In the second part of a new series chronicling the greatest-ever players at Europe’s biggest clubs, Football Weeks lists the top five in the Arsenal hall of fame. Taking into account factors such as individual brilliance, impact on the team, overall achievement and staying power, we rank the outstanding performers, in reverse order.
5. Liam Brady 1971-1980 (307 appearances): Lit up Highbury in the age of austerity between the Double side and George Graham’s title winners. To Arsenal fans, he was more than just one of the pre-eminent midfield playmakers of the era. He was conductor, principal virtuoso and the backing band, with a portfolio of goals to make the purists drool. Bequeathed Gooners with moments to cherish – none will forget his performance against Manchester United in the 1979 FA Cup final – before making them weep when he dropped a bombshell at the end of the 1979-80 season and joined Juventus. It was a testament to the huge hole he left in the team that it took seven years for the club to properly recover.
4. Patrick Vieira 1996-2005 (406 appearances): Ushered in the Arsene Wenger era with a whirr of telescopic legs, precision passing and committed, almost manic, box-to-box midfield play. The rough edges to his game were quickly smoothed out and he became the driving force of one of the finest teams to ever grace the English game. Equally comfortable as enforcer or elegant distributor, there was a rash side to his game when beauty gave way to brutality, manifesting itself in a series of flashpoints and red cards. The fans knew how vital he was and Vieria’s name was always the first sung at away matches. It sometimes still is. Every summer, the Frenchman appeared to be on the verge of joining Real Madrid. Every summer, Wenger would talk him around. Finally, he did leave – for Juventus – and left behind a vacuum of experience and trophy-winning knowhow that would prove irreplaceable.
3. Tony Adams 1983-2002 (669 appearances): His Arsenal career could roughly be split into two parts; pre and post revealing his battle with alcoholism. Before 1996, Adams was properly appreciated only by fans of Arsenal, where he was installed as captain aged 21 and was the tough, dominant defensive commander of Graham’s serial winners. He gave up the drink, embraced Wenger’s methods and came to be universally acknowledged as one of the great English centre-backs. His game became more rounded in the second half of his career but, even when a series of niggling injuries reduced his playing time in his mid-30s, Adams remained an indomitable, fiercely competitive figure at the heart of the defence and an undisputed first pick.
2. Dennis Bergkamp 1995-2006 (423 appearances): – A transformational player in so many ways. The first truly world-class overseas import to arrive in England at his peak, he also redefined the position of the withdrawn striker to such an extent it became known as the ‘Bergkamp role’. His gifts were innumerable – exquisite touch, vision, awareness, clinical finishing – but perhaps his greatest was his ability to spot a pass and then weight it perfectly. Some of Bergkamp’s play bore the unmistakable stamp of genius, most memorably his wonder goal against Newcastle in 2002, which Arsenal fans have voted the greatest in the club’s history. Had a spiky side that was a trademark of the early Arsene Wenger teams, but that only made the supporters adore him even more. He was loyal, too. Resisted numerous offers to settle for a backseat role in his final years at the club but his class was enduring.
1. Thierry Henry 1999-2007 and 2012 (377 appearances): Has there ever been a better sight in Premier League history than the majestic Frenchman in full cry? Cutting in from the left flank or darting straight and flat-out with the balance of a ballerina and the pace of an Olympic sprinter, he would reduce defenders to quivering wrecks with perhaps the most complete all-round game of any striker to have played on British shores. It all looked so effortless and natural, but don’t be fooled. Henry worked prodigiously hard on his physical condition and in analysing opponents’ weak points.
Arsenal’s greatest goalscorer oozed charisma and charm but he also had a grumpy side and an ego the size of north London. As the Invincibles team fell apart, he would cut an occasionally frustrated figure and a Gallic stare would leave younger team-mates in fear of making a mistake. Yet the legacy of Arsenal’s numero uno is secure. Loved for eight goal-drenched seasons and a romantic loan return in his mid 30s, he wept tears of joy when he was immortalised with a bronze statue outside Emirates Stadium.