Review: Thierry Henry: Lonely at the Top

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Normally, nostalgia is evoked by watching a movie, looking at photos or merely by way of conversation. It’s not, however, normal for someone to come back and do exactly the same thing again. That’s how it felt when Thierry Henry returned to Arsenal in the January of 2012 and, against Leeds United in the League Cup, scored in exactly the same way that he had made a trademark.

Starting from a position on the inside-left channel, Henry darted inside to receive a pass from Alex Song. When the ball landed at his feet, the angle was fairly tight; improbable even to some players as defenders encircled him. But Henry, as we learnt in Philippe Auclair’s biography of the French Striker, Thierry Henry: Lonely at the Top, had perfected the art on the training fields of Monaco with then fitness coach, Claude Puel [Page 52]. The open body shape, leaning awkwardly to his left and with almost all of his weight transferred to one foot, and hitting the ball on the bottom-right corner to achieve maximum deviation away from the goalkeeper. When he scored, I gathered this is how it might feel for Napoli fans to see Diego Maradona once more pirouette on the centre-circle. Or for Manchester United fans, seeing Eric Cantona lift his famous collar again.

Of course, that might just be the romantic in me. After all, Henry had played his last game for the club back in 2007, only some four seasons ago. And he came back a year-and-a-half before signing on loan for Arsenal as a Barcelona player with credentials still strong. (The Arsenal fans gave him a rapturous applause when he came on at the Emirates Stadium and then booed him when he touched the ball, somewhat acknowledging the danger he can cause. On an aside note, the first 20 minutes from Barcelona was the most breathtaking and relentless exhibition of football I have ever seen).  But at that age, there was a doubt that he would only be a hologram of the player we remembered; the power, the grace, the athleticism, the absolutefuckingbrilliantness – what of that would remain? Thankfully those fears, how ever much was not already engulfed by excitement, were allayed. Arsène Wenger used him sparingly in only moments he could be absolutely effective (his winner away to Sunderland cannot be overstated) and his goal against Leeds United, as Auclair tells Gunnerblog.com, came “to be the defining image of his relationships with Wenger, the club, and the club’s fans.”

That magical night in January is the somewhat reluctant ending toLonely at the Top because, while the book predominately charts how the love affair with Arsenal came to be, Henry’s story develops into another, less savoury tangent; that of his image in his own country. Whatever reservations the French public had of Henry’s character – the botched transfer to Real Madrid early on in his career certainly didn’t help (although he quickly recoiled those scepticisms with his ability on the pitch), or his aloofness off it – that all came to a head after the “Hand of Gaul” incident which cost lowly, plucky and thus loveable, Ireland a place in the World Cup. France’s subsequent failure in the tournament and the “shameful” bus strike midway through saw Thierry Henry, among others, come under severe criticism. Here, the book switches to a more serious tone and Auclair provides a wonderful, if precautionary, dissection of modern France and it’s relationship with the national team; one that is not limited to one country it must be said, but France’s seems a bit of a watershed.* One of the reasons why Henry might have been as criticised as he was, was that he was seen as a talisman of a mediocre France side and when the time came “when the foolishness of others gave him the chance of being a hero”, Henry did nothing. (Henry’s place in the selection was previously in doubt anyway, as Raymond Domenech admitted in his memoirs, Tout seul: Souvenirs, that he ended up picking Henry for “emotional reasons” as he couldn’t bear to face the impending uproar from the public – who saw Henry as a talisman and leader of a leaderless group before and after the tournament – were he not taken).

*Auclair’s explanation of France’s tolerance to nationalised citizens and its value of supranationality helps understand why Wenger had traditionally, before now it seems, ignored a player’s passport when making transfers.

