The Arsenal Team of the Decade (1997-2007)

When Arsene Wenger took charge of the Arsenal Football Club in October 2006 he was relatively unknown in the English football community. Since his arrival, however, Wenger has transformed Arsenal into a successful, multi-national side with a strong emphasis on stylish, attacking football.

As a passionate supporter of Arsenal for the past ten years I have had the privilege to witness Wenger’s entire tenure as manager of the club. In that time I have watched the club win the Premier League title three times (1998, 2002 & 2004), the FA Cup four times (1998, 2002, 2003 & 2005) and reached both the UEFA Cup Final and Champions League Final once each (2000 & 2006 respectively). I have seen many great players come and go from the club from all over the world and been spoilt by some scintillating attacking football.

So without further ado I am happy to present, playing in Wenger’s favoured 4-4-2 formation, the Arsenal Team of the Decade.

Goalkeeper of the Decade: Jens Lehmann

German goalkeeper Jens Lehmann joined Arsenal in July 2003 as a replacement for long-serving Englishman David Seaman. Whilst many supporters will no doubt question Lehmann’s selection in this side over his predecessor I think it is hard to argue with Lehmann’s outstanding performances for Arsenal. In his first season with the club Lehmann went the entire Premiership season without losing a game – an astonishing tribute to his consistency and ability in goals.

His next season was less spectacular but he put in a significant man-of-the-match performance in Arsenal’s FA Cup Final win over bitter rivals Manchester United. Lehmann’s stepped up another level in the 2005/06 season when going unbeaten throughout his entire Champions League campaign with Arsenal until being unfortunately sent off in the final. He was subsequently awarded with the Champions League Goalkeeper of the Year.

An astonishing save from Real Madrid’s Raul in the quarter-final second-leg and an important late save from Juan Riquelme’s penalty-kick in the semi-final second-leg against Villareal were the highlights of his campaign. Lehmann has always been a fine shot-stopper and despite a tendency to be hot-headed deserves his place as Arsenal’s Goalkeeper of the Decade.

Best Moment: With Arsenal 1-0 ahead of Villareal on aggregate and on the brink of their first Champions League Final their opponents was awarded a late penalty to give Riquelme the opportunity to send the tie into extra-time. But up stepped Jens Lehmann who dived to his left and kept out Riquelme’s penalty to spark delirium in the Arsenal camp and put them through to their first Champions League final.

Right Back of the Decade: Lauren

Cameroonian midfielder Lauren joined Arsenal from Real Mallorca in 2000 and was converted to Arsenal’s first-choice right back for the 2001/02 season. He was an integral part of the Arsenal defence that won the double in that season, equally adept at defending and attacking and forming a vital partnership with Freddie Ljungberg down the right flank.

Lauren was an incredibly gifted player with exceptional technical ability. He combined this technique with great speed and aggression to make the ideal attacking right-back. He was a member of the Arsenal side that went through the Premiership season in 2003-2004 undefeated but was suspended for four matches for confronting Ruud van Nistelrooij after the Manchester United striker’s penalty miss against Arsenal at Old Trafford.

Despite leaving to the club and joining in January, 2007, Lauren will go down as one of Arsenal’s best wing-backs of all time and gets his place as Arsenal’s Right-Back of the Decade.

Best Moment: With six games to go in the 2001/02 season Arsenal were locked in a tight battle with Manchester United for the Premiership title. The Gunners met London rivals Tottenham Hotspur in a crucial game which was poised at 1-1 late in the second half. When Thierry Henry won a penalty for Arsenal in the 85th minute it was – surpisingly – Lauren who took responsibility for the kick. With all the confidence in the world he poked his penalty down the middle of the goal to seal crucial win for the club and set them on their way to the Premiership title.

Central Defender of the Decade: Tony Adams (Captain)

It is impossible to leave the man nicknamed “Mr Arsenal” out of this side. Although previously suffering from alcoholism during the 1990s Tony Adams was revitalised by the arrival of Arsene Wenger and the implementation of the club’s reformed dietary practices and went on to captain the club to two league-and-cup doubles, in 1997/98 & 2001/02.

Adams was the ultimate English central-defender; tall, strong and an excellent in the air. He excelled at organising the defence but was also a ferocious man-marker. Adams is the most successful captain in the club’s history and is the only English football player to captain a league-winning team in three separate decades.

