Writer: Tim Stillman
Date:Friday December 18 2009
The end of the calendar year is always a time for review, retrospect and, in some cases, regret. Over the coming weeks you will doubtless see countless lists, awards and clip shows denoting the events of the year. But we are also of course, lest we forget, in the death throes of a decade too and what a marvellous decade it has been for Arsenal too. When you take a step back and list just some of the gargantuan achievements of the club in the noughties, you will be taken aback to discover just how far this manager has escalated the club. The noughties have seen Arsenal collect three F.A. Cups and two league titles- one of those Premiership crowns collected without so much as a single defeat. There`s been the 49 match unbeaten run, the club`s first ever appearance in a European Cup Final and the epoch making move to our glorious new arena. The era has seen Arsenal become the kings of total football, with goals such as Bergkamp`s ballet inspired tuck and twirl at St. James` Park, Henry`s dance around the entire Liverpool defence just as a season threatened to unravel and van Persie`s gravity defying at the Valley. Scintillating matches have become par of the course in our patch of North London, who could forget the nerve shredding encounters with Real Madrid, the league victories at White Hart Lane and Old Trafford and, perhaps my favourite, the swashbuckling comeback to beat Middlesbrough 5-3 at Highbury to equal Nottingham Forest`s unbeaten record? I shall pen articles over the festive period counting down the best games and goals of the noughties, but firstly I`d like to focus on the best players of the noughties.
Deciding the best players of a decade is a tricky and emotive business. Arsenal have been incredibly blessed with the talent available to them in the last ten years. I am going to construct my own personal top three count down; starting here at number three. This already presents problems, for instance, if there are only three places, then two of Bergkamp, Henry, Vieira, Pires and Fabregas are not going to make the cut at all. All five would have reasonable claims to trouble the top three slots for Arsenal`s best player since its inception in 1886! The game has also evolved to such a stage now where players move clubs frequently and the terms "stalwart", "long serving" and "club legend" are becoming dusty relics of a bygone age. Our squad in December 1999 had six players who had been at the club in 1990 (Seaman, Dixon, Winterburn, Bould, Adams and Parlour), constructing a similar list in 2009 is trickier and one of the minimum criteria for inclusion has to be for at least five years of service during the decade. (Emmanuel Adebayor will no doubt, at the conclusion of my three choices, rage to the press about how terribly undervalued he is in N5). So, stepping in at number 3:
Robert Emmanuel Pires. In the summer of 2000, Arsenal set a summer trend that would continue for a decade. After spellbinding opening seasons in Arsenal shirts, Emmanuel Petit and Marc Overmars had visibly started to shift their interest elsewhere. Rumours of an Overmars move to Barcelona had persisted all season and frankly, his displays during the 1999-2000 season were of a man whose ambitions lay in La Liga. So Wenger moved two of his best known players who had begun to under perform at enormous profit. Cries of "decline" and "disintegration" could be heard up and down the gutter press as two of the vital cogs of the 1998 Double Team had gone; with Anelka having been sold a year earlier and the famous back five creeping closer towards pension age. How would Arsenal cope without Overmars` fifteen plus goals a season from the left wing? Which other left winger could dovetail technically with the immense technical ability of Bergkamp? Which other left winger was capable of finishing ruthlessly in the penalty area with left or right foot? As ever, Wenger already had his answer. So the day after teeing up France`s winning goal in the Euro 2000 Final against Italy, Robert Pires snubbed the advances of boyhood heroes Real Madrid (Pires is of strongly Iberian parentage) and signed for Arsenal for £6.5m. His compadre and France team mate Sylvain Wiltord would join a month later which freres Henry and Vieira already on board. The fulcrum of France`s era defining national side was playing its trade in Nawf Laandan guv.
Pires admitted that he had a difficult time adapting to the more physical nature of the Premiership, hardly the world`s most aggressive footballer, after sitting on the substitutes bench for his first view of Premier League football described the game as "brutal." (Of course, Patrick Vieira was sent off that day!) The haze of hindsight causes Arsenal fans to describe Pires` first season as "rubbish" which is quite some way from the truth. In comparison to what he would deliver in the campaign after, he was average. But by the standards of your average Premiership footballer, it was an insouciant first impression indeed. He registered his first goal for Arsenal in the Stadio Olimpico with a group clinching equaliser away at Lazio. The finish was sublime and was foreboding of the kind of ruthless yet soft touch he had in front of goal. With the Lazio keeper bearing down on him, Pires opened out his body and nonchalantly arced the ball into the top corner. Pires became an instant fixture in the side on the left hand side, but he was acclimatising to the league at the same time that Arsenal were laying down the foundations for a new team. Indeed, Pires was playing in front of a shifting left back as Silvinho was gradually muscled out of his position by Ashley Cole, Patrick Vieira did not have a settled central midfield partner, with Ray Parlour, Lauren and Gilles Grimandi taking it in turns. It was in the second half of 2000-01 that Pires really began to make his mark and he did so in the grand manner in April 2001, showing his penalty box prowess to sweep home the winner in the 2001 F.A. Cup Semi Final versus Spurs at Old Trafford, having also scored a memorable goal against the same opponents at Highbury a month earlier, the day that the previous incumbent of his number 7 shirt tragically passed away. He would finish on the losing side in the 2001 Cup Final against Liverpool, despite setting up Freddie Ljungberg with typically unselfish play for what appeared to be the winning goal. Though Pires took time to get going in footballing terms, his personal life settled very quickly. With the legions of French players at the club, he found kindred spirits easy to come by. In fact, he infamously never became fluent in English during his time in London. This did not unduly compromise his ability to settle in in London, as a child Pires often felt isolated at school as his French was not particularly good- his Portuguese mother and Spanish father barely spoke the language in his formative domestic years.
