’ and his thumping Champions League Final goal allowed Gooners to dream a dream they hadn’t dared dream before…
We all dreamed, right?!
2 – Patrick Vieira, 1996, AC Milan, £3.5m. Vieira was a gladiator, a warrior and a midfielder who eventually defined (like his compatriot Claude Makélélé) a position or role on the pitch. Signed from AC Milan and greeted with a chorus of ‘Patrick Who?’ from most fans, Vieira gave Arsenal everything: the good; his sublime, scruff-of-the-neck dragging-through-adversity-performances, plus his steel, poise and grit in the centre of the pitch. He was a superb captain and his last kick for the club won the last cup we have won in eight years. The bad; the red cards and suspensions that littered his career were unbecoming for a player who represented so much more and had so much more to his game. But also, his annual ‘will he, won’t he’ dalliances with Real Madrid (and I am sure, many more clubs) were a constant distraction and source of much angst (for me at least!). And the ugly; his spitting in Neil Ruddock’s face was a significant low-point for him. There is an argument that he could and maybe should have scored more goals, but overall, Vieira, between 1996 and 2005, was a player without equal.
1 – Thierry Henry, 1999, Juventus, £10.5m. After a traumatic summer of watching Nicolas Anelka faff around with Lazio, Real Madrid and I believe Juventus, it was a relief when he finally left for that incredible price. When Davor Suker arrived from Real Madrid, there was a sense of ‘ok, we have a new #9. He won’t have the pace, but he knows where the goal is, alright.’ The arrival of Thierry Henry, it seems, was a long time coming in. Many in the press had him tipped to join his old AS Monaco mentor Wenger at Highbury after his World Cup 1998 performances. Instead, as we know, Juventus bought him and decided to totally misuse him. When Wenger paid a club-record (at the time) fee of £10.5m, I think many eyebrows were raised. And his first few appearances, where the Clock in the south stand of Highbury looked more troubled than the goal, the money spent on him appeared to have been rather too much. It was at The Dell, Southampton that Henry announced himself as both a goal-scorer and a scorer of great goals. And from that match onwards, the flood gates opened, with records, accolades and trophies falling at the #14’s feet. Henry combined speed, skill, vision, arrogance and humility brilliantly. I won’t ever forget him mugging off Robbie Savage with an outrageous nutmeg, nor his ‘no-look-wrong-foot-pass’ that he played to Jose Antonio Reyes. His goals against Manchester United and Spurs were the stuff of legend and Henry ended his time at Arsenal as the highest ever goal scorer that has worn the famous red and white kit.
He was sold to FC Barcelona in 2007 for £16.1m after a year or two of heavy flirting between him and the Catalan side. It is fair to say that Arsenal saw his best years as a player at the club and Wenger even made a profit on him – although I think he should’ve been sold for far more! Henry of course returned briefly on loan in 2012, from New York Red Bulls to a hero’s welcome and arguably scored the most ‘hairs sticking up on the back of your neck’ goal that this generation of fans have witnessed/heard! For me, the only real criticism you could have against his Arsenal tenure was perhaps the club should have won more with him playing, i.e. the two European Finals that the team managed to get to…in fact, I am struggling to recall any cup final that he has scored a goal in…for any of his clubs…But Henry tops this list because he became, over several seasons, the striker all others will be compared to; for Arsenal at least. He was doing the skills, scoring the unbelievable and the demonstrating the unfathomable aspects of football before Cristiano Ronaldo was doing them – and against better sides week in, week out – and for this, he is the greatest Wenger signing. His performances against Liverpool, Manchester United and Tottenham at Highbury, Internazionale and AS Roma away in Europe and his humility at his statue unveiling will live long in my memory. Merci Thierry: footballing Viagra.
Where do we think Petr Cech will stand in these rankings this time next season?
Honourable mentions for: Mesut Özil, 2013, Real Madrid, £42m, Santi Cazorla, 2012, Malaga, £13m, Robin van Persie, 2004, Feyenoord, £2.75m – sold for £22.5m in 2012 to Manchester United, Laurent Koscielny, 2010, FC Lorient, £8.45m and Gilberto Silva, 2002, A. Mineiro, £4.5m – sold for £990K in 2008 to Panathinaikos.
Thanks for reading,