With Arsene having extended his tenure at Arsenal for a further four years, I felt I could not let the news pass without comment. (Evidently, neither could inventor of the wheel and slayer of Julius Cesar, David Dein). But it was difficult not to merely regurtitate well versed superlatives that I have seen and produced myself for a good number of years. Then I got to thinking about what Wenger's most prominent quality is, which of his plethora of attributes really sets him apart? A choice like this is akin to selecting indefinitely which member of Girls Aloud you'd most like to.....well, you get the picture. I read a very good piece on football 365 last week and one sentence really struck me, 'if Ferguson is the most successful and Mourinho is the most charismatic (in other words, the biggest ****) then Wenger is undoubtedly the most astute manager in the Premiership.' Of course, whilst Ferguson and Mourinho wave their chequebooks with liberal abandon, Wenger's ability to unearth raw talent and shape rough diamonds into the most pricely gems is renowned the world over. So I thought I would profile his five most astute purchases. Now, the conditions for this list do not merely dictate his five most successful buys, otherwise there is no way on earth Robert Pires's name would be missing from the list. But Pires was a player of some renown when we bought him (admittedly not anything close to the world superstar who strutted his stuff on Arsenal's left wing for six years). Similarly, Marc Overmars narrowly misses out. The temptation to put him is strong given his recovery from a cruciate ligament injury, but most of the footballing world was aware of his talent. Cesc Fabregas also does not make it yet, in years to come he will probably top this list, but at the moment he is at the beginning if his potential (a sobering thought) and time will tell the tale of his legend. So these are my five Wenger specials, in reverse order.
5.Nicolas ANELKA- At the beginning of his tenure Wenger made a rather unremarkable £200,000 purchase from Paris Saint Germain. A 17 year old striker called Nicolas Anelka. The deal barely troubled any column inches and when he was unveiled on the pitch prior to a home game against Wimbledon, the applause were muted. But Anelka bounded, sprinted and glided his way into the team aged just 18, ousting legendary striker Ian Wright. Anelka's amazing pace and eerie compsure in front of goal saw him help shoot Arsenal to the Double, scoring the winner in the 1998 Cup Final. Wright was sold that summer, and with the sumptuous service from Dennis Bergkamp, Anelka finished top scorer aged just 19 in the following season. His potential attracted many suitors, culminating in a bitter, drawn out departure, with words of acrimony flying between Dein and Anelka. Wenger and Dein bullied Real Madrid out of £23.5m, which Wenger used to build a training ground and to buy a shot shy winger from Juventus. Anelka never lived up to his enormous potential without Wenger's guiding hand, I still have the distinct feeling Anelka realises this and that he might yet get another chance under Wenger's stewardship. (How times change, eight years ago I wanted Anelka out and admired Dein's dealing with the whole affair. Time has seen the position transposed).
4.Emmaunuel PETIT- With the legendary back five still in good shape, eyebrows were raised when Wenger forked out £3m for French centre half Emmanuel Petit in the summer of 1997. As ever, Wenger had seen something others had not. Petit's cultured left foot and steely tackling made him the ideal central midfield player. He protected his back four with erstwhile determination, while his array of jettisoned passing ably supplied wing heeled wonders Overmars and Anelka. His near telepathic partnership with Patrick Vieira was the bedrock of Arsenal's success and Petit established himself as a lynchpin of France's World Cup success, scoring in the final with a memorable assist from Vieira. His time ended slightly sourly, the ponytailed midfielder refused to undergo surgery on his left knee, against Wenger's advice. Wenger sold him soon after amidst a wave of hysteria. Petit never recovered his form and once again, the manager had let a player go at the correct time. (See also, Vieira, Henry, Ljungberg, Overmars, Edu etc, etc).
