Arsene Wenger’s best signings at Arsenal

by Kevin Coleman

It is without doubt that Sir Alex Ferguson is the most successful manager in Premier League history, the only manager to have seen the Premier League since its inception in 1992, through to 2011. But the second most successful manager ever to grace the Premier League, has with him introduced some of the finest players ever to play a top division game in England, and ultimately, make their names on a worldwide level. Here are ten of Arsene Wenger’s greatest signings since arriving on English shores in 1996.

No manager can come close to the level of sustained discovery and refinement of world footballing talent as Wenger during his time at Arsenal. According to data from Transfer Markt, Wenger has spent a net total of £46m during his 14 seasons at Arsenal, an amount that would instantly become a profit if Arsenal were to sell Fabregas alone (let alone valuable commodities such as van Persie, Nasri, Arshavin and Vermaelen).

His list of transfer misses is as remarkably small as his success list is long with only Francis Jeffers, Richard Wright being disastrous while van Bronckhorst and Reyes resulted in a loss of cash even if the players were pretty good. Almost every other transfer has resulted in a large windfall for the club (Anelka, Vieira, Overmars, Henry, Toure, Adebayor, Diarra) or years of high-level performance from a top player (Pires, Ljungberg, Campbell, Lauren, Wiltord, Hleb)

Wenger signed four players from the overseas team of the decade for a total of £31m (less than Rio Ferdinand, Juan Veron, Dimitar Berbatov and Wayne Rooney individually) selling them 3 titles, 4 FA cups and a Champions League final later for a profit of £11m. Not bad results for a man who was given odds of 5-1 of even making it one full season at Highbury.

Honourable mention:

Emmanuel Petit (from Monaco for £3.3m sold for £13.5m to Barcelona)
Mathieu Flamini (free from Marseille, moved to AC Milan for free)
Emmanuel Adebayor (from Monaco for £8.8m sold for £25.5m to Man City)
Marouane Chamakh (free from Bordeaux)

10. Robin van Persie

When all is said and done van Persie could be much higher on this list, but for now the ranking is as much for potential as for his accomplishments. Thrust into first team action at a young age, van Persie developed a reputation as moody and petulant and after clashing with Feyenoord coach Bert van Marwijk he made the move to Arsenal prior to the 04/05 season.

Though his impact over the past 6 seasons has continually been limited by injury, the development of van Persie on and off the field is a credit to Wenger’s eye for talent and his ability to improve his players’ game. Like Henry before him, van Persie had predominantly been deployed as a left winger but Wenger has converted van Persie’s game to allow him to play wide or as a ‘false nine’.

It’s impossible to rank van Persie higher than this right now due to the lack of silverware during his time at Arsenal but as long as moments like this keep happening, he could easily be worth ten times the £3 million Arsenal paid for him.

9. Nicolas Anelka

One of the most misunderstood footballers of the Premier League era, Anelka entered the English consciousness after arriving for just £500k from PSG and scoring his first goal in a 3-2 win over Manchester United.

Anelka played a key role during the double winning season of 97/98 and then peaked during the following season, as his pace and precision became almost unplayable, adding 17 goals in 35 league games.

Anelka was misguided in those days (indeed this continued to blight his career for years to come) and his perceived lack of effort earned him the unfair nickname of Le Sulk. Wenger saw an opportunity and moved Anelka on for £22m to give Arsenal one of the biggest profit margins ever made on a single player.

Despite playing for just 3 seasons and now plying his trade at cross town rivals Chelsea, Anelka was still voted as Arsenal’s 29th best ever player and one of the all time ‘what if’ questions as to where Arsenal would be if he’d stayed.

8. Marc Overmars

Having broken into the Ajax team aged just 19, Overmars went on to become a key part of van Gaal’s team that captured the European Cup in 1995. To that point his career had been plagued by injuries but Wenger’s faith was rewarded as Overmars overcame a slow start to have a huge impact in his first season at Highbury as Arsenal won their first League and Cup double since 1971.

Among the big moments in his incredible debut season were the crucial winner at Old Trafford in the league, two goals in the title clinching 4-0 victory over Everton (capped by that Tony Adams goal) along with the opening goal in the FA Cup final.

