Arsenal’s Best Ever Players

One of the oldest clubs in England, Arsenal introduced some of the biggest names in the history of English football. Arsene Wenger’s boys will dominate the list as the iconic coach had them compete with Manchester United for nearly a decade. As ever, we’ll start with the Honourable Mention picks.

  • Pat Rice (1966-1980) – 255 games, 4 goals – most known for his time as Wenger’s assistant, Pat Rice also spent the majority of his playing career at Arsenal. He won the league in his debut season breaking into the first team.
  • Charlie George (1968-1975) – 179 games, 49 goals – his famous goal against Liverpool in the 1971 FA Cup final will always be remembered fondly by Arsenal fans. His role in the club’s first-ever double was just one of the multiple occasions he stepped up on big nights.
  • Pat Jennings (1977-1985) – 274 games, 87 clean sheets – before his transfer to fellow North London club Tottenham, Jennings was an iconic goalkeeper in his time at Arsenal.
  • David Rocastle (1984-1992) – 277 games, 34 goals – Rocky was the crowd’s favorite as he was the sparking light in George Graham’s era, best known for the “Boring, Boring Arsenal” chants. Along with his teammate Michael Thomas, Rocastle also tried his best to fight racism in English football.
  • Paul Merson (1985-1997) – 393 games, 89 goals – the versatile midfielder was one of the biggest stars of the club pre-Wenger era. After retirement, he continues to be in the spotlight with his role as Sky Sports pundit.
  • Lee Dixon (1988-2002) – 586 games, 26 goals – a long-timer in Arsenal’s right-back position, Dixon won 15 trophies with the club, including four Premier League titles.
  • Freddie Liungberg (1998-2007) – 328 games, 72 goals – the Swedish winger might not be the flashiest player in Wenger’s invincible side, but he scored the goals when it really mattered and always gave his all down the right flank.
  • Robin van Persie (2004-2012) – 278 games, 132 goals – if it wasn’t for the move to Man Utd, which infuriated Arsenal fans, RVP could have cracked the top ten here. Came as a raw talent who needed lots of sharpening, and left as one of the best strikers in the world.

 

David Seaman 

1990 – 2003 (564 games, 223 clean sheets)

Major titles: 3 English League, Cup Winners’ Cup, 4 FA Cup, EFL Cup

Seaman joined Arsenal from Queen’s Park Rangers for what was a British record for a goalkeeper at the time. Under George Graham, Arsenal’s biggest transfers were usually to strengthen the defensive unit.

With fellow new signings Steve Bould, Lee Dixon and Nigel Winterburn in front of him, Seaman only conceded 18 goals and kept 23 clean sheets as Arsenal won the league in 1990/91.

Despite having to wait seven years for another league title, the England international was superb in domestic and international cup triumphs. His performance against a star-studded Parma side in a Cup Winners’ Cup final was a memorable one, not least as he played the game with pain-killing injections as he was suffering from a broken rib.

He departed the club with his eighth major trophy at Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium. In a hard-fought FA Cup final against Southampton, Seaman had an exceptional save to deny Brett Ormerod from forcing an extra-time.

Sharp reflexes, courageous defending and exceptional positional awareness were some of Seaman’s best qualities. Although he failed to pass the grade when Ronaldinho stunned him with an iconic free-kick, the ponytail goalkeeper was also usually on point at judging crosses.

Cesc Fabregas

2003 – 2011 (303 games, 57 goals)

Major titles: FA Cup, 2 Community Shields

It might upset some Arsenal fans to see Cesc in this final list, but he was the perfect example of Arsene Wenger’s era of nurturing talents. He was just a little kid when he decided to shift from La Masia to Hale End.

Only a few months after the undefeated season, Cesc was promoted to the first team. And, soon after, he was the in-house solution to replace the influential captain Patrick Vieira.

The leap didn’t end there. Fabregas helped Arsenal reach the Champions League final as Wenger stunned Europe with a youthful team. The quarter-final duel against Serie A giants Juventus, in which Fabregas outplayed his former mentor, Vieira, was seen as handing over the baton.

At 21, Fabregas became Arsenal’s captain with the club resisting Barcelona’s offer to bring back their former academy player. While Arsenal came close to the league title in Cesc’s time at the club, including the 2007/08 close call, he won the 2010 World Cup, assisting Andres Iniesta’s winner in the final.

But that league triumph had to come with another London club. As much as his Barcelona transfer was hurtful to Arsenal fans, they also had to deal with their wunderkind becoming a two-time Premier League winner with Chelsea.