3.Kolo TOURE- Another one of Wenger's very low key signings. Arriving for £200,000 in February 2002 (amazingly, that makes him our longest serving player at present) from the Ivorian league, Toure plied his trade in a number of positions (everywhere bar goalkeeper actually). He demonstrated impressive energy, but seemed unsure how to harnass it. That is until Martin Keown suggested to Wenger that Toure would make the ideal centre half. Keown gave up his place in the starting line up as Toure was charged with marking van Nistelrooy in the 2003 Charity Shield. He did a sterling job and maintained his place next to Sol Campbell in the Arsenal defence. Arsenal finished the campaign unbeaten with Toure seeing more minutes than any other player that season. With Campbell injured/ having a breakdown, Toure manned a young Arsenal defence into the Champions' League Final, playing all ten matches in a record breaking run of clean sheets. Now Toure is one of the first names on the teamsheet and has been entrusted with the vice captaincy. He is one in a string of inspired Wenger buys, but the reason he makes this list can be summarised as follows, you can get 150 Kolo Toures for one Rio Ferdinand.
2.Thierry HENRY- The prophets of doom were in soothsaying mood when Arsenal were forced to sell the young starlet Anelka. Arsenal signed Davor Suker, but it was a seemingly less illustrious gamble that would pay enormous dividends. Henry had attracted Wenger's interest before, having worked together at Monaco when Henry was a teenager, but Juventus ousted us for his signature in 1998. But with Henry's spell in Turin proving fruitless, wasting away on the left wing, demoted back to the France U-21 side, many an eyebrow arched skywards when Arsenal came knocking again. His first few games in an Arsenal shirt became the butt of many a joke, including Henry himself claiming that he got closer to the Clock End timepiece than the net in his embryonic appearances. But a stunning strike at the Dell set Henry away on a scoring record that would see him land three golden boots, finish Arsenal's top scorer in seven consecutive seasons and become Arsenal's record goalscorer. He would also break the Premiership record for assists in a season and won award after accolade after trophy. Between 2002-2005 there was no better player on this planet, during the Invincible campaign of 2003/04, Henry produced the most scintilating form this writer has ever seen. The glorious moments are endless, the fifty yard sprint versus Spurs, the mesmerising slalom v Liverpool, the swivel and smash over Barthez, the backheel against Charlton, the slaying of Madrid and, my favourite, lifting the ball over Paul Robinson despite the notable handicap of being sent tumbling to the floor by Gary Kelly. I have said much about his last two seasons in an Arsenal shirt and stand by my comments, but Henry was a genius at work and a hallmark signing for this club.
1.Patrick VIEIRA- Simply, Vieira was the symbol of Wenger's Arsenal. Powerful and ruthless, yet gracile and ballerina like in equal measure. Equally capable of flattening a fiteen stone oik, or flipping the ball over his head and bounding away in time honoured fashion, barely masking his contempt for anyone who dared make themselves available for such ritualistic humiliation. The Senegalese powerhouse made an instant impression in his debut, replacing Ray Parlour as the Gunners' were struggling to a 1-0 defecit at home to Sheffield Wednesday. The 20 year old turned the game around as Arsenal romped home 4-1. He continued to impress throughout his debut campaign, but excelled himself when Wenger bought him an accessory. Manu Petit. Vieira's boundless energy and awe inspiring power saw him run games single handedly, Vieira was very much a product of his hybrid of cultures, with the poise and finesse of his Gaellic education with the firey beating African heart. His temper would get the better of him on many an occasion, but once he was made skipper in 2002, Vieira found a maturity and a responsibility that would muliply his already impressive repertoire. He became the fulcrum of Arsenal's success as his captaincy saw two F.A Cups and an unbeaten Premiership title. His titanic tussles with fellow firebrand Roy Keane were the stuff of legend. Vieira's prominence was probably at its height one March evening in 2003. Arsenal, still chasing the title, travelled to Stamford Bridge for a Cup replay and chose to rest seven first team players. Vieira would lead out a shadow side with his right knee heavily strapped. Chelsea smelled blood, but ended up getting bloodied noses themselves as Vieira absolutely owned the pitch, setting up two early Arsenal goals. At one point in the second hlaf, with the Gunners down to ten men and holding a 2-1 lead, Vieira was relentlessly hunted by three Chelsea players from the left touchline, all the way to the right touchline and back into the centre circle. Not one of them even landed a slight brush on the ball. His last act in an Arsenal shirt was to smash home the winning penalty in the 2005 F.A Cuop Final shoot out. It was a fitting end to the most symbolic of careers. But the great thing is, the inheritor of his number four shirt, Cesc Fabregas, looks every bit capable of surpassing Vieira's legend. Therein lies the genius of our manager, we are very lucky to have him.LD.