As such, Adams not only makes it into the Arsenal Team of the Decade as one of the central defenders but is also handed the captain’s armband as a tribute to his leadership and loyalty to the Arsenal Football Club over his eighteen-year career.

Best Moment: Tony Adams capped his and Arsenal’s exceptional Premiership campaign in 1997/98 with the final goal of the season. When central defensive partner Steve Bould collected the ball on halfway Adams tore off towards the goal and Bould chipped the ball into his path. With only the goalkeeper to beat he smashed the ball past the Everton goalkeeper to round off Arsenal’s brilliant season.

Central Defender of the Decade: Kolo Toure

Arsene Wenger signed Kolo Toure from Ivorian club ASEC Mimosas for the tiny sum of £150,000 in 2002 and turned him into a superstar. Originally thought to be a midfield utility player, Toure was converted to central defence by Wenger and formed a strong partnership with Sol Campbell that saw the club go undefeated in the Premiership in the 2003/04 season.

Toure’s success at converting to central defence is made all the more remarkable by a style of play more attributed to a winger. His blinding speed, natural agility and strength on the ball have proved more than enough compensation for his modest height of 1.83m. Like Adams, Toure is a natural leader on the pitch and has become a fans’ favourite at Arsenal. He was part of the Arsenal defence that went 10 games without conceding a goal in the Champions League and continues to be touted as a future captain of the club.

While many supporters will believe that Sol Campbell should get the second centre-back position on this team I think Toure pips him due to his superior technique on the ball. As such, Toure partners Tony Adams as the second central defender in the Arsenal Team of the Decade.

Best Moment: Arsenal played Villareal off the park in the first half of the Champions League semi-final first-leg match at Highbury but were unable to find the goal their play deserved. But right at the death of the half Toure popped up to turn home Alexander Hleb’s cross and score his first ever Champions League goal. It would turn out to be the crucial goal in the tie which finished 1-0 to Arsenal after a 0-0 draw in the return leg made famous by Jens Lehmann’s penalty save.

Left Back of the Decade: Ashley Cole

It pains me to say it after his recent disloyalty to the club, but Ashley Cole gets the position of left-back in the Arsenal Team of the Decade ahead of Nigel Winterburn and Silvinho. While at the club Cole was an integral part of Arsenal’s attacking double-winning sides of 2001/02 and 2003/04.

Always willing to get forward and support with his exhilarating pace, Cole is blessed with excellent technical skills and is a solid crosser of the ball. He is an excellent tackler and has often dominated in games against Manchester United’s Cristiano Ronaldo, a credit to his man-marking ability.

It is a shame that Cole’s career at Arsenal ended the way it did and he will always be remembered for that rather than his fabulous performances that he gave in the seven years he spent with the club. For these consistent performances and Cole gets a spot in the team as the Left-Back of the Decade.

Best Moment: Cole’s performance against Manchester United when marking Cristiano Ronaldo in the 2005 FA Cup was one of the best in his Arsenal career. He nullified Ronaldo’s dribbling time and time again to enable Arsenal cling on to a 0-0 draw until the end of extra-time. Then, in the penalty shoot-out Cole calmly converted his spot-kick as Arsenal went on to win the trophy for the third time in four years.

Right Midfielder of the Decade: Fredrik Ljungberg

Fredrik Ljungberg joined Arsenal in 1998 for £3 million from Swedish side Halmstads BK following an outstanding performance for his national team against England in a World Cup Qualification match. Wenger took a considerable risk in signing the player without seeing him play live but his faith was rewarded in part when Ljungberg scored on debut as a substitute in a 3-0 win over Manchester United.

He ended the 2000/01 season in fine form with a run of goals before scoring in Arsenal’s FA Cup Final loss to Liverpool in Cardiff. Ljungberg hit his best run of form for the club a year later in the closing rounds of the 2001/02 season where he netted in five consecutive matches before providing the assist for Sylvain Wiltord to wrap up the title for Arsenal at Old Trafford. He scored a marvellous solo goal against Chelsea in the FA Cup Final to become the first player to score in two consecutive FA Cup Finals in 50 years.

Ljungberg’s defining characteristics have always been his speed, tenacity and ability to make late, surging runs into the box to create goalscoring chances. Few are able to do this as well as Ljungberg and as such, he gets the right midfield position in the Arsenal Team of the Decade.

