A huge factor in the Arsenal’s during the late 1990s-early 2000s were the players signed by Arsène Wenger. At a time of less scouting, Wenger was able to unearth true gems at bargain prices from overseas thanks to his extensive knowledge of the European game. These foreigners went on to become club legends and helped to make the Gunners one of the preeminent powers in England.
Currently, Arsenal are struggling through a long trophy drought. However, Wenger has maintained the club’s Champions League status on the budget given to him by purchasing young players from abroad and selling them for huge profits once they reach their peaks. This approach is beginning to frustrate the Arsenal fans and the French manager faces his greatest challenge yet in restoring the team to its former glory.
Looking back with nostalgia, here are Arsenal’s greatest foreign imports of the past 20 years:
10. Cesc Fàbregas
After being signed for nothing from Barcleona’s famous La Masia academy, Cesc Fàbregas soon made his mark at Arsenal, becoming their youngest ever first-team player at the age of 16 years and 177 days. The Spaniard broke into the first team in the 2005-6 season, replacing the departed Patrick Viera in Arsenal’s midfield and wowing fans with his playmaking ability and eye for goal. By 2008, Fàbregas was club captain and undoubtedly Arsenal’s best player.
The 25-year-old had many special moments at Arsenal, including a 25-yard strike in the North London Derby in 2008, a breathtaking solo goal in the same fixture a year later, and a long-shot at the San Siro to eliminate 2007 European champions A.C. Milan during their title defense. Unfortunately for Arsenal, they could not hold on to their influential captain and Fàbregas returned to his hometown club Barcelona for a fee of around €30 million in 2011.
9. Emmanuel Petit
When Arsene Wenger was manager at AS Monaco he gave Emmanuel Petit, who was still a teenager at the time, his debut for the club. Eventually, Wenger brought the versatile Frenchman to Arsenal in the summer of 1997.
Originally starting out as a defender, Petit was transformed under the manager into a complete midfielder. With great passing ability, awareness and intelligence on the pitch, Petit was also capable of breaking down opponents’ moves and turning them into Arsenal attacks. He played a huge part in the double-winning season of 1997/98, forming an understanding with his fellow countryman, a young Patrick Vieira, whose game he helped to develop.
8. Alexander Hleb
In June 2005, Hleb joined Arsenal for a sum rising to €15 million, on a four-year contract. Arsène Wenger used Hleb at many different midfield positions during his stay at the club, but mainly positioned the player on the right-flank.
The Belorussian was brilliant for Arsenal until his departure to Barcelona in 2008, and won many admirers in the prior season for his performance against Manchester United in a 2-2 league draw. What set Hleb apart from the rest was his ability to link up play in the midfield. Whether through pinpoint passing or dribbling while he awaited reinforcements to arrive, he possessed an uncanny sense of how to build an attack. When Hleb was at his best, he truly was a joy to watch and leaving the Emirates may have been the worst decision of his career after several seasons of loan spells following his Barcelona move.
7. Nwankwo Kanu
Purchased by Arsenal in 1999, the lanky Nigerian forward dazzled the Highbury faithful for five highly successful seasons. With great close control, silky skills and the ability to leave defenders dumbfounded with brilliant trickery, Kanu enjoyed many great moments in an Arsenal kit. He also had a talent for scoring spectacular goals, especially his third in a match against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge in 1999. Already bringing the Gunners back from 2-0 down, Kanu completed his hat-rick by curling the ball home from an impossible angle next to the corner flag after Chelsea keeper Ed de Goey mistakenly raced off of his goal-line. Winning two league titles and two FA Cups during his time in North London, Kanu is surely the best ever African footballer to play for Arsenal.
6. Robin Van Persie
A former Arsenal striker who has been transformed from a figure of praise to one of hate among Gunners fans is Robin Van Persie. Wenger signed the young Dutchman for £2.75 million from Feyenoord in 2004 and although he was initially blighted by injury, he eventually went on to become club captain and almost single-handedly guided Arsenal to third-place in the league last season.
Van Persie is Arsenal’s 8th all-time top scorer with 132 goals in 277 matches for the club, placing him above the likes of Dennis Bergkamp. A £24 million move to Manchester United over the summer aroused the wrath of the Arsenal fans. Perhaps, however, they will still remember the contribution he made to the club during his eight-year stay.