David O’Leary

1975 – 1993 (722 games, 14 goals)

Major titles: 2 English League, 2 FA Cup, 2 EFL Cups

Including his time in the youth team, O’Leary spent 20 years at Arsenal. He holds the record for the most games for the club as he featured 722 times for the first team.

Affectionately known as Spider, O’Leary was a calm operator with the ball at his feet. At the time when launching the ball forward under pressure was customary, he usually tried to build from the back.

The Republic of Ireland defender made his Arsenal debut only three months after his 17th birthday. And it was at the time when they were fighting to stay in the league.

Under George Graham, Arsenal returned to form and O’Leary had a coach who mastered the defensive side of the game. As a result, he became one of the best center-backs in the division.

Injuries halted his progress, however, as he had to be on the sidelines for months when Arsenal won the league in 1989 and 1991. Yet he was still influential when he got chances to contribute, playing right-back at times.

David closed his Arsenal chapter with another piece of silverware as Arsenal defeated Sheffield Wednesday in 1993’s two-legged FA Cup final.

Liam Brady

1973 – 1980 (307 games, 59 goals)

Major titles: FA Cup

Considered as one of the most complete midfielders in the 1970s, Brady was always one step ahead of the game. He had the skills and strength to dominate the midfield battle.

Chippy, as he was nicknamed, turned professional on the day he celebrated his 17th birthday. Bertie Mee was the coach who gave him his first minutes back in 1973.

Playing alongside the 1966 World Cup winner Alan Ball was the perfect opportunity to grow his level. And, with Terry Neill and Don Howe taking over the team, Brady played his part in Arsenal’s three successive FA Cup final appearances.

They only managed to win the middle one, however. The Irishman produced a Man of the Match performance against Manchester United as he was involved in all three goals.

He was the winner of PFA’s Player of the Year for that 1978-79 season. But, much to the angst of Arsenal supporters, he communicated his desire to join Juventus at the end of the 1979/80 campaign.

As fate has it, he knocked out his future club to reach the Cup Winners’ Cup final. But the story wasn’t going to end on a positive note. Brady missed his kick in the final penalty shootout defeat against Valencia.

After his departure, Arsenal went seven years without a trophy. Meanwhile, he won two Serie A titles with the Turin club. After retirement, Brady coached Arsenal’s youth team for nearly two decades until 2014.

Robert Pires

2000 – 2006 (284 games, 84 goals)

Major titles: 2 Premier League, 3 FA Cup

He only stayed at Highbury for six years, but that was enough for the Frenchman to appear at number six on our list. No. 7 jersey was already famous at Arsenal with David “Rocky” Rocastle, but Pires took it to another level.

Pires made Arsenal fans forget about Marc Overmars in a flash. Wenger’s focus on less-heralded Ligue 1 stars paid off big on this one as the fleet-footed winger bamboozled his way into one of the all-time best Premier League wingers.

Although he won World Cup and Euros before arriving at Highbury, he wasn’t the biggest name on France’s roster. And the first weeks in England were challenging, especially with the physical demands of the league.

But, in his second season, Pires took off. Including beautiful strikes against Aston Villa, Blackburn and derby rivals Tottenham, he played with authority and full of confidence to push Arsenal closer to the league title.

Although his campaign ended prematurely due to injury, he won Football Writers’ Footballer of the Year and Arsenal completed the double. His teammates also had a surprise for him on the final day as they bowed down in front of him in the trophy celebration.

On his return from injury in the 2002/03 season, Pires scored the only goal of the game in the FA Cup final against Southampton, the same opponent he scored a hat-trick in the penultimate game of the league season.

Those two campaigns were sensational, but the best was yet to come. With Ashley Cole and Thierry Henry, Pires created a left-sided triumvirate when Arsenal finished the 2003/04 season undefeated in the league. The trio scored a combined 57 goals in all competitions.

Pires finished third in the scoring chart in the 2004/05 season. But, at the end of the next campaign, it all ended abruptly. In his last game for the club, a Champions League final, the then-33-year-old had to be substituted early following Jens Lehmann’s red card.

Ian Wright

1991 – 1998 (288 games, 185 goals)

Major titles: Premier League, 2 FA Cups, Cup Winners’ Cup, EFL Cup

Not only was Ian Wright a regular goal scorer, but he also knew how to score the best goals. You could see him chip a goalkeeper from 30 yards out in the same game he guides the ball home with a tap-in from three yards.

