Anelka - should have been an Arsenal legend
While I was working yesterday it seems that Twitter was awash with Arsenal fans naming variations of "Best XI's" under Arsene Wenger at Arsenal. Having missed out on the fun I thought I'd put together a blog post this afternoon of my own Arsene's XI, this one being based on a team put together from players signed by Wenger at Arsenal. Anyone in the first-team before his arrival is not included (I reserve the right to make an allowance for a certain player signed on Wenger's advice, but before his official appointment). Players brought in to the first-team from the youth system after Arsene came to Arsenal are also eligible. One of the good things about doing this on the blog rather than Twitter is that I can elaborate as to why each player has made the cut. Incidentally, at the bottom of the post I've listed my all time Arsene Wenger XI (players who've played for him at Arsenal) which is slightly different.
Goalkeeper - Jens Lehmann
How exactly do you replace David Seaman? When you think of the trouble Man Utd have had finding a new Peter Schmeichel you can see it's not easy. Quite apart from natural ability you need a man with skin thick enough to be able to put up with the constant comparison with his predecessor. Seaman's gloves were large ones to fill. Jens Lehmann coming in meant you could barely see the join. In truth Big Dave had been on the wane for some time, but that still didn't make it easy for Lehmann. His particular personality made it possible for him to come in and add his name to the pantheon of great Arsenal goalkeepers. It's worth noting that Jens didn't taste defeat in the Premier League until his 48th game in it. He was an outstanding goalkeeper for Arsenal, badly treated by Wenger at times. He should never have had to play second fiddle to Almunia in the way he did and it cost us the Title in 2008. I'll always be particularly fond of Jens Lehmann and he was the man that won us the FA Cup in 2005 with one of THE great performances in an Arsenal shirt.
Right-back - Lauren
This was a tough one. Bacary Sagna has been unbelievably consistent since he arrived. There was also Emmanuel Eboue to consider (okay, not really). For me Lauren gets the nod because he is one of the most under rated footballers I've ever known. He arrived as a midfield player, of course, and a very effective one. I've never really forgiven Arsene for leaving Lauren and Parlour our of the Cup Final team in 2001 when we contrived to lose to Liverpool - Ralph had destroyed Spurs midfield alongside Vieira in the semi-final. When he moved to right-back he was having to take over from Lee Dixon, a man many consider our finest ever in that position. With Dixon still around the place Lauren was able to learn from the master and he made the position his own until serious injury intervened. Ralph could tackle, run, cross and score goals. More than anything he was a genuine hard man. Nobody messed with Lauren and Ray Parlour says that Lauren was his and Freddie's "protector" on that right side of the Invincibles. Lauren was a top class player.
Left-back - Ashley Cole
There is no competition here in my opinion. Kieran Gibbs is getting better and better, but is not there yet. Gael Clichy simply plateaued as a player. Cashley was the best left-back in the World even before he left Arsenal. It serves as one of Arsene's greatest regrets, I'm sure, that we didn't get the best years of his career. Cole was the man destined to be the Arsenal Captain for many years. His personality defects sadly outweighed his love for The Arsenal and he chose to go Chelsea. His excuses over the years have been poor, and his digs at the Arsenal supporters when he won the European Cup at Chelsea were classless and unnecessary. It's sad that a player who should have been one of our greatest has ended up being one of our most hated. He was still a blinding player for us though.
Centre-back - Sol Campbell
Quite simply the most outstanding coup of a transfer probably in the history of the game. His second coming was also inspired. To sign the Captain of Tottenham Hotspur on a free transfer, just as he was entering his peak years as a player, was simply incredible. Big Sol was a tremendous player for Arsenal and replaced Tony Adams in a seamless fashion. He was colossal for Arsenal during our most successful period under Wenger and would be robbed by referees and injury of personal FA Cup glories. His goal in the Champions League Final got us so close to his Manager's Holy Grail in Paris. One of very few World Class players to join Arsenal at a time when they were in that category Sol is a legend of the Club.
Centre-back - Kolo Toure
Less easy than picking Campbell was finding someone to be paired with him in this team. Arsene has a chequered history with centre-halves. Mertesacker and/or Koscielny may yet force their way in to this sort of company over the next couple of years, but people like Vermaelen flickered and faded quickly while the likes of Cygan were never more than a decent squad player. William Gallas was another man whose personality let him down. Kolo arrived and nobody knew where he should play, not even Arsene Wenger. It seems that it was Martin Keown that suggested he should move in at centre-half in the Summer of 2003. That shows what a great Arsenal Man Keown was as it effectively meant seeing himself left out. With Keown's cajoling from the sidelines and advice in training, and Campbell and Lehman organising on the pitch Kolo was a star of the Invincible season. He was upset at not being made Arsenal Captain and that ultimately was what saw him move on. In truth we'd had the best out of Kolo and I'll never forget his trademark runs out of the defence, pushing us forward and making things happen. Kolo got his share of goals too and was a fabulous signing by Wenger - an archetypal Arsene Wenger buy, if you will.