But it was season 2001-02 in which Pires would arrive in the grand manner. He began the season in central midfield away at Middlesbrough, running the show, scoring from the penalty spot and setting up two further goals in a 4-0 rout at the Riverside. He followed this up with a goal and two assist in a 4-0 home win against Leicester. Pires began to forge any number of devastating partnerships all over the pitch; there were times on Arsenal`s left hand side when you felt that Henry and Pires might as well have been given their own ball to play with and leave the other 20 onlookers to get on with it. Ashley Cole became the first choice left back and the two forged a devastating symbiosis. One of the common myths that has grown up around Pires` tenure was his lack of defensive nous. I find this hard to countenance, though he was never the toughest tackler, those that watched games live will have noticed that he always tracked back and whenever Ashley Cole headed the ball clear, Pires was in position and on hand to launch a trademark counter attack. Pires was an unorthodox left winger in that he spent very little time on the touchline. He was just as likely to pop up in the centre circle with a defence splitting pass for the likes of Henry, Wiltord or Ljungberg (his defence splitting injury time pass for Henry at home to Aston Villa comes to mind, or his raking pass that split Blackburn`s defence in twain for Thierry to notch at Ewood Park)) as he was to pop up in the penalty area with a devastating finish as a result of an Henry or Bergkamp assist. This was total football and Pires was at the very fulcrum of it.
As well as breaking the record for Premiership assists for the 2001-02 campaign (despite missing the last two months of the season), Pires totalled thirteen goals in forty five appearances- an outstanding return for most strikers, let alone a left midfielder. There were some outstanding goals in there too, his looping volley at home to Middlesbrough or his coup de grace, the moment that defined his season. At Villa Park, with Arsenal in the thick of the title race, they led 1-0 at Villa Park and David Seaman had just saved a penalty. From the rebound, Ljungberg launched a long ball leaving Pires to give chase with George Boateng, he lifted the ball over Boateng`s head, leaving the Dutch midfielder dazed and confused before composing himself to deliver a delightful lob over the head of a helpless Peter Schmeichel. It was a goal that summed up Pires` ability as a player; it elucidated his speed of thought, his fleet of foot and the sangfroid that enabled his unerring execution. Pires caressed the ball with such delicacy you felt he could do 100 keepy uppies with an egg without so much as denting the shell. One week later, it was with some tragedy that he ruptured his cruciate ligament in an F.A. Cup game against Newcastle when hurdling a challenge from Nikos Dabisaz and landing awkwardly. The self proclaimed "best supporters in the land" of Newcastle behind the goal spat at his stretcher as he was carried off and cheered ironically. His season had been curtailed in a most unbefitting manner; thankfully the team would not let the antics of the Geordies be the abiding image of his season. They sauntered onto the league title without him and instead produced one of Highbury`s most iconoclastic image. As the players lifted the Premiership trophy one by one in squad number order, Pires was left until last to collect the trophy. As he did, the entire Arsenal squad bowed before him in homage. He also collected the Football Writers` Footballer of the Year. Both were deserved accolades.
Pires did not return from injury until October 2002, but within a few games, it was as if he`d never been away, reassuming his partnership with Messrs Cole and Henry on the left flank. He won Premiership Footballer of the Month for February 2003 and managed 16 goals in 42 appearances- which was an improvement on his ratio in the previous season. His goal at the Reebok Stadium in April 2003, a delightful shift and shot from the edge of the area, should have been remembered as the goal that set Arsenal on their way to the title. But the capitulation at 2-0 would bring a dreary end to a season that had promised so much. Pires still had time to bag a quite delightful hat trick in a 6-1 victory over Southampton; his third an outrageous lob from forty yards followed by typically insouciant finger wagging celebration. He also managed to commit his game to the echelons of Arsenal history forever more with the winning goal in the 2003 F.A. Cup Final against Southampton, a typically tidy penalty box finish to punctuate a flowing move.