As with many of the signings below, the success of this transfer is not just the capture of a good player but the timing of how Wenger played the market. Purchased for around £6 million, Overmars was sold before the 2000 season for £25m, making him the most expensive Dutch player of all time. He never scaled the heights of his time at Highbury while at the Camp Nou, so once again Wenger’s decision to allow a key player to leave was justified.

7. Sol Campbell

One of Wenger’s most controversial signings saw Campbell arrive from Tottenham to a chorus of boos and vehement hatred. Branded a traitor across the footballing world, Campbell went on to become of the premier defenders between 2001-2004 adding two league titles, two appearances in the PFA team of the year and a place in the team of the tournament during the 2002 World Cup.

Campbell was the first great centre back Wenger signed to replace the legendary Adams and Keown and he gelled with this pair perfectly during his first season to help bring the Double back to Highbury. He would later form an equally dominant partnership with Kolo Toure as part of the Invincibles team in 2003-04.

Injuries and off the field issues cut short Campbell’s dominance at Arsenal but he signed off with one of the most memorable moments of his Arsenal career, heading them ahead against Barcelona in the Champions League final (they would, of course, ultimately lose the game). Like Overmars, at his peak he was majestic and it is only a lack of sustained production that prevent him rising further up this list.

6. Kolo Toure

Toure might be a controversial pick here but his transfer sums up well the brilliance of the Wenger era. Toure was plucked from ASEC Mimosas, an Ivorian team based in Abidjan (who as it happens had an immense pool of talent including Toure’s brother Yaya, Salomon Kalou and Didier Zokora). Raised in war torn Cote D’Ivoire, Kolo was not as hailed as his brother Yaya (now his teammate at Man City) and he had to fight for his place in junior sides. It was this determination that Wenger seized upon – along with a crunching tackle on the boss while on trial – and persuaded him to take a chance on the unknown entity,

Arsenal paid just £150k for the man who would play 199 out of a possible 228 Premier League games between 2003-2009 including 37 games during the undefeated Invincibles team of 03/04. Toure also contributed 9 goals in this period, some of which were of unusual quality for a centre back.

Again, as with Overmars and Campbell above, Wenger seems to have judged when to move on to perfection, selling Toure for over £16 million to Man City last summer despite the fact that he was seemingly on a downward trend in his career progression. While Toure has played well at Eastlands, Arsenal appear to be just fine without him as the next wave of Wenger’s protégés come through the ranks.

5. Robert Pires

Now we’re getting serious. It kills me to put Pires this low, as his time at Arsenal alongside Henry is one the most cherished memories of Premier League football. Before the dizzy heights of 2002-2005 though, he had a very successful spell at Marseille including this ‘did-he-didn’t-he-mean-it’ wonder goal against Chelsea. This, and his £8 million price tag, reduces the wonder at where Wenger found him and hence he misses out on the top five.

That is not to take away from his stunning play while in an Arsenal shirt. This stunner against Sunderland, the incredible link up play exhibited here with Henry and this wondrous lob against Villa, are just a sampling of what he brought to the Arsenal side.

From 2002-2005 Pires scored an incredible 42 league goals, putting him 5th in the Premier League behind only Henry, van Nistlerooy, Owen and Shearer (10 goals clear of the next midfielder – Paul Scholes). Pires was named Writer’s Play of the Year in 2001-02 and was named to the PFA Team of the Year in 2001/02, 2002/03 and 2003/04, a feat only matched by teammate Patrick Vieira (who we will be hear more from later).

Wenger appears to have moved Pires on at the right time, as Pires never played as well for Villareal (and now for Villa) as he did during those glory days at Arsenal. It’s a shame his last action in an Arsenal shirt was his early withdrawal against Barcelona after Jens Lehman’s sending off, but that does not diminish from a wonderful 6 years in the famous red and white shirts.

4. Fredrik Ljungberg

Plucked from relative obscurity at Halmstad for just under £4 million, Ljungberg is a prototypical Wenger signing. Unlike the players above, Ljungberg stayed at Highbury for 9 seasons adding 71 goals in 313 games.

