Arsenal legend Robert Pires has revealed that the 2001/02 double season was his best with the Gunners, while he admitted that not winning the Champions League in 2006 is among his greatest regrets.
Pires arrived at Arsenal from Marseille for £6m in 2000, by which time he had already won the 1998 World Cup and Euro 2000 with France. He soon became one of the best wingers in the Premier League and was named FWA Footballer of the Year in 2002. In total, he won four trophies with Arsenal, and played a key role in the 2003/04 Invincibles season.
The Gunners beat off strong competition for Pires’ signature in 2000 after he had earlier made his name in France with a strong Metz side, during which time he first caught the eye of Arsene Wenger.
“Arsene already wanted me when I was playing for FC Metz when he was coach of AS Monaco. What you need to know is that at that point I had the choice between Real Madrid, Juventus and Arsenal. But Arsene convinced me [to choose Arsenal],” Pires told 90min France.
“With him I knew I was going to play and for me that was the most important.”
By his own admission it took Pires ‘six or seven months’ to adapt to the Premier League and the relentless and ‘very physical’ nature of English football.
Once he did, the Frenchman proved to be an inspired signing and one of the Premier League’s greatest ever foreign players. He scored nine goals in 28 appearances in 2001/02, his second season, as Arsenal won the double and he was singled out for individual accolades.
Even though an ACL injury ended his campaign early, forcing him to miss the FA Cup final and later the 2002 World Cup with France, he considers 2001/02 the best of his time with the Gunners.
“I would say the 2001/02 season [was my best individually]. It was the year I got injured, rupturing cruciate ligaments in my knee, but it is true that everything I was doing at that time was working.
“As a team, the best season was the ‘Invincibles’ [in 2003/04] because we won the championship and were faultless. What we did at that time is really strong and nobody has done it since, although I think a team will break this record one day.
“Technically, we were above the others. Mentally too, because we had hard working English players. They were the warriors and the foreigners were the technicians [laughs].”
Pires was fortunate enough to play alongside some of the greatest players of his generation for both club and country, including several who have gone down as Arsenal legends.
“The one who was very strong is Thierry Henry. I called him the ‘fighter plane’. He was too fast and we couldn’t keep up. When we went on a counterattack, he was a rocket, it was crazy,” Pires recalled. “I had the chance to play with him for years, whether at Arsenal or in the national team. For me, he is one of the best strikers that football has known. Titi was very strong.
“I also learned from Dennis Bergkamp on a technical level. [He was] one of the best in the squad. I was really lucky that I had Dennis at club level and Zinedine Zidane in the national team.”
When it comes to opponents he faced down the years, Pires singled out former Manchester United right-back Gary Neville, a player he says rarely gave him a moment’s peace during their clashes.
“Among the opponents, I would say that Gary Neville bothered me a lot. He didn’t want to play. He just wanted to destabilise me by hitting me or insulting me. I often fell into the trap,” Pires said.
Pires was 32 when he left Arsenal in 2006, with Wenger’s greatest side beginning to break up. Patrick Vieira had earlier gone to Juventus, while Henry joined Barcelona in 2007. Bergkamp retired in 2006, Ashley Cole was reluctantly sold to Chelsea, and Sol Campbell and Lauren both also moved on.
His great regret was that the team wasn’t able to go all the way in the Champions League in 2006, losing 2-1 to Barcelona in Paris. It was Pires’ last game for Arsenal and for him it ended on a huge anti-climax when he was sacrificed in the first half when Jens Lehmann was sent off.
“I have two bad memories. The [2006 Champions League final] was hard to swallow. It doesn’t matter that I was taken off early because that is part of the game…the coach had to make a choice. But it’s more because we lost this final. The Champions League is a tough competition,” he said.
“The other is not to have been champions of France in 1998 with Metz [who finished second].”
Pires considers Arsenal’s difficulties today to be the result of Arsene Wenger’s shadow and legacy still looming large over the club, although he is backing Mikel Arteta to be the manager to build something new and bring the club into a fresh chapter.
“The club is in transition,” Pires explained. “Arsene Wenger’s imprint is still there. We must detach ourselves from it. This situation is similar to what Manchester United experienced with Sir Alex Ferguson. Today, things are much better for them.
“I am convinced Arsenal will find it. There is quality in the squad and I believe a lot in Mikel Arteta.”