The Frenchman has signed a number of stars for the Gunners throughout his reign, but also missed out on some high-profile names
Now that Arsene Wenger has signed a new contract with Arsenal until 2019, the 67-year-old is likely to turn his attention to the transfer market.
If any aspect of Wenger’s coaching career has been consistent, it is his ability to spot talent. What is more remarkable is the number of players he seems to have failed to sign. There may have been many things that Wenger “did not see” during his Arsenal career but, according to the man himself, rising stars across the football world are not among them.
In fact, Wenger has claimed to have wanted so many of the latest heralded prodigies down the years that you wonder how bad Arsenal’s negotiating powers must have been to fail to convince any of them to join. Well, we’ve done what Wenger failed to do in two decades in north London and composed a team of the players he has claimed to have wanted to sign, tried to sign, or simply spotted before anyone else.
To help whittle it down, we’ve left out the players who either revealed Arsenal interest themselves or who really, truly could have signed – they earn an honourable mention at the bottom. In defiance of the critics of Wenger’s latter years, we’re sticking to his attacking principles with an ambitious 3-1-4-2 formation. Quite frankly, you could have put these players in any system and filled some of the dusty shelves in the Emirates trophy cabinet…
He lost his place under Pep Guardiola, but Joe Hart was a mainstay of the Manchester City team that won two Premier League titles and established themselves as a force in English football. He has also cemented his place as the nigh-on undisputed number one for England’s national team. According to Wenger, he could have joined Arsenal before he forced his way into the City first team. “I remember when Hart played at Birmingham [in 2009-10],” he said. “I asked about him and they told me he is at Man City. I thought he would be the keeper there.”
Wenger hasn’t always got it right in defensive reinforcements but he saw something he liked in Chris Smalling during his Fulham days. Eventually, Arsenal were outmuscled by Manchester United, who signed the centre-back for a reported £7million. “I am sorry because we were very close to getting him,” said Wenger. “We were on the case very early. I wish the player well. At the end of the day it is important he has a good career.” He’s not everyone’s favourite but Smalling has certainly managed that. He has won two Premier League titles, an FA Cup and an EFL Cup with United and was named the players’ player of the year for 2015-16 after being one of the few to maintain consistent high standards under Louis van Gaal.
This one looked like it smarts a bit. Raphael Varane has developed into one of the world’s finest young defenders since joining Real Madrid in 2011 and has won two LaLiga titles and two Champions Leagues with the Spanish club. According to Wenger, it could have been very different. He told Eurosport: “He was at Lens, and we might well have caught him there. Yet at the same time, when you are in charge of a club like Arsenal, you have to wonder why this player is not playing for us.” Ouch. Getting Per Mertesacker from Werder Bremen instead wasn’t bad business, but the whole thing still rankles with Wenger.
Gerard Pique was more of a pipe dream than a certifiable option who snubbed the Gunners’ advances. The Spain international was one of a trio of Barcelona youngsters Wenger had his eye on back in 2003. “It worked only for Cesc Fabregas,” Wenger said in 2014 after revealing the three La Masia graduates he was after. In the end, Pique moved to Manchester United and claimed Premier League and Champions League winners medals before returning to Barcelona, where he has become one of the most decorated centre-backs in the modern game. Who was the third Barca boy, we hear you ask? You’ll find out later…
One of the latest additions to this formidable line-up, N’Golo Kante has been the driving force behind Premier League title charges from Leicester City and Chelsea in the last two seasons. He’s also established his place firmly in the France team. The all-round qualities of the combative, creative and utterly relentless 26-year-old led to inevitable questions about why Wenger never spotted the former Caen man’s potential and make an offer. Well, it’s quite simple: he did. Twice. Apparently. “Have I looked to sign Kante? Yes. When he was in France and when he was at Leicester,” Wenger said. “I cannot explain everything [about why he preferred Chelsea] but it is quite obvious when you look at where he has gone. Was it the money? I do not want to talk about that. Transfers are transfers – you cannot explain absolutely everything.”
Multiple leagues, Champions Leagues, domestic cups, Euro 2016 and four Ballons d’Or are just some of the trophies Cristiano Ronaldo has lifted. In fact, his personal museum in Madeira holds more accolades than Wenger brought to Arsenal in 20 years. Things would have been very, very different had it not been for compatriot Carlos Queiroz’s influence at Manchester United in 2003. At least, according to Wenger. “He was very close to coming here,” he told ITV. “He has a number nine shirt with Ronaldo on the back from Arsenal Football Club. What happened was that Carlos Queiroz went to Manchester United and they snapped him away from us because he knew him from Sporting.”
