In modern football, quality midfielders cost a ton of money for a reason. They are the closest to a complete player clubs can buy. Stuck between the defensive and offensive worlds, midfielders must possess an exquisite mix of skills apt to both. It’s fair to say they are wide ranged and less specialized than players on positions either end.
Arsenal can brag about having had world-class midfielders in their ranks over the years. Who was the best of them all?
Here are the Top 10 Midfielders in Arsenal history:
10. Tomas Rosicky
Not everybody draws comparisons to Mozart. Those who do often don’t deserve it. But Tomas Rosicky came very near the mark.
They called him the Little Mozart for his ability to orchestrate the midfield because when you watched him play you could almost hear violins in the back. His accurate passes often drew a trajectory devised by undeniable artistic vision. His runs left those watching hungry for more while his occasional long drives orchestrated orgasmic crowd explosions. The effect of seeing him on the ball stuck in the belly, leaving pleasant warmth and a wish for more of the same.
But just like Mozart, one side compensated for the other: he had a fragile body.
Rosicky spent many months in recovery. In fact, he had so much time to play with that he learned the electric guitar to a professional level. He was special at it too. It usually takes four years to learn an instrument. He did it in a year and a half. Such was his mind: agile, bound for artistry, in need of constant stimulation.
He had to wait for seven years to get his first trophy with Arsenal, winning two consecutive FA Cups in 2014 and 2015.
Rosicky moved to home club Sparta Prague in 2016, but not before being given the guard of honour for the years packed with wonderful memories.
9. Emmanuel Petit
Wenger had been impressed by Emmanuel Petit from his time at Monaco, so when he moved to London he made sure to bring him along. The Boss had devised a plan for Petit: move him to a deeper position in midfield.
Petit had learned impeccable positioning at Monaco which his new teammates saw this as a nod to run forward knowing he provided reliable cover behind them. But his forte was his ceaseless and energetic box-to-box runs.
Both characteristics helped him form a prolific partnership with Patrick Vieira, who later described his midfield partner as ‘the best player I ever played with’. The powerhouse partnership reigned over the middle of the park for three years and drove Arsenal to the double in 1998.
With advancing age, Petit saw a chance to move to Barcelona in 2000 and took it. He spent only three years as a player at Arsenal but they were his ripest–something for which Arsenal fans were grateful.
8. Ray Parlour
Picture: Ronnie Macdonald
If you’ve watched Family Guy, you might remember Peter Griffin’s old gang from the earlier episodes. They moved like a unit, all 10 of them, watched a switched off TV and gorged on alcohol and cigarettes. Ray Parlour boasted a similar story at Arsenal before Wenger arrived, except he was not fat. He drank with the lads before matches, on planes and buses. Then he went out and played. This was the norm back then.
He joined in 1989 but had to wait five years to get his chance for regular football.
When Wenger arrived and brought a contingent of French guys with him and fancy diets, things changed. Parlour cleaned up and discovered a complementary relationship with Patrick Vieira in midfield. Vieira's physique and style controlled the centre while Romford Pele ruled on the right where his tenacity glued attack and defence.
By the time his age slowed down his body, he had won seven major trophies (FA cup, Premier League, European Winners Cup) and one minor (League cup).
Parlour played 339 games in 15 years for Arsenal and moved to Middlesbrough in 2004.
7. Mesut Ozil
The Wizard of Oz: they called him. He is currently one of the gems at Arsenal. He’s played for Real Madrid and is key member of the German national side. No wonder Arsenal rub their hands in satisfaction: they have player that gets regular nominations for Ballon D’or.
When Wenger signed him for a record fee in 2013, the question was: What were they thinking in Madrid? The question still stands today.
Ozil has been a gold mine for internet memes. Assister, pre-assister, call centre operator: all because of his exquisite ability to free his teammates with the killer pass. He was one of the first world-class quality players to join Arsenal in a long time. That results would follow was logical. The Gunners won their first two trophies in over decade confirming the truism ‘Buy a World Cup winner, get a trophy free’.
Ozil achieved a staggering 19 assists in 2015/16 and continues to dazzle us with his skills on the pitch to day.
6. Cesc Fabregas
Picture: Patrick MacDonald
When 16-year-old Fabregas joined Arsenal, the Invincibles were busy decapitating everyone in England, bloodlessly. He focused on improving his English and settling down to life in London in his first year. But his self-improvement project was cut short when Vieira left for Juventus in the next year.
Perhaps Wenger saw in him maturity beyond his years because he entrusted 17-year-old with filling the gaping hole.
Fabregas carried the extra responsibility with poise for the next five seasons. His vision, cutting passes and intelligence outlined a key member of the squad.
The one thing that escaped him in his game was goals. Until the 2007/08 season, he exemplified Arsenal who often got into a coil of endless passing. That was to change when Wenger encouraged his men to shoot from distance more–something Arsenal had lacked since departures of Winterburn and Parlour. In the next season,Fabregas bagged 15 goals and despite another disappointing trophy-less year in 2008, he received much-deserved recognition on the individual front with PFA Young Player of the Yearand a spot in Team of the Year in two successive years.
By then, he had become a complete midfielder which understandably attracted the interest of other clubs. His childhood club in particular licked their lips on the prospect of getting him back.
After a long campaign of courting, Fabregas moved back to Barcelona in 2011.
He played 212 matches in eight seasons for Arsenal and currently graces rivals Chelsea.