If that seems at odds with the image of Henry we have on these shores, it’s because Auclair wants to make you aware of the dichotomy “between the troubled image of Henry in his own country, and his status as a genuine hero for Arsenal fans.” His route to the latter might be less sensational but it is no less straightforward. In fact, much of it is owed to hard work, as Henry when converted back to a striker at Arsenal, would practice his finishing for hours on end to the mockery of his teammates because he was horrible initially, and the faith of his father and coaches in his formative years before Wenger (Gérard Houllier and Jean Tigana at Monaco most well-known). Wenger, though, had the foresight – or hindsight one might even call it, to use him in the position he played as a teenager.

The transformation was metamorphic as it wasn’t entirely natural. Henry needed a lot of convincing at first and there even seemed to be a bit of science about it. That owes much to the analytical mind of Henry as Auclair reveals, especially of his knowledge of the game (the striker says he relished playing against Italian defenders like Alessandro Nesta as his game was too quick for them which helps explain his success against them although conversely, my memory of him was that he struggled against the opposite: of pacy, intelligent anticipatory centre-backs such as William Gallas/Ricardo Carvalho or Ledley King). Henry is also capable of being self-critical – self-aware even – to the point of being obsessive, cosying up to certain journalists to make sure that not only does he survive, but his legacy thrives.

Two months before Henry rejoined Arsenal on loan from New York Red Bulls, his legend was crystalised when a statue was unveiled of him celebrating a fine solo run from his own half before scoring against Tottenham Hotspur in 2002. (The design of which I have a bone to pick because, whilst artistically perfect, it didn’t capture Henry in his usual swagger, his grace: the features that defined him as statues are meant to capture). That might go down as one of Henry’s finest performances but certainly not his defining moment. Indeed, Lonely at the Top fails to underpin one defining moment which might be to Henry’s detriment but certainly not the book’s. There are plenty of great moments; his hat-trick against Liverpool at 2-1 down when Arsenal’s “Invicible” status was yet to be confirmed was probably his best. A personal favourite was his double away at Internazionale to win 5-1 which only further confirmed to me and Arsenal fans of his untouchable status. But he was more than just a goalscorer which is why it’s said “Wenger owes as much to Henry as Henry does to Wenger.” His assist before the assist against Aston Villa (drifting to the right this time, beating two or three defenders before playing a wonderful “banana” pass to Dennis Bergkamp – whose deft touch was just as deadly – found Ashley Cole) best encapsulates how Henry was the system.

As I neared the conclusion of Lonely at the Top, I couldn’t help but feel the real star of the book wasn’t actually Henry but Auclair himself. That’s not meant to be an indictment of Henry’s interestingness, although at first, he doesn’t seem like the most obvious candidate for a biography. Indeed, Auclair prefers to describe this as a “biographical essay”, an apt description of a unique account of Arsenal’s greatest player. It’s a brilliantly written book with great distance between the writer and its subject, and Auclair’s insight genuinely adds to the narrative of Henry’s career when with others, it might get in the way (the use of statistics however, does get tedious at times). At the end of it, Auclair won’t make you love Henry more, but you will certainly have a deeper understanding of him. And as such, love him more because we get to appreciate that what we got wasn’t the Henry after the debacle of South Africa 2010, but 8 years of greatness. When he returned and scored against Leeds, and then the adulation he received; perhaps we are the wisest of all when judging Thierry Henry.

Thierry Henry: Life at the Top by Philipe Auclair is available at all good bookstores. (Actually, “good” is harsh because all bookstores are good. I especially like the ones owned by middle-aged men with ponytails. Which is all of them, really).

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Zlatan Ibrahimovic inspires Milan to the perfect game

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If there was a football equivalent of a “perfect game” then AC Milan might have executed it. Unlike baseball though, it’d be qualitative because Milan didn’t overwhelmingly dominate in any of the main statistics – except shots – but their game-plan went  perfectly according to plan to emphatically defeat Arsenal 4-0 in the 1st leg of the Champions League knock-out stage. It doesn’t happen often; FK Crvena zvezda (Red Star) might have claimed to have done that when they beat Liverpool 2-1 in the European Cup in 1973, imploring even the Anfield crown to applaud their winner. Or Ajax in 1966 as they defeated the same club 5-1, forcing Bill Shankly to peculiarly declare that “they were the most defensive team we have ever met” – everything just went right for Ajax. Milan’s 4-0 win over Barcelona in the 1994 final may have been as perfect as it got in the European Cup while you can argue Barcelona themselves do it every week (except very recently), winning by doing EXACTLY what it wants.