5. Freddie Ljungberg
Ljunberg was a handful for any team on his day. With quick feet and ability, he regularly destroyed defenses with pace and swiveled his way through direct and precise attacking play. He joined Arsenal from Swedish side BK Halmstad in 1998, going on to become a fan favorite and a pleasure to watch on the pitch.
The former Sweden international burst onto the English scene in electrifying fashion, netting on his debut in a 3-0 home win over Manchester United. Afterward, he continued to make a habit of scoring in big games, consecutively finding the back of the net in both the 2001 and 2002 FA Cup finals.
As red-hot as the streak in his hair at the time, Ljungberg was credited with the Player of the Season award in 2002 after some fine performances in Arsenal’s double-winning campaign. Overall, the Swede won two league titles and three FA Cups with the Gunners, and remains one of the best ever all-round attacking players to have featured in English football.
4. Dennis Berkamp
Now to Van Persie’s inspiration: fellow Dutch master Dennis Bergkamp. A £7.5 million transfer from Inter Milan in 1995, it rapidly became apparent that Bergkamp possessed unparalleled technical ability.
The Netherlands superstar was key in the move from “Boring, Boring Arsenal” to the beautiful flowing football of the Arsène Wenger era.
Playing as a second striker, Bergkamp scored and created goals with a cold efficiency that led to him being dubbed “The Iceman”. Goals such as his masterful touch and finish against Newcastle United in 2002 only further endeared him to the Arsenal supporters His partnerships with Ian Wright and later Thierry Henry are the stuff of legends, and the Durtchman helped Arsenal to four F.A. Cups and three Premier League titles during his 11-season spell at the club. In a poll on the official Arsenal website, Bergkamp was voted their second greatest player of all time, confirming his enduring place in the hearts of Gunners everywhere.
3. Patrick Vieira
Vieira was Arsène Wenger’s first signing. In fact, the manager requested the transfer of the midfielder for £3.5 million before he had even joined Arsenal.
Vieira was one of Wenger’s most important signings and quickly formed a partnership with Emmanuel Petit in the Gunners’ midfield. This pairing proved crucial to Arsenal’s Double win in 1998 — Vieira’s first full season at the club.
He was truly a unique player, combining power and athleticism with technical ability. He would win back possession with bone-crunching tackles before driving up the pitch to play a killer pass or unleash a powerful shot on goal.
After winning the double again in 2002, Vieira took over from Tony Adams as club captain and led Arsenal to perhaps their finest hour: the 2003/04 “invincible” season. His last act in a Gunners’ kit was to score the winning penalty in the 2005 F.A. Cup Final against Manchester United — a fitting send off for one of Arsenal’s most decorated captains.
2. Robert Pirès
Pirès joined Arsenal from Marseille for £6 million in 2000. Originally purchased to replace Marc Overmars, Pirès perfectly fit the mold of a right-footed player deployed on the left-wing to deadly effect.
After a tough start to life in England, he eventually settled into the side and went on to become one of Arsenal’s greatest ever midfielders. Adopting a quite unique running method, Pirès set the Premier League alight with some outstanding performances over his six-year stay.
Deceiving defenders with his quick feet and incredible passing, he could cut through teams with ease and was also known for scoring unbelievable goals. In fact, he scored goals at the rate of many strikers (84 goals in 284 appearances in all competitions) and could create them with the finesse of the finest playmakers. Pirès was voted the Football Writers’ Association Footballer of the Year as Arsenal won the Double in 2001/02.
1. Thierry Henry
Indisputably the greatest player to have ever sported the red-and-white kit, Thierry Henry is the only Arsenal player to have been cast in bronze outside the Emirates stadium.
During his nine years at Arsenal, the Frenchman practically made the beautiful game his own, amazing fans with his exceptional skill, lightning speed, technique and leadership quality. Henry’s set-pieces and match-winning goals were often shocking and his celebrations filled with rage and joy that would turn supporters into wild animals.
Henry received the captain’s armband in 2005 after Vieira’s departure, captaining the team during Arsenal’s final season at Highbury. He became the clubs all-time top scorer; surpassing Ian Wright’s record with two goals against Sparta Prague in 2005. All in all, Henry won two league titles and three FA Cups with Arsenal, while also captaining the team to the Champions League final in 2006.
Last January, the forward returned to the Emirates on loan and scored two magnificent goals. As one commentator once put it: ”He may be cast in bronze but he is still capable of producing gold.”
This season there have been rumors as to whether Henry will return for a third time, but surely the King could not do it again…could he?
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