It has often been a bone of contention for Manchester United fans that they failed to get a deal for Ronaldinho over the line before he accepted Barcelona’s offer. The Brazilian left Paris Saint-Germain for Camp Nou in 2003 and became the leading star at a club that was striving to return to the glory days of Johan Cruyff’s Dream Team in the 1990s. A true modern great who also won three major tournaments with Brazil, Ronaldinho was one that got away for the Premier League’s elite – and, yes, that includes Arsenal again. “We could have got Ronaldinho before he went to PSG,” Wenger told Sky Sports. “I met his brother, who is his agent, a long, long time before he went to PSG – when he was 20 – but we just could not get him to England because of the rules here. Basically, what the rule does is force you to wait to buy the player but, by then, you cannot afford him anymore.”
Still wondering who that third Barcelona player was? Oh, just the man considered by many to be the greatest footballer of all time. Eight La Liga titles, four Champions Leagues, five Ballons d’Or, scoring records for Barca and Spain’s top flight – it’s all just the tip of the iceberg for the undisputed star of one of the greatest club sides the game has ever seen. Still, if Wenger had had his way, Messi would have learned much of his craft at London Colney rather than Catalonia. “I think, in the end, he was not so keen to move, because it was at a period where Fabregas came, and Fabregas and Messi played together in the same team,” Wenger said. “We wanted to take Fabregas, Messi and Pique. It worked only for Fabregas. It was down to the fact that, in the end, Messi was comfortable at Barcelona.”
A slight variation to the theme this time – according to Wenger, at least. The Arsenal manager says they looked at the Wales star while he was a fresh-faced (and slightly larger-eared) youngster at Southampton, while they were assessing young talents including Theo Walcott. Ultimately, Wenger decided against an offer. Bale ultimately joined Tottenham, where he was transformed from unwitting full-back to a man who eats full-backs for breakfast. “I must confess it was a huge mistake as he can play in midfield,” Wenger conceded in 2006. “He struggled at the start at Tottenham, then they moved him to midfield and he has done exceptionally well.”
A hero in the eyes of Chelsea fans and a real scourge of the Arsenal defence, Didier Drogba was one of the continent’s finest centre-forwards for half a decade. He won 12 major trophies, including four league titles and the Champions League, across two spells at Stamford Bridge. Chelsea forked out a reported £24million for Drogba in 2004, but Arsenal could have signed him for a fraction of that price two years earlier. Please explain, Mr Wenger… “We watched Drogba very carefully when he was at Le Mans and his value was just £100,000. But we felt at the time he might not be completely ready… Looking back now, of course it was a mistake.” Yup.
The final starting spot goes to the most recent entry. Kylian Mbappe has taken Europe by storm this season, scoring 26 goals and assisting 14 as Monaco roared to a Ligue 1 title triumph and a place in the Champions League semi-finals. Practically every elite club in the world is reportedly lining up a bid for the 18-year-old, with offers as high as €150m suggested depending on who you listen to. Wenger, however, could have snapped him up for something significantly less than that had a visit to the forward’s house last year gone to plan. “The player would tell you that I was at his home last year to try to get him here because he was at the end of [his] contract, but Monaco managed to keep him and the decision was very, very tight,” Wenger said. “But I could understand it as well because he was educated there and at the end decided to stay there.”
ON THE BENCH
If that starting line-up isn’t formidable enough, just look at the options on the bench for our If-Only-Eh-Arsene XI.
Dimitri Payet (“He played at Saint-Etienne and we watched him many times”), Angel Di Maria (“We identified Di Maria when he was 17… he could not get a work permit here”), Eden Hazard (“I had his agent at my home but again the barrier was financial and Chelsea made an effort that I couldn’t make”), Kingsley Coman (“Yes we really tried to sign Kingsley Coman in the summer of 2014. The transfer was almost completed, but he preferred Juventus”), Romelu Lukaku (“Yes, we knew him in Belgium but at the time he opted to go to Chelsea”) Yaya Toure (“It’s not because we did not want to sign him that he went to Ukraine) and Paul Pogba (“We tried to get him to come here. But he very quickly signed for Juventus”).
We couldn’t let these names slip through the net entirely.
Gianluigi Buffon: He claimed to have met with Wenger in 1998, while he was still at Parma. He went to Juventus in the end. Vincent Kompany: This one came from the player’s agent, rather than Wenger himself. Apparently the centre-back had been scouted by Arsenal before joining Manchester City in 2008. Roberto Carlos: The Brazil great actually said he wanted to go to Arsenal, but apparently never got a phone call. “When my contract finishes [the Premier League] is definitely my priority and at Arsenal there are fellow Brazilians,” he said towards the end of his Real Madrid deal. Luis Suarez: Wenger launched a definite bid to sign the striker from Liverpool in 2014. However, his £40,000,001 bid – which he hoped would trigger Suarez’s release clause – only served to infuriate Anfield officials, who allowed him to leave for Barcelona instead. Zlatan Ibrahimovic: Another who went for a trial at Arsenal, the story goes that the striker – then only 16 – rejected the chance to sign for the Gunners after being asked to prove himself. “Zlatan doesn’t do auditions” was his famous assessment.