There is a feeling, though, that Milan played a perfect game because Arsenal’s inefficiencies make that more likely to happen against them.

For all of Arsenal’s progress this season after a summer of discontent, there are still teething issues throughout the squad. Arsène Wenger admitted before the game that this Arsenal team had more “mental quality” than technical quality in comparison to the 2008 side which conquered at the San Siro, noting that that side were “technically perfect.” However, last night they well and truly suffered on both departments. Arsenal had a game-plan – to play in the opponent’s half (“at the start we will try to get out of our own half and try to get up there and play. Spurs won the game when they were dominated, but that is football today”) and in training the players were given instructions on what they might face and must do against the red-and-black. The reality was much starker as on the pitch, Arsenal didn’t react to scenarios Milan threw at them. Patrick Vieira talked about Arsenal lacking “leadership” on the pitch and he’s right. As Gus Hiddink stresses, players must “coach” team-mates on the pitch and Arsenal don’t do that enough.

Much was made of the pitch beforehand and that may have had some influence on Arsène Wenger eschewing a wide game. He started Tomáš Rosický on the left instead of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, possibly to help cover the returning Kieran Gibbs but mainly to help retain possession better. In that, it wasn’t such a bad move because he was one of Arsenal’s most creative players and by working the ball wide, they might have shuffled around Milan’s supposedly narrow midfield. Milan, though, threw a spanner in the works and set-up much more dynamically than expected.

Massimiliano Allegri played a 4-3-2-1 shape, using the three forward players in a roaming capacity when in possession which overwhelmed Arsenal’s defence because when they attacked, it meant Arsenal’s centre-backs had an extra man to watch. They couldn’t mark man-for-man because they didn’t know who to pick up as Milan committed runners superbly. In midfield, they alleviated any numerical disadvantage, partly because of Arsenal’s shape, but also because they closed of any gaps with a midfield three which was backed up a vociferous three in front. “Our positioning was excellent and it prevented them from creating good openings,” said Allegri.

Arsenal partly played to their downfall as their shape was closer to  a 4-4-1-1 and especially when they pressed, only Aaron Ramsey and Robin van Persie did meaning it was very easy to bypass the men closing down and get into midfield. And when Milan did attack, they used all areas of the pitch, stretching it with a roaming front three and pushing the full-backs forward. Arsenal’s inefficiencies were exposed.

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But Arsenal, famed for their exuberance in attack were improbably flat and suffered from a “poverty of ideas”; they could not get any telling support to Robin van Persie. At half-time, Wenger whipped off Walcott – not necessarily for his individual performance, because were bad all-round but because he characterised the team’s lack of ingenuity. Arsenal were able to work it into wide areas but most often just crossed the ball into the box. Wenger resorted, in the second-half, to looking to play through the two players that Arsenal have that can make something happen – van Persie and Thierry Henry – and now one of those is now gone. The narrow shape created one great chance which was saved brilliantly by Cristian Abbiati but the lack of technical ability in the side is galling. It’s just not Arsenal and Wenger knows it; his words before the game remained upbeat but were filled with underdog rhetoric. But, this is not a club in decline although the strategic direction since the move to the Emirates has hampered their competitiveness. The blow was delivered by Zlatan Ibrahimovic, the man who got away from them because Arsenal insisted a trial and The Gunners were unable to handle him as he created SIX chances. He was at the heart of all the Rossoneri’s attacking play. Tuttosport wrote this morning, that it had been a “magical night”. It was the perfect night for Milan.

The Mailbag: The King returns, Wenger’s tactical acumen and Arsenal’s pressing issue.

