Well, I appear to be back again and it looks like I’m taking over this Greatest XI which means I can be even more self-indulgent than last week. I repeat, and I am more than happy to hold my hands up on this one, I am not an Arsenal fan but I grew up in an era where Arsenal was massively prevalent in my young footballing life. My team, Luton Town, beat Arsenal at Wembley in 1988. I watched the 1989 league climax, totally gripped, on the day we moved house and I was urging the removal men to get everything sorted in time for kick-off. The first ever live top flight match I went to was Arsenal beating Blackburn 1-0 at Highbury, courtesy of a Paul Merson goal in what might have been 1995? I read Fever Pitch over and over, saw the one man theatre show starring Tom Watt and devoured the movie with Colin Firth several times. And yes, I can probably out pub quiz many an Arsenal fan if needed. So, I think my credentials remain valid, even if I do still laugh at Gus Caeser from time to time.
Anyway, we shall remain in the 442 shape that I installed last week – much to the shock of some of the folks that read it. Yet, please remember the best Arsenal sides post Herbert Chapman’s era. All of them lined up in some kind of 442 variant, and since Wenger has tried to change the shape you’ve not really won much, have you? So 442 it is folks.
And in any 442, the middle of the park is vital. It is where games are won or lost, where some of the most fierce on-field rivalries are born. The mere nature of the position turns players, especially the ones that get stuck in, hero status for eternity. So, it’s up to you to choose two from the list below. Which two players do you want in the engine room of your Greatest XI?
#1 Patrick Vieira
Let’s just get the first slot sorted right off the bat, shall we? If you were lucky enough to have Patrick Vieira at your club in his prime, then he gets into your Greatest XI. Arsenal fans, do not let yourselves down again this season. I know some of you like to pander to Arsenal Fan TV, pay for banners to be tied to the back of a plane and all that, but do not get this wrong. Patrick Vieira, in my opinion, is your finest ever central midfield player for a few reasons. Firstly, he made it work for Arsene. Without Vieira, Arsene would have failed. It is as simple as that. Why? Well, Wenger told David Dein to go and buy this gangly French kid from AC Milan (he can’t have been half bad to have been at Milan in the 90’s either) and he was available for a bargain price. Just imagine the egg on Arsene’s face had Vieira not been that good? He’d have lost the dressing room, the media and the fans in one fail swoop. Secondly, he was the perfect bridge between old Arsenal – by which I mean George Graham’s back five, solid defence, a midfield working like dogs – and new Arsenal, Arsene’s vision for the club and the style of play. Vieira could do both. Finally, Roy Keane feared him. That’ll do for me.
#2 Emmanuel Petit
Yeah, you might have spotted an immediate theme. Is anyone else harking back to the days when Arsene was absolutely brilliant at spotting a player? Petit arrived from Monaco as an average left-back and was transformed to a dominating partner to Viera overnight. Like Vieira, you couldn’t bully him. You wanted to play rough, Petit would play rough and beat you. Then we would outplay you because, frankly, bar a few of the lads at Manchester United, there was no other better central midfielder in the league at the time apart from the guy playing alongside him. Even today the debate of Petit & Viera vs Keane & Scholes rages on.
#3 Charlie George
Growing up as a kid, the FA Cup was a big thing to me. One of the iconic images that would get played all the time when the FA Cup was on television was Charlie George laying there on his back, arms aloft. Pretty much until now, that’s all I really knew about Charlie George other than the fact that he was an Arsenal lad through and through and had a bit of a naughty streak. Now, it turns out that Charlie played up-front as well as in midfield. Well, he is an Arsenal legend so he needs to be in the reckoning and like Radford last week, he won’t make it as a striker, so here he is. In a time where not many local boys get a game for their club, it is always good to remember one like George. However, I never knew he played almost as many games for Derby as he did for Arsenal.
#4 Michael Thomas
Speaking of youth team players breaking through and scoring iconic goals, here’s Michael Thomas. As I said, I may not be a Gooner but I will never forget that goal he scored at Anfield. Even at the age of 10, though memory makes me feel like I was much younger, I remember having a feeling that a goal was coming. Thomas was a superb player, the perfect George Graham type who did the dirty work but could play a bit as well. For me, he just edges out Paul Davis on this list who I felt was also a very under-rated player.
#5 Gilberto Silva
He didn’t have a bad career, did he? Having just won the World Cup with Brazil in 2002, he moved to Arsenal for £4.5m and I think we can all agree it was money pretty well spent. One of the Invincibles, he was quietly efficient on the pitch and, it could be argued, was missed as greatly as Viera when he left. How often has it been said that Arsenal have failed to replace this guy? Probably as many times at is has been said they failed to replace Vieira, to be honest.
#6 Aaron Ramsey
No, I am serious. Inconsistent? Yes. Played out of position quite a lot? Yes. Trusted by Wenger completely? No. More likely to turn it on for Wales in a big game than Arsenal? Whoa there, that’s a little harsh. Now, Ramsey has his faults but in a time where trophies and silverware aren’t exactly flowing to the Emirates, I think the man who has scored two winners in an FA Cup Final deserves at least a respectful nod.
#7 Brian Talbot
Every artist needs someone to clean up after him, to carry the brushes, to mix the paint. Brian Talbot was that man for Arsenal in the days of Liam Brady and Graham Rix. Personally, I love a player like Talbot as he knew his job was to get the ball and give it to someone who could do more with it than he could. He is probably best remembered for two things now. One, his goal and performance in the 1979 FA Cup Final and, more laughably for me, being the gaffer at WBA when the got stuffed by Woking. Nothing personal Brian, it’s just that I marked Tim Buzagalo a few times in my life and he didn’t get a hat-trick.