Original article published 17 October 2022
As part of our Top 10 series, we’re looking at the Top 10 signings made by Arsene Wenger.
In 1996, Arsenal raised eyebrows with the appointment of Wenger. Virtually unknown in England, it would prove to be one of the best managerial appointments in English football history, with the manager making a number of signings that would have just as big an impact on the game as the man himself.
Having worked with Emmanuel Petit at Monaco, Arsene Wenger had a good idea about who he was buying, but was nonetheless impressed by Petit’s performances at Highbury.
A tenacious defensive midfielder with an excellent reading of the game and the ability to pick a pass, Petit’s impact at Arsenal was instant. The Frenchman joined compatriot Patrick Vieira in midfield as the pair started 27 league games together en route to the double.
Although Arsenal would be without silverware in 1999 as Manchester United did the treble, no United central midfielder would be named in the Team of the Year, as Vieira and Petit occupied both spots.
While most players in this list were a part of great Arsenal teams, playing roles in trophy-winning sides, the same sadly can’t be said for Robin van Persie.
However, all things considered, Van Persie must go down as one of Wenger’s best signings, and it’s through no fault of his own that Arsenal were largely trophy-less during his spell.
For many years his potential looked like going unfulfilled – a player capable of brilliant goals, but one who struggled with injuries and didn’t even average 10 goals a season, and with the exit of Thierry Henry, a goalscorer became of increasing importance.
That said, Van Persie did often score when he was fit and playing. He typically averaged around 0.50 goals per 90 through his injury-hit seasons, and left with a record of 0.65 goals per 90 – better than contemporaries Didier Drogba, Wayne Rooney and both Nicolas Anelka and Carlos Tevez at all of their Premier League clubs.
Suddenly, on New Year’s Day 2011, Van Persie transformed into one of the most clinical strikers in Premier League history.
Beset by more fitness issues in the first half of the season, Van Persie’s first goal of the campaign wouldn’t come until the turn of the year. He’d score 18 goals in the final 17 games of the season.
The Dutchman picked up where he left off the following term. Despite scoring one in his opening five games, Van Persie would score 30 Premier League goals, becoming only the fourth player to reach the milestone in a 38-game season.
So lethal was Van Persie, he’d not only be named in the Team of the Year, but he’d win the Golden Boot, Players’ Player of the Year and FWA Footballer of the Year.
By the end of the 1990s, Sol Campbell had established himself as one of the best central defenders in the Premier League, who’d captained Tottenham to the League Cup in 1999. However just two years later, he opted to leave on a free transfer, unthinkably joining arch rivals Arsenal.
The move would pay dividends, as Arsenal transitioned from the formidable back four of the 90s, to a similarly formidable one of Lauren – Toure – Campbell – Cole.
The Gunners won the double in Campbell’s first season at Highbury, and won the FA Cup the following season, with Campbell being named in the PFA Team of the Year.
Campbell retained his place in the Team of the Year in 2004, as well as being a crucial part of the Invincibles.
Although Campbell would play a more subdued role in his final two years with Arsenal, he did become the fourth English player to score in a Champions League final, as Arsenal came up agonisingly short against Barcelona, at the end of a season in which Arsenal kept 10 consecutive clean sheets in Europe – a Champions League record.
Nobody on this list featured as briefly for Arsenal as Nicolas Anelka, but considering the profit made from the signing – and what it was spent on, as well as his final season at Highbury, he’s impossible to ignore.
His first full campaign saw him play key parts in Arsenal’s double success, scoring the second goal in the Gunners’ 2--0 win over Newcastle, with 12 goals and assists in the league.
While Arsenal would fail to win a major trophy the following season, Anelka would find a new gear, scoring 17 goals in the league, aged just 19.
He’d win PFA Young Player of the Year and be named alongside Dwight Yorke in the Team of the season, beating out the likes of Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, Michael Owen and Andy Cole.
His £22m sale to Real Madrid that summer would allow Arsenal to build a new training ground, with money to sign his replacement – a certain Thierry Henry.
After an exciting start to his Arsenal career in 1997, Marc Overmars went slightly off the boil in the winter, before coming good once more in the new year, most memorably at against Manchester United.
With Arsenal hunting their title rivals down, they’d closed the gap from 12 points to six with two games in hand when going to Old Trafford. Overmars ran the show and was a deserved scorer of the winning goal – the first goal Arsenal had scored at Old Trafford in the Premier League era.
The Gunners would go on to topple United with Overmars becoming a double winner in his first season – scoring the winning goal at Wembley.
Although his stint at Highbury would only last three years, he’d reach double figures for goals and assists in all three, before being sold on for a huge profit to Barcelona, who signed the Dutchman for £25m.
While Freddie Ljungberg’s first three seasons at Highbury coincided with Manchester United’s three consecutive titles, the Swede would be integral in overthrowing their rivals in 2001/02.
Around the halfway point of the season, Ljungberg scored the winning goal and the opening goal in the home and away games with Liverpool, and with Arsenal hunting United down, Ljungberg would score six goals in five games towards the end of the season, including the winners against Bolton, West Ham and Ipswich and the opener in the North London derby against Tottenham, ultimately being awarded Premier League Player of the Season.