Some people say this feature only serves to massage my oversized ego but I say it allows me to talk about Arsenal’s most current issues in one post. We’re hoping this can be a regular feature so please feel free to debate below and I’ll likely join in below the line too. Thanks!

Q: Where will Thierry Henry play (off the bench)? And what will be his likely impact? Will he simply replace Gervinho in his now famous left to centre role, or is there something else in stall for Thierry? @Sleepy_Nik

A: Firstly, we must start with a caveat; we musn’t expect too much from Thierry Henry. Moreover, how on earth can anyone displace Robin van Persie right now in the form he’s in? Also, I expect Alex Oxlaide-Chamberlain to be given more of a chance and the upcoming game against Leeds United might indicate whether he’s ready. But Thierry Henry comes in when Arsenal require more quality and he still has that. (It must be remembered that it’s more than a year now since he’s been almost injury-free and free of the pain of the Achilles injury that dogged his last year at Arsenal and subsequently affected some of his impact at Barcelona.)

Henry has been brought in to essentially replace two players – Marouane Chamakh and Gervinho – which indicate that an additional attacking signing may still be a possibility. It’s unlikely, though, that he’ll walk into the team because Arsène Wenger has complete trust in the recently maligned Andrei Arshavin having played him in the most games for Arsenal last season. Rather, Henry will be involved mainly in rotation but most importantly perhaps, he’ll be the inspirational figure that Arsenal have so desperately needed in the past.

With Henry, what’s important is not where he’ll play – Wenger envisaged Henry doing more creating had he stayed on at Arsenal rather than relying on pace. (Incidentally threading passes to Jose Antonio Reyes with whom he had a great rapport with on the pitch). He has the chance to do that now in either a “false9”role or as that famous left to centre role instead of in a 442. Henry’s legacy won’t be tainted just because he has come back after his peak for a two month spell. Robbie Fowler returned toLiverpoolin 2006 and although he was not the same player as he once was, the little bit of quality that evokes old memories are the ones that shine through greatest. Besides, it’s not often you get to see your heroes return and that should bring great joy to Arsenal and football fans.

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Q: For reasons I have never grasped, many people consider Arsène Wenger as slightly tactically inept. Why? And is there some truth to it? @Anserine

A: That myth seems to have originated from his “pre-Invincibles” years and in particular, his unwillingness to make substitutions for tactical reasons. It’s true, his changes are primarily scientific, taking off players like Dennis Bergkamp on 70 minutes because he knew his intensity wouldn’t last beyond that and usually making like-for-like substitutions. But theirin lies the misunderstanding of Wenger because it’s not that he’s tactical inept or incapable of making radical decisions, it’s that his management style is about trusting the expressionism of his players and  the ability to find solutions themselves. That was particularly the case when in charge in his early years and especially of the legendary unit in 03/04 (although the argument is also valid that he could have done more in Europe, tactically). Nowadays, you’ll see more tactical decisions from Wenger and that usually happens when you have a team who’s still learning and still not so confident in their abilities to find solutions as the team is now/has been after the break up of the Invincibles. (Indeed, you have to look back at the Champions League run of 2005/06 to see the beginning of a more hands on approach from Wenger).

When Wenger first stated coaching, he was more meticulous until he gradually realised the players were, indeed, the real game-changers. As Youri Djorkaef once noted at Monaco, Wenger was always about “tactic, tactic, tactic,” although he added: “He would only say two or three things. Positive things, tactical things. He was the only coach in France who worked this way,” highlighting the scope the manager left for players to innovate. Perhaps, though, it’s best to end on Robert Pires’ tweet on Wenger: “Tactically you work a lot. And Wenger makes you work on your qualities. He is perfect.”

Q: It seems like Arsenal struggle more with scoring than conceding. Do you agree and how can they fix it?@MalcolmSouth

What a refreshing thought! Although it’s probably true that Arsenal should be judged more on their attacking play. In terms of whether Arsenal “struggle more with scoring than conceding”, I think it boils down to the type of chances they have and consequently allow opponents to have. Because Arsenal attack with such fervour, they leave more spaces at the back and thus the chances that they concede tend to be of higher quality i.e. more space, time, attacking with speed. (Although their big weakness still remains aerially). In comparison, Arsenal’s chances often have to be manufactured or squeezed therefore their chances tend to be closed down more quickly, need to be processed quicker etc. However, in saying that, Arsenal could be more clinical.