He was also a lively presence in the dressing room. Like the manner he scored his goals, he had a long catalog of goal celebrations. The striker signed his first professional contract with Crystal Palace at nearly 22.

And six years passed before he joined fellow capital city club, Arsenal. But he departed the Gunners as the club’s all-time top-scorer, a record Henry broke in the middle of the 2000s.

Considering Alan Smith won consecutive Golden Boots with a team that also had Kevin Campbell, Paul Merson and Anders Limpar, Wright’s transfer was a bit of a mystery at first.

But George Graham didn’t have to wait longer to prove his point as Wright scored a hat-trick on his debut against Southampton. He completed the season as he started it with another hat-trick to beat Spurs’ goal-getter Gary Lineker in the Golden Ball race.

His goals brought trophies in the second season. Wright scored in the first as well as in the replay of the FA Cup final against Sheffield Wednesday as Arsenal won the domestic cup double. 

Despite missing out on the final due to suspension, Cup Winners’ Cup success followed the next campaign. In total, Wright finished as Arsenal’s top scorer in six successive seasons.

Just like the Cup Winners’ Cup story, his only league triumph came when he was less involved due to injuries and the emergence of a young striker by the name of Nicolas Anelka.

Nonetheless, it was a memorable season for him as he surpassed Cliff Bastin’s record number of goals with a brace against Bolton. Not many expected he’d last seven years at the club when he signed for the club in 1991.

Patrick Vieira

1996 – 2005 (406 games, 33 goals)

Major titles: 3 Premier League, 4 FA Cups

Vieira’s arrival to English football was at the same time as Arsene Wenger leaving Japan to take over the reins at Arsenal. Two domestic doubles and an invincible season later, the two Frenchmen are legends of the Premier League era.

While we mentioned initial doubts over Pires’ physical attributes, the 6ft 4in Vieira didn’t have to worry about that. His athleticism was yet another strong point for the lanky midfielder.

Add his excellent passing range and clean interceptions to his repertoire, and Vieira was simply a complete midfielder.

While two of the names in our top three needed time to adjust themselves to the demands of the Premier League, Vieira instantly showed his authority as his midfield partnership with compatriot Emmanuel Petit won the double for Arsenal.

In a true sense of a box-to-box player, Vieira was capable of racing downfield to spark attacking moves when he wasn’t busy cutting out a dangerous move by the opposing team.

And, if he rarely scores, it used to be either spectacular or decisive. In whatever he does, Vieira was a clutch player. In 2002, the inevitable happened. Vieiera became Arsenal’s captain.

That added responsibility even reduced the ill-fated moments that had him suspended with needless interventions. Of course, there has to be an exception, though – battles with Manchester United’s skipper Roy Keane.

After missing out in the closing months of the 2002/03 season, Arsenal returned to glory with their captain back in the groove. He was the kind of leader for a team who wanted to finish a league campaign unbeaten.

He then scored the decisive penalty as Arsenal beat Manchester United in the 2004/05 FA Cup final. But that was it – the final kick of Vieira as an Arsenal player. He shocked the footballing world with a move to Juventus in the summer. 

It was only as a bit-part player in Jose Mourinho’s Inter Milan, but he completed his cabinet with a Champions League trophy at the end of his career.

Dennis Bergkamp

1995 – 2006 (423 games, 120 goals)

Major titles: 3 Premier League, 4 FA Cups

We already associate a couple of players with magnificent goals. But Bergkamp is the ultimate kind. From start to finish, his Arsenal career was full of goals that would make you run out of superlatives.

The striker who netted more than 20 goals in three seasons with Ajax only had three Serie A goals to his name in his last season at Inter. That’s when Arsenal stepped in.

What started with Bruce Rioch continues with more consistency and grace under Wenger. He didn’t regain his scoring exploits, but Dennis was an all-timer in his own style.

Eric Cantona and Bergkamp were trailblazers for English football opening its door to foreign influence. Technical ability was top of his identification, but he was equally adept at handling the physicality of the league. 

He had to wait for his eighth appearance for his first goal. But the Dutch master was among the league’s most creative players with key passes presenting chance after chance for the final striker, be it Ian Wright or Thierry Henry. 

In Arsenal’s double-winning season, 1997/98, Bergkamp won Player of the Year awards left and right. Even when it’s not his forte, Bergkamp ended his career as Arsenal’s 10th-highest goalscorer.