Towards the end of the 2001/02 title drive, Ljungberg was as good as anyone in the league adding 7 goals as Arsenal won their final 9 games to clinch the title.  I was lucky enough to see their 2-0 win at Bolton and he, along with his Arsenal teammates, earned a standing ovation from the Bolton crowd after the game.  He was awarded the play of the season award for his body of work.

Freddie enjoyed some massive goals during his time at Arsenal including the equaliser against Man United in 2001 via a perfectly placed audacious lob (the game would be better remembered for the two howlers Barthez made late in the game). He also excelled in the FA Cup, scoring in back to back finals against both Liverpool, and, with one of the best Cup goals of all time, against Chelsea. If you want a goal that sums up his time at Arsenal though, look no further than his cheeky lob against Juventus, which combined his vision, off the ball running and finishing ability to perfection.

It’s hard to talk about Ljungberg without mentioning the hair, which in some ways only added to his mystique. The Arsenal sides between 2001-2005 played with such style and flair that a Swedish model with red hair seemed to fit perfectly into their side. It also helped to endear him to the Arsenal fans who took Freddie to their hearts and still sing his name from the stands to this day.

3. Cesc Fabregas

This selection may be somewhat controversial given the way he arrived at Arsenal and the fact he is ahead of legends like Pires and Ljungberg. However, his arrival at Arsenal ushered in a new era as he rose to prominence while many of the Arsenal heroes on this list were leaving.

Having featured in the same youth team as Leo Messi and Gerard Pique, Fabregas had a tremendous U-17 World Championship in 2003 (top scorer and player of the tournament) and moved to Highbury just a month later for around £2 million. Despite being signed as a player for the future, he was thrust into first team action during his second season, making 46 appearances despite only turning 18 during the year. His goal against Rosenberg in the Champions League made his the second youngest player to ever score in the legendary competition.

Fabregas has gone from strength-to-strength racking up individual awards galore including twice being named in UEFA’s team of the Year (2006 and 2008), PFA Young Player of the Year (2007-08) and the Golden Boy award (2006) which has since been made famous by the slightly less graceful Mario Balotelli.

It also doesn’t hurt that he likes playing against Tottenham (see this solo effort in 09/10 and this stunning strike in 07/08)

While the trophies haven’t followed the individual accolades (at least at club level), Fabregas has blossomed into one of the best players in the world and is routinely linked with a return to the Camp Nou, despite Barcelona boasting one of the best midfield trios of all time (Xavi, Iniesta and Busquets). Whether he stays or goes will impact where he eventually falls on this list, but he has some way to go until he tops the next players, one of whom Fabregas himself named as one of his two idols (along with Barcelona legend and current boss Josep Guardiola).

2. Patrick Vieira

Vieira will always be inextricably to Wenger given the fact he was not just his first signing but also set the bar for how future transfer targets would be set and then judged. Arsenal paid just £3.5 million for Vieira at a time when Gary Breen, Dean Holdsworth, David Hopkin, Andy Hinchcliffe were all changing hands for higher fees.

A natural leader if ever there was one, Vieira captained his first club side – Cannes – at just 19 and appeared destined for the same role at Arsenal once Tony Adams retired. His feuds and battles with Roy Keane are the stuff of Premier League legend, as is his goal against Spurs in 2004 which helped Arsenal earn the draw that not only won them the title on their rivals home ground but also helped them seal their place in history as the only undefeated side in the modern era.

Though considered a defensive midfielder, he was one of the rare players to defy convention and bring so much more to the team that simply protecting a back four. His ability to win the ball and instantly spring an attack was incredible and he could instantly flip from mixing tough challenges in the centre of the field to providing deft finishes to flowing moves of attacking genius.

His on again, off again transfer saga tarnished his legacy a little and being replaced by a great player like Fabregas probably made him missed less than under normal circumstances. Nevertheless, Arsenal fans still voted him the 5th best Gunner of all time and he is still the gold standard by which all centre midfielders are judged in the Premier League (it’s hard to find a ‘Team of the Decade’ which did not feature Vieira (Goal.com, ESPN) despite the fact he left in 2005).