Robin van Persie has had 94 shots this season (the next top-scorer, Demba Ba has 62) but that figure is arbitrary because van Persie is still as clinical as most strikers, converting 18% of his shots (which is a respectable figure). But you’ll have to look at the type of chances he has, often creating chances himself. Of course, looking at the QPR game, he could have scored more than the one goal but then you’ll see that he created at least two chances with his dynamic dribbling and one more that was headed wide. All in spite of a lack of space. It’s not unexpected then, that the goal he scored, was the easiest; a gift from the QPR defence.

Often people ask how Arsenal can improve: the three striker system is placed so Arsenal can be more dynamic and goalscoring coming from more than one source although that is not the case yet. Nevertheless, it must be looked at the role Theo Walcott and Gervinho have in Robin van Persie’s goals. Not having full-backs as much affected Arsenal’s play as they help stretch the play while the return of Jack Wilshere is welcome as his drive and the ability to play through passes is missing. Aaron Ramsey may have improved on the later but he’s hesitant to change the emphasis of Arsenal’s attacks by running with the ball as Wilshere is due to misgivings of his pace. (Ditto Mikel Arteta thus Alex Song’s runs have been key).

As Wenger once said, “the measure of football is the ratio of chances created to to chances conceded” therefore he’ll be the harshest judge of Arsenal’s attacking play.

Q: What advice you would give Wenger to deal with the high pressure Arsenal seem to struggle with?@Darren_V_

It’s true Arsenal have often struggled with high pressure, most spectacularly in the Champions League, although how they got through with one game to spare is a wonderment! What Wenger tends to do is push his central midfielders up the pitch to give his centre-backs more time on the ball. Which is a valid tactic although it doesn’t really answer the question because if they are still pressed, the centre-backs won’t have many options. Arsenal don’t play long-balls so spreading the play laterally is not really the solution. Rather, they could learn from Barcelona and spread the play sideways although that comes with more risk.

The issue, as Backwards Gooner highlighted recently is whether you see it as a problem at the back or at the front. Wenger, against Fulham, saw it at the front so he took of his two under-performing wide players – the two players who should have gave Arsenal a speed outlet but didn’t – in favour of those who keep the ball better – Yossi Benayoun and Tomas Rosicky. It didn’t really work either way because The Gunners were unable to stem Fulham’s attacks and thus they were punished. In that situation, I would have taken a radical option and put on Marouane Chamakh so Arsenal get an out-ball. In one sense though, this Arsenal side has a tendency to be pushed back and thus, Wenger will have to find solutions to correct that problem. Arsenal have looked better when there’s rotation between the midfield to drag opponents out and that remains their most obvious and easiest to implement solution.

<Figure 1: Van Persie passes received v Fulham>Arsenal were unable to respond to Fulham’s second-half pressure and as shown by the passes to van Persie, were unable to get the ball out of the back effectively.

Arsenal’s team of 2000-2010

–         Firstly, as you may have noticed, the decade ended at the start of last year (although some dispute otherwise). So that’s why we’ve aptly renamed the Arsenal XI of the Decade to Arsenal XI from 2000-2010. That’s technically eleven years. We’ve published our matches of the decade last season if you want to take a look.

–         Secondly, we all realise when creating such a list, there will always be a natural bias to the “Invincibles” side of 2003-04. After all, they are the best Arsenal team. Ever. But trophies are not the only measure of success. The clever clogs amongst yourselves will probably say that you wish you knew that before you signed up to Arsene Wenger’s post-Highbury “project” but let’s not be facetious. This XI consists of players who have performed consistently to the Arsenal cause. So no one season wonders – Matheiu Flamini may be the first to enter your mind although he did have two good seasons; the other being an impressive run at the left-back position in the season The Gunners made the Champions League final.

