Continuing our Summer series of articles in search of Arsenal’s greatest ever team, this week we continue our quest for the greatest midfielders to include in our team. Don’t forget to take the opportunity to choose your personal favourite midfielder by voting in the poll at the end of the week.
17. Robert Pires: 2000-2006.
Robert appeared in 284 matches over a 6 year period.
Born in Reims France, he is a graduate of the FC Metz youth academy, making his senior debut in 1993 against Lyon. During his six seasons there, he scored 43 goals in 162 matches, and won the Coupe de la Ligue, prompting a £5 million move to Olympique de Marseille in 1998, where he stayed for two year years.
Robert was signed by Arsenal for £6 million in 2000, after stiff competition from Real Madrid and Juventus. Initially his form was indifferent, and he was criticised for his comments that the English game was too physical. By 2001–02, he had fully got to grips with the English game and had one of his best seasons scoring many excellent goals. He led the Premier League assist charts and was voted both FWA Footballer of the Year and Arsenal’s player of the season, as Arsenal won the league title. This was despite not playing the last two months of the season after suffering a cruciate ligament injury in a FA Cup match against Newcastle United. This also ruled him out of playing in the 2002 World Cup with France.
After a lengthy layoff, he made his comeback in November 2002 and was voted Barclaycard Player of the Month for February 2003 and capping off his season by scoring the winning goal in the FA Cup Final against Southampton. He went on to be a crucial part of Arsenal’s quest for the Premier League title in the 2003–04 season, which they achieved, remaining unbeaten and becoming the first English top flight club to do so in 115 years. Robert along with his Arsenal team-mate Thierry Henry was a key player in that season, scoring a combined 57 goals in all competitions. In the 2004–05 season, he finished third in the Premiership goal scorers table and also picked up a second FA Cup winners’ medal after Arsenal beat Manchester United on penalties. His final game for Arsenal was in the UEFA Champions league final against Barcelona, in which he was substituted after goalkeeper Jens Lehman received an early red card.
In May 2006, he agreed to join Spanish side Villarreal. He joined on a free transfer, bringing to an end his six-year career as an Arsenal player. In 2009, he faced Arsenal in the quarter-finals of the UEFA Champions League, Villarreal were defeated 4–1 on aggregate, but Robert received a warm return from the Arsenal supporters, who sang his name throughout both legs. He was told in May 2010 that his contract would not be extended and he would have to look for a new club during the summer.
He won 79 caps for his country and scored 14 goals. He won the Golden Ball (for most outstanding football) and Golden Shoe (for most goals scored) awards at the 2001 Confederations Cup in Korea/Japan.
18. Freddie Ljungberg: 1998-2007.
Freddie appeared in 328 matches over a 9 year period.
He was born in Vittsjö, Sweden. Between when he was 5–14 years old, Freddie was coached by Olle Eriksson. He credits Eriksson for having a profound effect on his career as well as Brazilian football player, Sócrates. Also in his youth, he enjoyed playing ice hockey and developed a talent for handball; but decided to concentrate his attentions on football. Freddie also did well in academic subjects as well as sports and at 18 he decided to attend university, but struggled to balance the hectic academic timetable with the physically demanding commitments of football. Eventually, he quit university to concentrate on his football career.
He made his senior debut for Halmstad in October 1994 in the Allsvenskan against AIK. In 1995, he played 31 games in which he scored his first goal as a professional player. that same year Halmstad won the Swedish Cup. During his time with Halmstad, he made 139 appearances and scored 16 goals and he also won both the Swedish Cup and League title with the club. After two years with Halmstad, his star was on the rise with interest from Barcelona, Chelsea, Aston Villa, Parma and Arsenal.
Freddie was signed by Arsenal in 1998 for £3 million, Arsenal scouts watched him for over a year and Arsenal’s manager, Arsène Wenger, took the unusual step of authorising the signing after watching him play for Sweden in their victory against England on television, without seeing him play live. Freddie scored on his debut on 20 September after coming on as a substitute against Manchester United. He endeared himself to Arsenal supporters by having a bright red stripe in his hair. (A popular chant spawned from this to the tune of “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” by Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons: “We love you Freddie, because you’ve got red hair, we love you Freddie because you’re everywhere, we love you Freddie, you’re Arsenal through and through” Later when he shaved his head this was updated to “We love you Freddie, because you’ve got no hair”).
Freddie became the first player to score a goal at an FA Cup final outside England, when Arsenal lost against Liverpool in 2001 at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff. A year later, against Chelsea, he became the first player to score in consecutive FA Cup Finals. He also scored a penalty in the shootout in Arsenal’s 2005 FA Cup Final victory over Manchester United. In 2008, he placed 11th in Arsenal.com’s Gunners’ Greatest 50 Players.
After nine years at Arsenal, Freddie joined West Ham United on a four-year contract, later agreeing to terminate his contract only one year into the four-year deal.
On 28 October 2008, MLS team, Seattle Sounders officially announced they had signed Freddie as their Designated Player for the 2009 season. The terms of his contract saw Ljungberg earn $10 million over two seasons with the Sounders. Much like the contract of David Beckham and as is the norm for professional sports stars in the US, Freddie’s contract allowed him to retain all of his private endorsement money. In July 2009, Freddie was selected for starting MLS’ All-Stars; selection for the All-Star team is based upon votes from players, coaches, general managers, members of the media and an online fan voting system. Ljungberg received the most votes among fans, a testament to his popularity in the MLS. He was also appointed captain of the 2009 MLS All-Star Team in their game versus Everton.