5. Liam Brady
Picture: Katherine Kenny
Liam Brady was a man who made things click in the 1970s Arsenal team. He stood out with his skills and intellect.
Brady climbed the club’s youth ranks and debuted for the first team at 17. Seeing his potential, World Cup winner Alan Ball took him under his wing as an apprentice for the next three years.
When Ball left for Southampton, Brady braced himself for a bigger role. He was ready. His technique, ball control, vision, balance, strength, and ability to dribble past opponents gave his side an extra edge.Under his direction from midfield, Arsenal reached three successive FA Cup finals from 1978 to 1980 and a European Winners cup final.
His best season culminated in the destruction of Manchester United in the 1979 FA Cup final.One year later, he announced his intention to leave at the end season, but made sure he did it on good terms, helping the Gunners reach the FA Cup final that season.
After spending 16 years away from home, Liam Brady returned to Arsenal in 1996 to assume the Head of Youth Development position–he held it until 2013.
4. Freddy Ljungberg
Picture: Ricardo Alvarez
Ljungberg blipped on Wenger’s radar when he tore England to shreds in a European Championship qualifier in 1998. Le Professor wasted no time in phoning his club BK Halmstad.
The Swede hit the ground running, scoring in his debut against Manchester United.
Lurking behind the strikers, Ljungberg’s timing for runs, pace and positional versatility made him into a nightmare to mark. He formed a fruitful understanding on the pitch with Bergkamp whose penetrating passes often picked out the Swedes insisting dashes. The dialogue of the football conversation went along the lines: ‘I insist.’; ‘If you insist…’
Ljungberg thrived in the FA Cup. He would often put in key performances in the competition and scored in two consecutive FA Cup finals - against Liverpool and Chelsea.
In 2002, Pires was riding the wave of his top form but when injury ruled him out for the rest of the season, it was Ljungberg who took over. His efforts earned him the Barclaycard Player of the Season award.
Despite niggling injuries and bouts of migraines blighting his football, Ljungberg played 30 matches in the Gunners’ undefeated run to the title in 2004.
He moved to West Ham in 2007.
In his Arsenal career, Ljungberg bagged 72 goals in 328 matches.
3. Alex James
Alex James was the Dennis Bergkamp of his time.
When he joined Herbert Chapman’s revolution, Arsenal had never won a major trophy. That was to change. In his second season, James scored against Huddersfield Town, a goal that sealed the tile. As it important as the goal was, it was his assists that led to the success.
In Ted Drake, David Jack and Cliff Bastin Arsenal possessed a goal-hungry forward line already. James’ job was to provide them with unceasing supply of killer passes. He did that with poise and consistency. The monsters up front scored 126 goals on the road to Arsenal’s first trophy.
His influenced was revealed in the next season when Arsenal missed out on a consecutive title and scored 40 goals less with James out with niggling injuries.
When he returned, the Gunners dominated the First Division for the next three years.
James won four league titles and two FA cups for seven years at Arsenal and his assists were crucial for that to happen. With his retirement in 1937, the Gunner’s first golden age ended.
2. Robert Pires
Picture: Doha Stadium Plus
Athos, Aramis and Porthos [from The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas]. You can add Robert Pires to that list. Not only because of his looks but because he embodied similar principles and was part of the midfield four of the Invincibles.
Wenger signed him as a replacement for Marc Overmars and Petit who left for Barcelona to work on their tan in 2000.
Having transitioned from the French League, Pires took time to adapt to the physicality in England, but when he hit top form and in 2002, Arsenal won the double. Pires received FWA Footballer of the Year despite playing half a season due to a knee injury.
Upon his return, Pires hit top gear again. He finished the season on par with Bergkamp on assists and remained only behind Thierry Henry as club goal-scorer.
His biggest disappointment at Arsenal, Pires experienced in the 2006 Champions League final. When the referee showed Jens Lehmann the way to the showers for a reckless dash forward only 11 minute into the game, 33-year-old Pires saw his number on the board for the substitution. The Frenchman felt robbed of the chance to bring the Gunners their first Champions League trophy in his last match for the club.
But his inner Musketeer remained intact even after his departure in 2006.He now works as Arsenal’s ambassador and still occasionally trains with the first team squad.
1. Patrick Vieira
Picture: Julien Haler
Patrick Vieira physique was such that it required no adaptation when joined the Premier League in 1996. In fact, he jumped right on the forefront. He stood his ground, never shied away from contact, kept the ball in possession and distributed passes left and right. He had a thunderous shot and steel nerves in front of goal–all qualities meant for a key figure in a double-winning squad.
When Vieira arrived he barely spoke a word of English. He sat in the dressing room when captain Tony Adams stood in front everyone admitting his alcoholism. Vieira stared blankly. Two years later he had led Arsenal to a double. Four years later, Adams had passed down the captain armband to him. Such was his persistence and intelligence.
He led Arsenal to their second double in four years and then orchestrated the midfield in the club’s historic 49-game undefeated run.
One day Wenger called him in the offices and told he had an offer from Juventus and asked what he wanted to do. That struck Vieira who understood it as an invitation to leave.
He made the switch in 2005. But not before he gave Manchester United a slap in the face in the 2005 FA Cup final. Arsenal won on penalties with Vieira’s shot sealing what was to be their last trophy for a decade.
The search to fill his shoes at Arsenal continued for over a decade and the few that came close often had an inch to spare.