It wasn’t just big Premier League games where Ljungberg proved crucial – scoring four times against Manchester United – he’d score the opener in the 2001 FA Cup final, where Arsenal could count themselves unfortunate to lose.
The following season he’d get the winners’ medal his goals deserved, with a wonderful run from his own half, followed by a brilliant curling effort clinching the FA Cup against Chelsea.
Leaving Barcelona to join rivals Chelsea was never going to sit well with Arsenal fans, but it shouldn’t overshadow just how good Cesc Fabregas was for Arsenal.
Signing as a 16-year-old, Fabregas spent a year adapting to life in England, and when a number of midfielders were forced to the sidelines through injury, the 17-year-old stepped into the void.
Fabregas’s second full season at the club would see him permanently replace Patrick Vieira, who departed for Juventus.
The following season, while still a teenager, Fabregas would make his breakthrough into the Premier League. Though he already had 54 Premier League starts to his name, Fabregas would reach double figures for assists for the first time – something he’d achieve three more times at the Emirates – and was named Arsenal’s Player of the Year.
Thierry Henry would depart in the summer of 2007, but it would prove to be the making of Fabregas. Having finished 24 and 21 points behind the champions in the last two seasons, Fabregas’s performances would see Arsenal challenge for the title once more, finishing just four points behind Manchester United.
He topped the league’s assist charts with 17, and was named in the Premier League’s Team of the Year, as well as winning Young Player of the Year, and missing out to Cristiano Ronaldo for Player of the Year – all at the age of 20.
The following season, Fabregas would be named Arsenal captain but saw his season curtailed through injury. He’d bounce back stronger than ever, though, recording 15 goals and 13 assists as he was again named in the Premier League Team of the Year, before being sold back to Barcelona for £35m.
The summer of 2000 saw Arsene Wenger once again look to France. Replacing Marc Overmars would be no easy feat, but Wenger beat some of Europe’s biggest names to capture Pires.
Though his impact wouldn’t be instant, Pires did record 11 G/A in his maiden campaign, upping that significantly from there.
In the next four seasons, he’d average more than 20 G/A per season, finding the back of the net 14 times in each of the 02/03, 03/04 and 04/05 terms.
Not blessed with lightning pace like his predecessor, or the archetypal wide midfielder, Pires had mesmerising feet; his trickery, decision-making and technique could leave defenders in a stupor, with Tottenham feeling his wrath more than anyone else.
In 12 appearances against their North London rivals, Arsenal wouldn’t lose a game in which Pires played, and the Frenchman managed to bag eight goals in those fixtures, ultimately being named by fans as Arsenal’s sixth greatest player of all time.
Although Patrick Vieira technically preceded Arsene Wenger’s arrival in North London, Wenger had wanted Vieira to join ahead of him being released from his contract with Grampus Eight.
At 6ft4, Vieira was a giant in the Arsenal midfield, and the prototypical box-to-box midfielder. Strong, fast and could run all day, Vieira balanced his physical gifts with his technical gifts. Capable of winning possession from his opposite number, picking a pass, and scoring from both inside and outside the box, Vieira had it all, the perfect midfielder.
Though his first season would prove fruitless, the revolution at Arsenal was underway, and the second season saw a 21-year-old Vieira became a Premier League winner for the first time.
The following season saw Vieira named in the PFA Team of the Year, and around the turn of the millennium, while the likes of Roy Keane, Paul Scholes, Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard would all take spots, Vieira was the only mainstay, for five straight years, such was his dominance in the middle of the park in the English top flight.
In his last five seasons at Highbury, Arsenal would win either the league or FA Cup. Such was his influence and impossibility to replace, the Gunners have still not won a title since his departure, and it took them nine years to lift the FA Cup again.
A three-time Premier League winner, a four-time FA Cup winner and an Invincible.
Not just Arsene Wenger’s greatest signing, but arguably the Premier League’s greatest signing.
Wenger had worked with Henry previously at Monaco, and with his move to Juventus not quite playing out as planned, Wenger moved to bring Henry to Highbury.
Wenger saw the potential in Henry to convert him from a winger into a centre-forward, and while the adaptation to English football took a few months, by the end of the season, the then-22-year-old was banging them in for fun, finishing the campaign with nine goals in his final seven games.
His second season would mark his maiden appearance in the PFA Team of the Year, a place he would hold onto for six seasons, finally being deposed after an injury-hit 2006/07 season.
From 2001 to 2006, Teddy Sheringham, Ruud van Nistelrooy (twice), Alan Shearer, Andy Johnson and Wayne Rooney would be named as forwards in the PFA Team of the Year, but Thierry Henry would be the constant throughout those years.
Henry’s third season would see him break the 20-goal mark with Arsenal regaining the Premier League title, with the season after seeing Henry break both the 20-goal and 20-assist barrier in the same season, perhaps unfortunate to finish runner-up in the Ballon d’Or.
Henry broke through another barrier in 2003/04, becoming the third player to reach the 30-goal mark in a 38-game Premier League season, and Arsenal not only won the league, but did so without losing a single game.
All in all, Henry would leave Arsenal having scored 175 league goals and laying on 74 assists in 258 games across two spells – better than one goal or assist every 90 minutes, for eight full seasons.
As well as being named in the Team of the Year six times, he’d be named PFA Player of the Year twice, ultimately immortalised in bronze outside the Emirates.