–         In true Arsene Wenger fashion, the players are slotted into a 4-4-2. As ever the wide players are not “prisoners of their position” and that is particularly appropriate once you see who we have at right-midfield. And yes, he has played there for Arsenal.

GK: Jens Lehmann
2003-2008 (147 appearances)

For a while, Lehmann looked like he wouldn’t be considered an Arsenal great. He was part of the unbeaten Arsenal side but was often regarded as the weak link in their success. His frequent calamities were appropriate of a time after David Seaman’s retirement when nothing seemed to be going right between the sticks. But he gradually grew more serene and that, seemingly, was enough to hide his faults. In his defence, Lehmann’s initial troubles in adapting to the league may have been due to European style which encouraged goalkeepers to come off the line as opposed to England, where ‘keepers are chiefly stoppers. But he still made more mistakes than he should have.

That saying, his eccentricities was part of his charm and in a strange way, gave his defence a sense of assurance because they knew he would take responsibility. In particular, he was very assertive at coming out from corner-kicks as this was considered to be Arsenal’s main weakness, the whole in the Death Star if you’d like. His penalty save against Villarreal in the Champions League semi-final stands out as his greatest individual moment but he just as quickly ruined it all in the final. With 18 minutes played, Lehmann, all too predictably rushed out at the feet of Samuel Eto’o to earn himself a red-card and leave Arsenal having to fend off Barcelona with ten-man: Mission impossible almost. Still, despite the attendant rashness, he was a class goalkeeper and during Arsenal’s 2006 Champions League run, he was Europe’s best goalkeeper at that point, going 853 minutes without conceding a goal. A record that still stands today.

RB: Bakary Sagna
2007-present (118 appearances)

He’s not even Arsenal most successful right-back; Emmanuel Eboue is ahead of him if finals and trophies are a measure of success. That honour goes to Lauren. But he IS Arsenal’s best right-back and for that reason, Bakary Sagna deserves his place in the eleven.

Sagna was a relative unknown when he signed in 2007 and there were doubts about whether the side needed him. Eboue was there. But he soon dispelled such reservations with a rapid transition as the league’s best right-back in his debut season. Defensively, he is at his best but despite his forward limitations, Sagna keeps going. And going. And going. To be fair to him, he has improved in his delivery, making five assists last season but his value is that he remains as reliable at the back as ever.

CB: Sol Campbell
2001-2006 (135 appearances), 2009-2010 (11 appearances)

Crossed the short North London divide amid much controversy and found immediate success with a League and Cup double in his first season. Sol Campbell was just the powerhouse defender Arsenal since Tony Adams and Martin Keown were already queueing up to pick up their pensions. Luckily for The Gunners, Campbell had let his contract at Tottenham run out and as the rules of the Bosman Transfer state, he was free to leave for any club he desired. He chose Arsenal and never looked back. A goal in the Champions League final was scored in a losing cause but ultimately got what he craved for with the move: trophies and European football. He was a rock and Arsenal evidently looked weaker without him, effectively conceding the 2002-03 title due to his absence through injury. But he was there when Arsenal won the championship in 2004 and at what better place to seal the glory than at Tottenham’s ground. The metaphorical middle finger was well and truly up.

Campbell returned to the club for one more season in October 2009 and was never once exposed by the high-line they played, even at the age of 35. We are, however, going to overlook him absconding like a baby from Highbury at half-time after a horror show against West Ham which sandwiched between his two times at the club. Probably a trait he learnt at Spurs.

CB: Kolo Toure
2002-2009 (226 appearances)

In his first season at Arsenal, Kolo Toure looked like an excitable puppy and sure enough, Wenger let him play in such a way. He was frequently let off the leash as a substitute, usually on the right of midfield but sometimes at right-back and he just kept running and running. Somehow, Wenger was able to channel that energy and Toure established himself as a defender of great maturity. He developed a solid partnership with Sol Campbell, helping Arsenal to that fabled unbeaten season as a ball-playing, adventurous centre-back.

