The Nearly Men: Players Wenger Almost Signed – Part 3: Midfielders

Onto our third instalment of this series, and with each passing week the profiles of the players Wenger lost out on get slightly bigger – just you wait until next week’s edition if you fancy a little cry.
For the time being however, we have a look at men in the middle of the park who narrowly missed the boat.
Arsenal have been blessed with some incredibly gifted technical midfielders during Wenger’s reign, but all the players on this week’s list could have contributed to making the club more successful in years gone by – some of them could even have been making an impact presently.
Claude Makelele
What a player Claude Makelele was. The Frenchman was a key component of the Chelsea squad that beat Arsenal’s ‘Invincibles’ to the title one year on from their incredible feat, helping Jose Mourinho win back-to-back titles in 2005 and 2006.
The defensive midfielder was tenacious and combative, and well as possessing the ability to read the game well to make interceptions and positioning himself in areas where he would be most effective for his team. A man of his talents would have added some real steel to the heart of the Gunner’s midfield – what a formidable partnership he could have formed with his compatriot Patrick Vieira, as well as filling our former captain’s void after his move to Juventus in 2005.
Ultimately, it was because of Vieira that Wenger decided not to sign Makelele from French champions Nantes when he had the chance in 1996 – he decided that he didn’t need both players, and kept his faith in the player already at the club.
“Claude Makelele was close to signing for us,” Wenger told The Independent in 2006. “I missed a few.”
N’Golo Kante
Another player Wenger was reportedly after, N’Golo Kante, is probably the player who has come closest to replicating Makelele’s style in recent times, and Arsenal fans can only hope he will not make Chelsea as successful as they were during the period the former Real Madrid man was on their books.
“I tried to sign Kante when he was in France and when he was at Leicester. We cannot explain everything – transfers are transfers – but it is quite obvious when you look at where he has gone,” Wenger said earlier this year. “I believe Kante has had a huge impact. It’s no coincidence Chelsea are where they are and Leicester did what they did last season.”
A slight hint of bitterness from Arsene there perhaps? He definitely seems to imply that money was Kante’s source of motivation when it came to choosing west London over north. A player whose qualities the Gunners have been crying out for recently – he really could have been perfect for Arsenal.
Paul Pogba
It might yet be too early to class Paul Pogba as one of Sir Alex Ferguson’s biggest mistakes in letting him leave Old Trafford – that will become evident in time during his second spell with the club – but it is known that Wenger wanted him to make the move to the Emirates when his contract had run down in 2012.
Wenger recalled: “Things happened very quickly. We were interested in him. We tried to get him to come here. But he very quickly signed for Juventus.”
It would have been interesting to see how the 24-year-old would have fared with Arsenal. Without a doubt, Pogba offers something a bit different to the typical central midfielders Wenger tends to go for. There are those who will not be totally convinced he would have been a good fit however.
It’s fairly likely that we will never find out.
Yaya Toure
It’s no secret that Yaya Toure almost joined his brother Kolo at Arsenal, with the Ivorian impressing in his trial in 2003 – he even appeared for the club in a friendly against Barnet. Wenger attempted to get a deal done, but not for the first time (or the last), obtaining a work permit proved to be a stumbling block as Toure hadn’t played at international level by that point.
Due to the delay, Toure ended up going to Metalurh Donetsk in the Ukraine, and Wenger has affirmed that there was nothing more the club could have done to bring him to England at that point.
Wenger has since shed some light on the situation: “Let’s not forget that Toure had an agreement with us – and it’s not because we did not want to sign him that he went to Ukraine. We have made mistakes, but he is not a mistake.”
Toure went on to play for Olympiacos and Monaco before his big-break came when Barcelona came in for him. He was part of the side in 2009 that won six major trophies in a calendar year. When Pep Guardiola took over and preferred Sergio Busquets, the way was paved for Toure to join up with Manchester City, with whom he won two titles.
There was a period of at least five years where Toure was one of the best midfielders around. With a powerhouse like him at his peak in the centre of the park partnering Fabregas, things could have been very different for Arsenal.
Angel di Maria
Arsenal were very close to picking up a very young Angel di Maria for a very reasonable price before he had made the move from Argentina to Europe. Why didn’t it happen? No prizes for guessing here – it was those pesky work permits.
“We had identified Di Maria when he was 17 in an international competition. But he went to Portugal, and from Portugal he went to Spain. Why? Because he could not get a work permit for England, so that meant you could only get him to England once he was worth a huge amount of money.”
By the time Arsenal could viably bring the Argentine to England, his price had sky-rocketed – Manchester United had to pay almost £60m to secure his services.
Despite the 29-year-old not enjoying the best of seasons in his one year in the Premier League, it could have been a different story if he had been working under Wenger as opposed to Louis van Gaal. Since moving on to PSG, di Maria has re-discovered the form that he enjoyed while at Real Madrid, breaking the league’s record for most assists in his first season in Paris.
Gareth Bale
Arsenal had been tracking Gareth Bale long before he was a Spurs player, and had considered making a move for him at the same time they went for Theo Walcott while he was at Southampton. Wenger had his reasons for not trying to seal a deal.
“We didn’t take him as we had Ashley Cole and Gael Clichy and didn’t want another left-back,” Wenger said back in 2013. “I must confess it was a huge mistake as he can play in midfield. He struggled at the start at Tottenham, then they moved him to midfield and he has done exceptionally well. The career of a player sometimes depends on playing in the right position.”
Bale would have been an interesting addition to the side, and even though there would have been know way of knowing it, if he had signed it would have meant that Spurs would never have had one of their best-ever players. A deal for the Welshman therefore could have been twice as sweet.

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