If we talk about the 1998 World Cup goal against Argentina as a defining moment for his national team contributions, we’ll be spoiled for choices at the club level. His swivel at Newcastle United’s St James’ was pretty unique, but he scored a sumptuous lob against Leverkusen a mere four days later.

A goal at Leicester which looked similar to the World Cup quarter-final magic and a belter against Bolton shouldn’t be forgotten in this sense. All in all, Bergkamp oozed class and perfection in his time at Highbury.

His testimonial game was also the occasion of Emirates Stadium’s inauguration. That’s how much Arsenal valued their Dutch master.

Tony Adams

1983 – 2002 [his entire career] (669 games, 48 goals)

Major titles: 4 Premier League, 3 FA Cups, 2 EFL Cups, Cup Winners’ Cup

For the number two pick, let’s return to the defensive side of the game with the center-back who captained Arsenal for 14 years. Adams won league titles in three different decades.

“Mr. Arsenal” was the ultimate one-club man. At the heart of Arsenal’s defense, his leadership qualities and commitment level made it possible for him to stay a key figure at the pinnacle of football.

For both George Graham and Arsene Wenger, he’s the ultimate leader and a colossal defender. With how far the two coaches are in terms of style and mentality, that tells you how compatible he is with different surroundings.

Whether it’s on aerial duels or crunching tackles, he was the first to commit himself to the challenge. And he was also a brilliant defender with the ball. Let’s not forget his game-reading skill, too.

Adamas joined Arsenal’s youth back in 1980. Three years later, at the age of 17, he made his debut against Sunderland. At 21, he became Arsenal’s youngest-ever skipper, a role he maintained until retirement.

When you put all things into account, that seemed a bit surprising. He usually entered in the heat of disputes and there was even a spell in prison. Yet he always clawed back to win back his place.

Another baggage, alcoholism, cost him his England captaincy in 1996. But, a few months later, the arrival of Wenger changed everything for the troubled defender. The Frenchman’s regimen on diet and pre-game preparations meant Arsenal’s captain dropped his old habits.

In terms of playing style, the change into expansive football also meant Adams showed his poise in possession. 1997/98 was one of the finest for him as he latched home a memorable goal on the final day of a season they won a domestic double.

In his 30s and troubled with injuries, Adams won another double in 2002. He might be second on this list, but, without a single doubt, he’s the first name you can think of as an Arsenal captain.

Thierry Henry

1999 – 2007, 2012 (377 games, 228 goals)

Major titles: 2 Premier League, 3 FA Cups, 4 Golden Boots

There was no surprise here. Not only Arsenal’s all-time best player, Thierry Henry has a legitimate claim to be considered the best player in the Premier League era.

With his exuberant technique, acceleration and strength, Titi was a nightmare for defenders. And he was at the heart of everything. The captain, but also the talismanic striker. The set-piece specialist and the top assist-maker.

That’s Henry in a nutshell. A record 228 goals for Arsenal had the Frenchman in history books. To put it briefly, he knows how to find the net from almost every kind of situation and angle.

Big names flourish in big games and Henry used to do it in sheer style. He scored miraculous goals against Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea, Spurs, Real Madrid, Inter and Roma, to name a few.

It was not smooth sailing from the start, however. Short of confidence from his time in Juventus, the World Cup winner needed a bit of time before his explosiveness was on display.  And it seemed Arsenal didn’t do their homework of replacing Anelka.

But a brace against Derby in his ninth game set the tone for an improved second half of the season. And, soon after, Arsenal have the best striker on their hands. When Arsenal won the domestic double in 2002, he scored 32 goals in all competitions.

42 goals and 23 assists meant he won both Players’ and Fans’ Player of the Year awards, despite Arsenal only winning the FA Cup in 2003. His numbers dropped a bit in the invincible season, but he was at the top of his game.

It was unfortunate that he missed out on Ballon d’Or and FIFA World Player of the Year awards at this stage of his career. Arsenal’s figurehead even used to receive standing ovations from opposing fans.

After Vieira’s departure, Henry took the armband and went on to break the club’s scoring record. The Champions League was the only missing puzzle from his Arsenal CV, but he did win it with Barcelona in 2009.

Before ending his career at New York Red Bulls, Henry returned home for a brief spell at North London. Now he’s one of the top pundits in the game while also coaching France U21 and Olympic teams.

About Tony 9 Articles
I'm Tony, a football writer since 2005, from Warrington in the UK. I support Liverpool and have done since I was a kid. I've previously ran other footy sites, and have a love for the game overall (not just LFC). Find out more about me & my background on the about page, linked to in the site's main navigation.

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