LB: Ashley Cole
1998-2006 (156 appearances)

Left the club in acrimonious circumstances but he did so, unlike many, as the world’s best in his position. However, Ashley Cole almost never made it Arsenal. Having been sent out on loan to Crystal Palace as a youngster, he was called back after Sylvinho was unable to get his work-permit renewed and forcibly, was elevated to the first-team. Cole snatched at the opportunity like a tramp on a loose bag of chips and made the role his own. Marauding up-and-down the left flank, he was Arsenal’s answer to Roberto Carlos and ensured the left-back role wasn’t just a secondary position. His goal against Aston Villa remains one the club’s best team goals highlighting just how deadly the full-back can be in the modern game. Defensively, he was just as good and Arsenal fans perhaps, still take pride in the fact that he is one of the few that can stop Cristiano Ronaldo and we just as much cheered whenTheo Walcott tore him a new one in the recent 3-1 win. Cole may have been a problem child and a naughty boy but he was our problem child and naughty boy.

RM (sort of): Cesc Fabregas
2003-present (201 appearances)

Cesc Fabregas seemingly encapsulates what Arsenal is about since the “Invincibles” team broke up. Skilful, spontaneous and confident in possession – the type of player that makes Arsenal a joy to watch – but letting him mature without the presence of such big name players left a bit of fragility in him that can occasionally frustrate. Indeed, that is the argument some have made against Wenger’s handling of the transition. That the youth, fluidity, intelligence, pace and swagger in possession – have effectively taken over the team. And the other qualities that made them great – ruthlessness, power, organisation and experience – have been seen as an after-thought.

But that also displays the delicacy of the project the team has embarked upon and this season, we are finally starting to see it bear fruit. Cesc Fabregas has been influential, even when he is absent through injury, and in past seasons, has almost single-handedly carried the team forward. Fabregas sees things that others don’t and plays the through pass as if it was his first step as a baby. Last season, he made 13 assists, a fantastic feat which is made the more amazing considering he scored 15 goals also. He is more robust now and direct – as shown by his impact in the 2010 World Cup finals and Euro 2008, regularly coming off the bench to change his country’s flow from the lateral to the dynamic. We have done a whole analysis of his time at Arsenal so head over and read it there, because frankly, we can write so much more about the talismanic midfielder.

In this list, Fabregas comes in right midfield, a position he has not played since his first full season in the senior side. It’s probably fair to say we can all agree he deserves his spot in this XI but where to put him considering the rest of the players to come? Right-midfield adds balance to the side and because he is such a genius, you can bet on him to make a great impact from the position.

CM: Gilberto Silva
2002-2008 (170 appearances)

Gilberto Silva’s brilliance was his simplicity. Initially he couldn’t stop scoring which, rather prematurely, because of his late runs, drew comparisons with Fredrik Ljungberg but that just underlined his underrated all-round ability. He soon settled, however, and became the wise head in midfield who kept the side ticking with his get and give efficiency.

The fact that Gilberto came into a winning side on the back of a World Cup triumph helped him settle and he was a key component in the “Invincibles” side. His altruistic style was needed most when Patrick Vieira departed and the midfield needed a composed figure to guide them forward. Gilberto rose to the occasion and was the glue that held the structure together as Arsenal agonisingly lost to Barcelona 2-1 in the Champions League final. Wenger summed up his value to the team best when he 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.”

CM: Patrick Vieira (Captain)
1996-2005 (279 appearances)

Put simply, Patrick Vieira was a monster of a specimen when he first set foot in the Premiership. He was a player of great physical presence but one who could also match that with an unerring technique and lung bursting stamina. Such traits allowed him to dominate the league for the remaining years and he was the driving force of the Arsenal team from the heart of midfield. Vieira’s success lent itself to a spate of imitators looking to recreate a similar profile of the player, some successful, others not so, such as Manchester United’s Eric Djamba-Djemba.