Best Moment: In the final matches of the 2001/02 Premiership-winning year Ljungberg scored vital goals on an almost ridiculously consistent basis. But it was one of his goals, scored earlier in the season against Liverpool at Anfield that defined Arsenal’s title-winning side. With Arsenal down to ten men after Giovanni van Bronckhorst’s harsh dismissal the side were well and truly up against it. But Ljungberg proceeded to decide the game by first winning a penalty for Thierry Henry to open the scoring before firing in the sealer after a fine bit of Robert Pires trickery. That goal and Ljungberg’s celebration remain a personal favourite memory of mine and define the fighting characteristics of the 2001/02 Arsenal side.

Central Midfielder of the Decade: Patrick Vieira (Vice-Captain)

Arsene Wenger’s purchase of the Senegalese-born French international from AC Milan in September 1996 for £3.5 million is widely regarded as one of his best pieces of transfer business. After joining the club, Wenger developed Vieira into a composed and technically proficient midfielder to compliment his endless stamina and physical strength.

Vieira made a habit of scoring a number of long-range goals early in his time at Arsenal but became more and more defensive as his career progressed. His defensive nature provided stability for the defence and allowed the likes of Cole and Lauren to push forward and assist Ljungberg and Pires in forward attacks. Nevertheless, Vieira still had a knack of bobbing up in big matches and slotting home a goal or two.

He was captain of the Arsenal sides that won the double in 2001-2002 and went unbeaten in the Premiership in 2003-2004 before winning the 2005 FA Cup Final with his final kick for the club before joining Italian side Juventus. He will remain a true Arsenal legend and there can be no arguments about Vieira’s place in the Team of the Decade as the premier central midfielder.

Best Moment: It was a fitting end to his Arsenal career when Patrick Vieira lined up to take the fifth and final kick against Manchester United in 2005 and scored to win the FA Cup for the club. Vieira had many great moments as captain of Arsenal but to win the the trophy with his final kick for the club was a fairytale end to an outstanding career.

Central Midfielder of the Decade: Gilberto Silva

The Brazilian midfielder joined Arsenal for £4.5 million in August 2002 following outstanding performances for his country at the World Cup in Korea & Japan. He brought with him a reputation for simple, effective football – something not normally attributed to a Brazilian player – with his favoured position as a holding midfielder, sitting just in front of the defence.

Gilberto made an immediate mark in his first match for Arsenal, scoring the winning goal in the 2002 Community Shield against Liverpool. His first season with the club was looked on with mixed reviews and a tendency for him to appear invisible during games frustrated supporters. But in his second season, any frustrations vanished. He formed a skilful and physical central pairing with club captain Patrick Vieira and helped Arsenal go through the entire Premier League season unbeaten.

Gilberto has remained a vital member of the starting team and became vice-captain after Vieira’s departure from the club. He was widely regarded as the club’s best player in the 2006/07 season which brought out the best in Gilberto as both a leader and goalscorer. His versatility and quiet consistency over his time with Arsenal makes Gilberto the perfect central midfield partner for Patrick Vieira in the Team of the Decade.

Best Moment: Although he missed a penalty, the thrill of captaining Arsenal for the first time to a 1-0 victory over Manchester United at Old Trafford will live long in the memory for Gilberto. He was a commanding, dominating presence in midfield and allowed the more skilful Cesc Fabregas the freedom to trouble the Manchester United defence. If ever there was a game that signalled Gilberto’s transition from team player to team leader then this was it.

Left Midfielder of the Decade: Robert Pires

The French dynamo joined Arsenal from Marseille in 2000 for £6 million and left the club for Spanish side Villareal six years later in the summer of 2006. The impact that Robert Pires had on the success of Arsenal between those two dates was remarkable. Pires scored 62 goals and provided 43 assists in 189 Premiership appearances to make his mark as a player of astonishing effectiveness.

Pires’ two peaks of form as an Arsenal player came in the 2001/02 season when he was voted PFA Player of the Season after dominating the midfield for Arsenal, and the 2003/04 season in which he scored 14 goals to help the club go unbeaten in the Premiership for an entire season. Pires’ biggest attributes were his flawless control, blistering pace and technical creativity. Importantly, he was equally adept at scoring beautiful or ugly goals at crucial moments for the club.

He formed a formidable attacking relationship with the likes of Fredrik Ljungberg, Dennis Bergkamp and Thierry Henry and is an obvious choice as the Left Midfielder of the Decade for Arsenal.