He was traded to Major League Soccer club Chicago Fire on 30 July 2010, after 15 league appearances, Freddie announced that he would be leaving Chicago at the end of the 2010 MLS season.
He has represented his country at Euro 2000, the 2002 World Cup, Euro 2004, the 2006 World Cup and Euro 2008, and in total he has represented Sweden on 75 occasions.
On 24 August 2012, Ljungberg announced his retirement from football.
19. Gilberto Silva: 2002-2008.
Gilberto appeared in 244 games over a 6 year period.
Born in Lagao da Prata, Brazil, he was raised in a poor family and as a child he balanced playing football with various labour jobs. He began his football career in 1997 with América Mineiro, where good form earned him a move to Atlético Mineiro in 2000. He became a star player for Atlético, playing for three years in the Brazilian Campeonato Brasileiro Série A. He came to particular prominence when he helped the Brazilian national team win the 2002 FIFA World Cup, playing in all seven of Brazil’s matches.
Arsenal signed Gilberto in August 2002 for a fee of £4.5 million. Upon signing Gilberto, Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger said, “What I like was the fact that he kept things simple. He can play all across the midfield but the holding role just in front of the defence is what he does best”. After two substitute appearances, he finally broke into the starting eleven on 27 August. He set a new record for the fastest goal scored in the UEFA Champions League, scoring after 20.07 seconds against PSV on 25 September 2002.
Even though he suffered a lapse in form towards the end of the season, he won an FA Cup winner’s medal, playing in the final at the Millennium Stadium as Arsenal beat Southampton 1–0.
The next season he was an important member of the squad that won Premier League title whilst going the entire season unbeaten. He played in 32 of Arsenal’s 38 unbeaten games during the season. In October 2005, Gilberto made his first appearance for Arsenal as captain, against Sparta Prague. Although Gilberto had a period of bad form during the winter months of the season, his form returned and on 17 May 2006 he played for Arsenal in the UEFA Champions League Final against FC Barcelona, which Arsenal lost 2–1. On 19 August 2006 he scored Arsenal’s first competitive goal at the newly built Emirates Stadium and was made vice-captain of Arsenal in 2006.
Gilberto was called “the invisible wall” his play often went unnoticed as he positioned himself between the two centre backs and the rest of midfield, breaking up opposition attacks before they could gather momentum. He played this role as part of the defensive unit for both club and country. Both Arsenal and Brazil are both attack minded teams, and he created cover for attacking wing-backs and other midfielders who had a poor record of dropping back to help the defence.
According to ProZone (a data analysis system used by football managers) figures cited by The Sunday Times in January 2007, Gilberto was one of the few midfielders in England to attain “the elite Champions League level” of performance.
He made his international debut against Chile on 7 October, coming on as a substitute. On 7 November, in total he played in 93 games for Brazil.
20. Cesc Fabregas: 2003-2011.
Cesc appeared in 303 matches over an 8 year period.
Cesc was born in Arenys de Mar, Barcelona, he had supported FC Barcelona since childhood and went to his first match when he was nine months old with his grandfather. He began his club football career with CE Mataró, before being signed for Barcelona’s La Masia youth academy aged 10 in 1997. His initial training was as a defensive midfielder playing alongside notable names such as Gerard Piqué and Lionel Messi. He was a prolific scorer, sometimes scoring more than 30 goals in a season for the club’s youth teams.
Sensing that he would have limited opportunities at Barcelona, he joined Arsenal in their Academy, when he was just 16 years old, signing on 11 September 2003. He made his debut for Arsenal not long after, on 23 October 2003, in a League Cup tie at home to Rotherham United. In doing so he became Arsenal’s youngest ever first team player, aged 16 years and 177 days. He then became the youngest goal scorer in Arsenal’s history in a later round of the League Cup, scoring in a 5–1 victory against Wolverhampton Wanderers. He signed his first professional contract with Arsenal in September 2004. He concluded that first season by gaining his first honours with Arsenal when he was in the starting eleven that defeated Manchester United on penalties in the 2005 FA Cup Final.
After the departure of Patrick Vieira, to Juventus, Cesc was given the number 4 shirt and featured regularly in the Arsenal central midfield alongside Gilberto Silva. He made 49 appearances in all competitions during the 2005–06 season. He also played in the Champions League Final against his former club Barcelona, Arsenal were defeated 2–1. His increased exposure drew transfer speculation during the summer; Real Madrid expressed a desire to sign him despite his long-term contract with Arsenal. On 24 November 2008, he was named as the Arsenal club captain. However he was ruled out for four months after sustaining a knee injury against Liverpool.
In August 2011, he signed for Barcelona, ending one of the most protracted transfer sagas in recent times. Statistics show that in the 5 years prior to his departure from Arsenal he created 466 goal-scoring chances, made 75 assists and scored 30 goals.
His international national career began when he represented the Under-17 side at the 2003 FIFA U-17 World Championship in Finland. As a result of his club performances, he was called up to the senior squad in 2006. He has played in the 2006 FIFA World Cup, UEFA Euro 2008, 2010 FIFA World Cup and UEFA Euro 2012, helping Spain to become eventual winners in the three most recent tournaments.
Written by GunnerN5 and compiled by Gooner in Exile