Injuries and speculation about his future perhaps limited his influence in the later years but was still impressive when he did play. He captained The Gunners to their historic unbeaten triumph, scoring the goal that sealed the title.

LM: Robert Pires
2000-2006 (189 appearances)

It may be difficult to fathom now that Thierry Henry had ever taken a backseat to any such attacking player during his eight years at the club but in the 2001-02 season, he did. To Robert Pires. Pires looked uncomfortable in the way he ran with the ball but there was something poetic about the way he moved. His hair swishing up and down against the wind; his arms almost stiff when running as if to ensure the maximum balance and he took ever so timid steps with the ball at his feet. For that one season, Pires was perhaps the best player in the world but that season was also prematurely hacked down to size in March against Newcastle. That didn’t stop him, however, scooping the PFA player of the year award and the way his team-mates acknowledged his contribution to the title win by smiling gleefully at the player on the podium, spoke louder than words ever could. Pires scored an amazing 62 league goals from left midfield, a thought unthinkable to some at that time and reinvented, on the face of it, the simple position of the winger.

CF: Dennis Bergkamp
1995-2006 (316 appearances)

You’d have to be Groundskeeper Willie to conclusively prove Dennis Bergkamp’s intention in video form when scoring Arsenal’s greatest goal ever, but at 5 seconds in in video clip, we can attest the only space he could have exploited was to the left of him. His finish in the 2-0 win against Newcastle was labelled a fluke by some but only a genius could have produced a goal when there looked like there was nothing on. Somehow he manufactured the space to turn past Nikos Dabizas with a balletic pirouette before slotting past Shay Given.

It was this type of operational mastery that set the Dutchman apart and his spacial awareness ensured he was at the hub of most of Arsenal attacks in their most successful era. His contribution to Arsenal’s 7-0 win over Everton once again highlights that vision and particularly the third goal. As we pick it up, we see Bergkamp running into the space in front of the box but as the ball reaches him, he is instantly surrounded by four defenders. However, with one flick of the boot, he cuts open the defence and frees Patrick Vieira to chip home. His ability to squeeze and double the size of the pitch set him apart in a generation.

No player in the Premier League era has given as much visceral joy as Dennis Bergkamp. Here was a player who always seemed a step ahead of his opponents and perhaps the only player in the world whose brain was conjoined to his right boot.

CF: Thierry Henry
1999-2007 (254 appearances)

2000-01: 17 goals, 7 assists. 2001-02: 24 goals, five assists. 2002-03: 24 goals, 23 assists. 2003-04: 30 goals, 8 assists. 2004:05: 25 goals, 14 assists. 2005-06: 27 goals, 6 assists. 2006-07: 10 goals, 4 assists.

Thierry Henry may have been Arsenal’s greatest individual player but the statistics paint him as one of the best team players also. Amazingly, he never quite got the European recognition he deserved despite scoring a hat-trick against both Inter and Roma in 5-1 and 3-1 wins respectively, and both in away matches. And let’s not forget the way he tore apart Real Madrid at the Santiago Bernabeu with a terrific solo goal on the run to the final. [EDIT] Henry has actually been named in UEFA.com’s team of the year a five times but a podium finish is perhaps scant consolation for a brilliant goalscorer – yes – but also a supreme team player.

In his pomp, he was a stallion of a striker. Gracefully fast and explosive in front of goal, Henry terrified defenders with the ball at his feet. He ended as Arsenal’s highest ever goalscorer with 226 goals in 380 appearances. A phenomenal feat from a phenomenal player.

Honourable mentions: Lauren (2000-2007 – 159 appearances), Fredrik Ljungberg (1998–2007 – 216 appearances), Silvain Wiltord (2000-2004 – 104 appearances).

And finally, a wholly irrelevant XI but one that reserves a special place in your memory. (Romantic XI): Lehmann; Luzhny, Campbell, Gallas, Cole; Hleb, Fabregas, Edu, Pires; Bergkamp, Henry