Best Moment: The pinnacle of Pires’ Arsenal career came in his second season at the club when he was voted PFA Player of the Year despite missing the last two months of the season with a knee injury. His finest moment of that season came in a match against Aston Villa where Pires scored an outrageous individual goal to seal a 2-0 victory. Receiving a long ball from Ljungberg, Pires flicked the ball over Aston Villa defender George Boateng’s head before chipping Danish goalkeeper Peter Schmeicel. It was a moment of pure class from a class player.

Forward of the Decade: Thierry Henry

When Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger signed Thierry Henry from Juventus in August 1999 for £10.5 million it was seen by most observers to be a strange decision. At his spell in Italy, Henry was used mainly on the wing and scored just three goals in 16 appearances for Juventus – generally struggling with the defensive discipline in the Serie A. Upon arrival at Arsenal he was immediately converted into a striker by Wenger and since that day the club and Henry have never looked back. Although he failed to score in his first ten matches with Arsenal, Henry ended his first season with 26 and a star was born.

Henry is now the highest goalscorer in Arsenal history with 174 goals from 254 games. But his performances have always been about so much more than just scoring goals. He is an amazing athlete, one of the fastest players with the ball at his feet in the history of the game and has an inventiveness and imagination that has thrilled the football world. Highlights include his amazing self-made volley against Manchester United, his hat-trick away to Roma in the Champions League, a stunning individual running goal at home to London rivals Tottenham and a late header to win last season’s Premiership match at home against Manchester United.

There are no words that can accurately describe the impact that Thierry Henry has had on the success of Arsenal since he signed in 1999. His promotion to captain after Patrick Vieira’s departure was a reward for his loyalty and influence at the club and a sign of the great respect that his fellow teammates and the Arsenal community have for him. As such, Henry not only makes it into the Team of the Decade but is also named the Arsenal Player of the Decade.

Best Moment: In the middle of the historic 2003/04 season Arsenal faced Liverpool at Highbury after being knocked out of both the Champions League and the FA Cup in consecutive matches. The performance that Henry produced on that day was truly astonishing as he single-handedly turned a 2-1 half-time deficit into a stunning 4-2 victory. His second goal of the match – to grab the lead for Arsenal for the first time – was one of his best ever for the club. After dribbling halfway past three Liverpool defenders he coolly slotted past Liverpool goalkeeper Jerzy Dudek to get Arsenal’s Premiership season back on track.

Forward of the Decade: Dennis Bergkamp

Dennis Bergkamp signed for Arsenal for in June 1995 for £7.5million after two disappointing seasons with Inter Milan in the Serie A. The Dutchman hit his best form after the arrival of Arsene Wenger in 1996 and was voted as the PFA Player of the Year for the 1997/98 season when Arsenal won the league and cup double. Bergkamp’s best attributes were always his impeccable control and intelligence when on the ball. He would rarely waste a touch and was just as able to set up a teammate for a goal with a brilliant pass or flick as he was to finish chances for himself.

The quality of the goals that Bergkamp scored is something to cherish as an Arsenal supporter. This is best illustrated in a 3-3 draw with Leicester City where Bergkamp scored a hat-trick of such brilliance that his three goals took up all three spots in the Premier League Goal of the Month award – the first and only time a single player has achieved this. There was also a monumental goal he scored against Newcastle where he bamboozled his marker to score the Goal of the Season in 2002. Goals became less frequent as his career progressed but until his retirement at the end of the 2005/06 season Bergkamp remained a valuable member of Wenger’s team.

Dennis Bergkamp will always be remembered as a great team player and one of the most influential Arsenal players in the club’s history. Thierry Henry has previously called him the “perfect” strike partner because of his unselfishness and ability to read the game. This unselfishness is illustrated by the fact that as well as scoring 121 goals for Arsenal he has also provided 166 assists for the club. This makes him the ideal partner for Henry in the Arsenal Team of the Decade.

Best Moment: The 2-0 victory that Arsenal recorded away to Newcastle in the 2001-2002 Premiership season will forever be remembered for Bergkamp’s amazing piece of skill in opening the scoring for the Gunners. There is conjecture over whether his touch was intentional but in flicking the ball past Newcastle defender Nicos Dabizas and slotting past Shay Given he is credited with scoring one of the best goals in the history of the game.