1. Thierry Henry

The greatest player in Arsenal’s history? The best player in Premier League history? One of the best players of all time? These questions are debatable but what is not in question is the fact that Henry is Wenger’s best ever signing. Comparatively expensive by Wenger’s bargain hunting standards – though Chris Sutton, Sergei Rebrov, Emile Heskey, Robbie Keane, Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, Francis Jeffers, Juan Pablo Angel were all transferred for a similar fee – Henry arrived as an inconsistent left winger and departed as the team’s all time top scorer, greatest player and Premier League legend.

Trying to summarise his highlights in such a small space is all but impossible – hours of footage would be required – but a few particular gems include his chip and shot against United, his outrageous back heel against Charlton, the destruction of Zanetti in Arsenal’s 5-1 victory at the San Siro, the length of the field run against Spurs and this beauty against Chelsea (particularly satisfying is Henry’s reaction of almost disgust with how good he is). Alternatively, just check out this almost pornographic 10-minute montage of his best moments.

At the peak of his power between 2001 and 2006, Henry scored a mind boggling 130 league goals in 5 seasons with no other player managing to crack the century mark (van Nistlerooy was closest with 95).

Henry’s flamboyance and style represented Wenger’s impact on Arsenal and the Premier League as a whole, a far cry from the likes of Alan Smith and even the great Ian Wright who had come before. Henry’s arrival can be seen as the tipping point which turned Arsenal from a sometimes-title-contender to a world power and it is worth noting that Arsenal have not won a trophy since the mercurial Frenchman left for Catalunya (having won 2 league titles, 3 FA Cups and 2 Community Shields during his 8 years with the club).

Henry epitomises everything one looks for in a great Wenger signing: underrated by others, moulded into a new player, delivering success with style and then being sold for a profit. As we have seen, there have been plenty of other successes but never has the formula worked quite so well as it did when Henry came to Highbury.

By Chris Glover, PL Fantasy blog.

11 Responses

  1. is it not correct, so to speak, that wemger with the sale of anelka he bought most of the remainder of the list [well…] ;) for less than the anelka sale price.

    great piece. well researched. well written.
    well done
    peter

  2. avr says:

    finally an almost proper Arsenal list on the net…

    but I think selecting Lujnberg ahead of Pires is another debatable one among atleast a few fans…

    the only bad thing is seeing adebywhore on honurable mention while he missed abt 60 chances to score the 30 goals in a season playing as lone striker

    anyways a good work…

  3. avr says:

    I also cant see Verminator in the honurable mention when he had a great devut season and a lotta goals, while Chamakh is there after just a half season.

  4. Chris Glover says:

    avr – I bumped Ljungberg ahead of Pires based on the number of year’s of service he gave, the fact he was slightly more obscure when purchased and the fact that Arsenal didn’t lose much when they sold him. I agree that Pires was the better player and would not argue if Arsenal fans wanted him higher.

    As for Vermaelen, I probably should have put him in, I went with Chamakh just because he was free and whatever happens now, Arsenal could sell him for healthy profit where as I guess they could lose of Vermaelen. I agree he is an excellent player though and in 2 or 3 years could well be up on this list.

    Thanks for the comments.

  5. barry the gooner says:

    great memories if only………………………………………..

  6. scottpuffin says:

    Great list.
    I would’ve put Lehmann (£1.5m) in the list.

  7. sokem says:

    I really wish this Henry converted from a left winger by Wenger myth would disappear

    He was a striker at Monaco, he went to Juve, they played him on the left, he always was and always will be a striker.

    1. mark says:

      well technically it is correct. his manager at Monaco was wenger. When he started with them he was a left winger, then wenger moved him up front. When he left for Juve, they moved him back to the left wing. At arsenal, wenger moved him back up front.

      he wasnt always a striker, when he played with Monaco first it was on the wing, it was wenger who moved him, just not with arsenal

  8. Jahan says:

    am i the only one that is absolutely amazed bergkamp isn’t mentioned!???? surely he’s henry’s closest competitor for number 1

    1. Maybe because he wasn’t signed by Wenger…

  9. mohit says:

    the honorable mentions are wrong. i mean chamakh? no

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