Right wing - Freddie Ljungberg
It's well known that Arsene likes to scout players many times before he signs them. Freddie was the exception, signed on a whim when Le Boss gambled on him after watching Sweden v England on TV. Freddie scored on his debut but really he struggled to adapt for a year or so. He would get better and better and then cemented his position as a legend when Pires got injured in 2002. As a goalscoring midfield player he developed a seemingly telepathic bond with Dennis Bergkamp. Their combination was lethal, but never more so than in that run-in to the Double in 2001-2002. When injury finally robbed him of a yard of pace Freddie became a player who struggled, but we'd had great times with him. He loves the Club and we loved him.
Central midfield - Gilberto and Patrick Vieira
You can't have one without the other, in my opinion. There is obviously a case for putting Emmanuel Petit in there and it's a pretty close call. But Gilberto was the missing piece in Arsenal's footballing jigsaw for me. Like many I found him frustrating for a time. I couldn't understand what it was he did. Then he got injured and missed a few months. My God, how the Arsenal team missed him. At that point it was obvious what a great player Gilberto was. He was a leader on and off the pitch, and he skippered the side superbly in the first season at the new stadium while Thierry Henry was out injured. He should have been made Captain of Arsenal when Henry was sold. We still haven't really replaced Gilberto, who was released at least two years too early.
Vieira was Wenger's first gift to Arsenal. I don't think anyone will forget his debut against Sheffield Wednesday. With some players you just know from that first glimpse that they are that good. David Rocastle was like that. So were Jack Wilshere and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. Vieira was the best midfield player in the World as far as I was concerned. Forget any idea that Roy Keane has some kind of measure over him - Keane was afraid of Vieira because he knew Vieira wasn't scared of him. Patrick was the dominant force in Arsene Wenger's greatest Arsenal team and, like Gilberto, should never have been sold because he could never be replaced.
Left-wing - Robert Pires
This was a close one between Pires and Marc Overmars. Pires gets the nod because I think he was a better footballer than Overmars. He had more natural ability and skill. That's not to say that Overmars wasn't skillful, but I always feel Pires could be dangerous even when his pace had departed. For Overmars his speed was key. The combination Pires formed with Ashley Cole down Arsenal's left which allowed Thierry Henry to hammer sides was probably the key attacking component of the Invincibles. He was deservedly made Footballer Of The Year for 2001-2002 after a stellar season was cut short by a serious knee injury. That he came back to be even better tells you just how great a player Le Bob was. He left after the Champions League Final when he felt his early substitution (he was the man sacrificed after Jens was sent-off) meant he was now behind people like Hleb. That robbed us of at least two more years of Bobby at Arsenal.
Centre-forward - Thierry Henry
Quite simply Wenger's finest project. Having given him his debut as a kid at Monaco, Arsene kept tabs on Henry throughout his early years. He came to Arsenal as a winger who had briefly played in Italy (not quite as unsuccessfully as popular myth would like to suggest). After a settling in period where he struggled to adapt to English football Thierry would go on to be THE star of the Premier League. A multiple Footballer Of The Year winner he was the man who provided the gloss in Arsene Wenger's greatest side. He should have won us the Champions League in 2006 but failed to take his chances when they came that night, a familiar failing on the biggest of occasions. That doesn't detract from just what a great player he was however. The ability to control the football while running at such pace, and with such power, made him a phenomenon. Henry redefined centre-forward play in England, and probably throughout Europe. He was unstoppable over a three year period for Arsenal that brought us plenty of trophies. To me he is second only to Dennis Bergkamp as an Arsenal player.
Centre-forward - Nicolas Anelka
Slightly strange selection, I suppose. It's a shame that Anelka's career has always been simultaneously on the edge of greatness and calamity. That it now appears to have finished with the latter probably shouldn't be that much of a surprise. What a contrast to the teenager who fired us to Wenger's first Double in 1998, and nearly did it again the following season (though if Ian Wright hadn't thrown his toys out of the pram and stropped off to West Ham he might well have lost his place early in the next season after a series of bad misses). Young Player of the Year in 1999 he was persuaded by his family that he should agitate for a move away from Arsenal. When you see what happened to Henry under Wenger's tutelage you can only wonder how the even more talented Anelka (certainly as a goalscorer) might have developed. If he'd stayed then Henry might never have arrived, of course, but that makes it no less of a shame that his incredible talent never saw him become the best striker in World football. When we did sell him to Real Madrid it was for a profit of £22.5m. Wenger used it to build his training ground that would lay the foundation for the players and the success that lay ahead.
So there you have it. I suppose if I was picking some substitutes they would be:
Wojciech Szczesny, Bacary Sagna, Cesc Fabregas, Emmanuel Petit, Marc Overmars, Robin Van Persie.
As promised, this is the team that I would select if I was picking the best players to have appeared under Wenger:
Seaman, Dixon, Cole, Adams, Campbell, Ljungberg, Vieira, Gilberto, Pires, Bergkamp, Henry.
Subs: Lehmann, Keown/Bould, Lauren, Parlour, Overmars, Petit, Wright.