In his heyday, Arsene Wenger was widely praised for his trust in young players and eye for developing talent.
After all, Cesc Fabregas, Nicolas Anelka, Thierry Henry and Robin van Persie are just a few of the players he helped nurture into top-level international footballers.
But for every Henry is a superstar who got away… Or so Le Professeur would have us believe.
A football manager can’t sign everyone, but as the joke goes, Wenger seems to have tried to buy all of them – all of the players. Or, all the really good ones anyway. Funny, that.
The Frenchman has been doing the media rounds of late and most recently floated the idea of Cristiano Ronaldo playing alongside Henry, Robert Pires, Sylvain Wiltord and Dennis Bergkamp in an interview with the BBC.
So, with that as the jumping-off point, we put together an XI made up entirely of players who supposedly came close to joining Wenger at Arsenal…
5 – Players to score 100+ goals in all comps for @Arsenal under Arsene Wenger;
228 – Thierry Henry
132 – Robin van Persie
108 – Theo Walcott
105 – Olivier Giroud
102 – Dennis Bergkamp
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) May 6, 2020
As the story goes, Wenger’s pursuit of Buffon got to the point where the pair had dinner together during his days with Parma, but Juventus soon came along and made him the most expensive goalkeeper in the world at the time.
Everything suggests he would’ve been a remarkable signing in terms of ability and longevity. In 2017 he became the oldest player to captain a side in the Champions League final at 39 years and 126 days – and he’s still going, three years on.
Granted, Wenger may not have explicitly said that he almost bought Varane during his formative years, but he was certainly frustrated to have missed out on him in 2013 when he queried why Arsenal hadn’t been in for him two years earlier.
Varane has gone on to establish himself as one of the world’s best centre-backs and in 2018 became just the third player to be on the winning team in the Champions League and World Cup finals in the same year, emulating Christian Karembeu (1998) and Roberto Carlos (2002).
It’s arguable that Arsenal’s biggest weakness in Wenger’s final 10 years at the helm was their defence – a host of underwhelming options were signed and discarded.
Oh how different it might have been had they signed Vincent Kompany in 2006 when his agent claimed they were interested. He went on to captain Manchester City to two Premier League titles and played 265 times in the top-flight, more than any other Belgian.
10 – Since Vincent Kompany’s first season with the club, @ManCity have won more domestic trophies than any other side in England (4 Premier League titles, 4 League Cups, 2 FA Cups). Era. pic.twitter.com/DOGcPOYFyy
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) May 19, 2019
It seems a long time ago that Pique was at Manchester United, struggling to earn a place in the starting XI, but even before then he could have ended up at Arsenal – and, stylistically, one has to wonder whether that would have been the better move for him.
Wenger has previously admitted they tried to get Pique but they were unable to beat United to his signature. He returned to Barcelona in 2008 and has since won three Champions League crowns, just one of three players to play every minute of those finals.
OK, to be fair to Wenger, this isn’t one he has specifically claimed – rather Roberto Carlos himself hinted at the move in 2003 as his Real Madrid career appeared to be winding down.
As it was, he ended up staying in Madrid until 2007 before moving on to Fenerbahce, Corinthians, Anzhi Makhachkala (remember them?) and Delhi Dynamos.
The one who got away… Twice. That’s right, Wenger says he tried to sign the industrious Kante when he was at Caen and Leicester City.
He played a starring role as the Foxes remarkably claimed the Premier League title in 2015-16, before then joining Chelsea and becoming the only player to win the Premier League in successive seasons with different clubs.
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) April 24, 2017
When Pogba left United in 2012, a whole host of fellow European heavyweights were linked with him, including Arsenal, but Juventus swiftly struck a deal and the Gunners’ attempts fell flat.
He of course left Juve again in 2016, though the then world-record fee United paid was never likely to be matched by Arsenal, and in 2018-19 Pogba became the first United player to appear in the Professional Footballers’ Association’s (PFA) Team of the Year since Robin van Persie six years earlier.
In hindsight, this one looks a particularly odd miss from Arsenal. Yaya Toure had a trial with the Gunners in 2003, a year after his brother Kolo signed for them, but wasn’t particularly outstanding in a trial game and work permit difficulties made it tricky for him to join permanently.
That didn’t stop him from enjoying a fine career, however, and he eventually made it to the Premier League in 2010 when joining Manchester City, with whom he became just the second African player to score in both an EFL Cup and FA Cup final.
That’s right, the one you’ve been waiting for. In an alternate universe, Fabregas, Pique and Messi could have spent the best years of their careers in north London – Wenger attempted to prise all three away.
But six-time Ballon d’Or winner Messi had already gotten “too big” reputation-wise when Arsenal made their move. In Barcelona he stayed and he has since become LaLiga’s all-time leading scorer with 445 goals in 488 games – a truly remarkable feat, though not as impressive as playing well against Stoke City on a cold Tuesday night, some might have you believe.
17 – Lionel Messi has become the fourth player in LaLiga history to score in 17 consecutive seasons, after Agustín ‘Piru’ Gaínza (19), Carlos Alonso, ‘Santillana’ (17) and Sergio Ramos (17). Infallible. pic.twitter.com/IBZyvC0RGZ
— OptaJose (@OptaJose) September 27, 2020
In fairness to Wenger, he insists he has no regrets about not signing Ibrahimovic when he was a 17-year-old on trial. Whether he says as much privately is another matter.
Regardless, Ibrahimovic can console himself with the fact he has gone on to enjoy an incredibly successful career and scored Champions League goals for six different clubs, more than any other player in the competition’s history. Unfortunately for him, however, he has never won European football’s top prize.
And finally, the other one you’ve been waiting for. Arguably the quintessential Wenger “nearly signed” claim relates to Ronaldo, whom he says almost joined Arsenal before United made their move in 2003. Like Buffon, Ronaldo also had discussions with Wenger over food, but he says the Gunners were pipped at the last.
Wenger apparently regards this as his biggest regret, and understandably so – Ronaldo has gone on to win everything in the game, including five Ballons d’Or, and is the Champions League’s top scorer with 130 goals in 170 games.
100 – Cristiano Ronaldo has scored his 100th goal for Portugal; he’s only the second ever male player to score 100+ for his national side, after Ali Daei for Iran (109). Landmark. pic.twitter.com/ElpBLRrGjQ
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) September 8, 2020
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