Despite the F.A. Cup victory, the Arsenal squad still had a sense of unfinished business in the Premiership, having let it slip from their grasp in the spring of 2003. Pires himself actually started the 2003-04 season sluggishly, losing his place in the side after a controversial dive in the home fixture against Portsmouth. But he kick started his campaign in style, scoring a screaming, swirling, bending thirty yarder to seal three points at Anfield in October and he never looked back. He again headed Arsenal`s assists chart for the Invincible season and registered 19 goals in 50 appearances. His goal scoring feats were escalating all the time, with penalty box 'sniffer` finishes such as one in a 4-1 home victory over Middlesbrough, a ball breaking loose in the area for Pires to sense the chance and lash the ball in with typical aplomb. There was also the beautifully cratfed curler against Bolton; Bergkamp cushioned down Edu`s chip and Pires ran onto the ball with typical intelligence to gracefully bend the ball beyond Jaaskelainen. Then there was the small matter of climbing above John Terry to score a close range header in the Champions League away leg at Stamford Bridge. Yet he had lost none of the altruism that was a chief function in Arsenal`s style of football. Arsenal sauntered to the title undefeated with a 2-2 draw at White Hart Lane. Pires` role in the second goal again cutely summing him up. Beginning the move whilst roving around the centre circle searching out a probing pass, he then finished the move, tucking Patrick Vieira`s cutback past Kasey Keller. Pires was again a league champion and, in this humble writer`s opinion, leagues above any other wide player on the planet. Quite how he was so persistently omitted from the short lists of the game`s top individual awards is a mystery that will reside within me until my dying day.
Pires continued his insatiable scoring form into 2004-05, even if his more imperious form became more modest by his standards as he entered his thirties; he managed 17 goals in 47 appearances and won another F.A. Cup winners medal- starting the Final in an unfamiliar role on the right hand side. He registered his 50th Arsenal goal during the season against Birmingham and continued his very pleasing habit of scoring against Tottenham with an eye boggling shift of feet in the penalty area. Arsenal came up light in the title race as Abramovic`s steroid injection into West London began to tell. Pires` role began to reduce slightly as age and old injuries began to tell on his athleticism. Yet he still featured prominently as a central midfielder in the 4-5-1 formation that saw Arsenal to a Champions League Final in 2006. That he adapted to the role so readily spoke volumes of Pires` immensely gifted footballing brain. Perhaps the most prominent memory of the campaign for Pires came in the Quarter Final at home to Juventus as he executed a crunching challenge on ex team mate Patrick Vieira in central midfield to begin the move for Cesc Fabregas` opening goal. Pires had an endless curriculum vitae of talents, but the bone crunching challenges had largely been left to the very man he emasculated on the Highbury turf during his Arsenal career! Pires still managed 11 goals in 48 appearances- a good deal of those from the bench, in 2005-06. He was still an excellent source of goals from the bench. As the race for 4th place heated up at the end of the campaign, it was Pires who came off the bench to rescue a home game which we were drawing 1-1 with West Bromwich Albion, scoring the scrappy close range goal that put us 2-1 to the good. He also continued the habit of a lifetime by coming off the bench to equalise against Spurs at White Hart Lane. Throughout his Arsenal career he had well and truly been their bete noir, scoring eight goals against them in total. However, his Arsenal career ended in tearful fashion as he was sacrificed in the 19th minute of the Champions League Final when Jens Lehmann was sent off. His first and only European Cup Final curtailed after 19 minutes with the match in his home nation. His tears as he put his bench jacket on a most unbecoming end to one of Arsenal`s greatest sons. Only when he came back with Villarreal last season to a standing ovation, did we even get the chance to partially right that tragic wrong and show our appreciation.
Pires was a gracile ballerina of a footballer, he had about him an awkward, flat footed running style that was deceptively quick and also enabled him to shift the ball with equal comfort onto either foot. He was on odd winger in that chalk was never likely to trouble his boots, he was never particularly adept at beating players with a feint and a step over and he was hardly renowned for his crossing ability either. Pires sped up the evolution of what is expected of a left winger in this country and cultured and educated us all, setting the blueprint for the likes of Ronaldo today. His passing was incisive and accurate to a tee, his ability to see a team mate and provide the perfect pass on a par with Bergkamp (remember his pass for Henry in Praha to break the Arsenal goalscoring record. He had a calm and accuracy in front of goal that was the envy of Europe`s top strikers, finishing his Arsenal career with 84 goals in 283 games, around a goal every three games. Robert was the kind of footballer you paid money to watch, effortlessly graceful with one of the finest footballing brains I have ever seen at work. He is also one of the very few players Wenger has ever let go to leave question marks as to whether we let him leave too soon, despite the fact that he was approaching his 33rd birthday when he left for Spain. Even at the age of 36 and with two cruciate ligament injuries suffered since the age of 29, Pires is still at the fulcrum of the Villarreal side having stepped into the shoes of Riquelme as their chief playmaker. His career is settling to a satisfactory climax in Spain where a good deal of his family reside, following a troublesome divorce in 2003, Pires is again married with two sons, the autumn of his career being played out in sunshine on the Spanish coast. That said, even during the hurly burly of December Premiership away games, Pires was the sort of player that made football at the top level look asinine, tearing apart defences with the ease of a man in flip flops at the beach.LD.
You can vote for your Arsenal Player of the Decade in the Poll at the bottom left of the page.
Date:Friday December 18 2009
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