The peak of Arsene Wenger’s tenure at Arsenal and his foreign import revolution undoubtedly occurred over five seasons between 2001-2006. The pinnacle being the Invincible Season of 2003-04. Would this period of success have been realised without the genius of Robert Pires? Perhaps. But his class over these seasons isn’t discussed enough.
Pires was a unique wide player blessed with incredible natural ability. His shuffling close-quarter skills drifting inside from left midfield were unplayable at times. These swashbuckling attacks were even more potent due to his seemingly telepathic relationship with teammate Thierry Henry.
Pires arrived in a £6m deal from Marseille during the summer of 2000 after impressing in Ligue 1. A season of transition then followed with initial grumblings finding the press regarding the league’s pace and physicality. The wide man would finish the season as a Premier League and F.A Cup runner-up, although question marks would remain over his signing within some quarters of the Arsenal faithful.
By the 20th minute I was already thinking, what am I doing here? It was hard, very different to France, but in the end I got used to it. I wouldn’t say you’re scared but you can see that you have to change how you play – English football is physical, they kick you very hard.– Robert Pires
A single-season tune up was merely all that was required for the Reims native to find his true form. Pires’s second campaign marked his arrival in the English game, and the season that unravelled was a highlight reel of tricks, shimmies, slick and quick interplay that epitomised Arsene Wenger’s Gunners. The “Le Professeur” early 2000’s teams cemented Arsenal’s place as arguably the most aesthetically pleasing side to grace English football, and a prime Robert Pires was its embodiment.
Pires would finish the season by being named FWA Footballer of the Year and Arsenal Player of the Season as the North London outfit completed a domestic double. The Frenchman finished the campaign as the league’s leading assist provider with 15, an impressive feat given a cruciate ligament injury cut short his season prematurely in early March.
The Arsenal No. 7’s playing style was ahead of its time; a blueprint for the modern-day advanced winger who is now so ubiquitous in the global game. His weaving, penetrative attacks were the mark of a man high on confidence, and Wenger knew exactly how to harness his talent by giving Pires a free role according to former teammate Ray Parlour:
“You couldn’t really have a go at him if he wasn’t tracking back, because he was so good going forward. If you had a go at him, he would go into his shell and wouldn’t want the ball. Arsene Wenger knew exactly the characters he could have a go at.” Ray told TalkSport.
Goals at Blackburn and Tottenham were highlights of his 2001-02 season, although the double lob goal at Villa Park stands out the most. Pires would embarrassingly wrong foot George Boateng before perfectly lobbing a helpless Peter Schmeichel from just inside the box.
Pires would finish the season by lifting the Premier League without gracing the pitch for the final 10 games, although the trophy presentation on the final day of the season would create a truly iconic image. Arsenal’s first team squad, littered with world class players such as Adams, Viera, Henry, Bergkhamp, Campbell, Cole, etc, all bowed down in front of Pires as they lifted the Premier League trophy. The act summed up the regard in which he was held.
The following season would see Pires return from injury during November, where he would help himself to 14 goals in 26 league appearances, notably hitting a hat-trick against Southampton in the final game of the season. The winning goal in the F.A Cup final, also against the same opponents in Cardiff, would finish off his 2002-03 campaign.
What would then follow in the 2003-04 season would be Pires’ finest ever campaign. Arsenal were on their way to making history, steamrolling all before them in the Premier League, thanks in no small part to the trident of Pires, Henry and Ashley Cole on the left flank. The attacking pair would go on to register an incredible 57 goals in all competitions.
Early-season visits to top four rivals Manchester United and Liverpool would set the tone for the rest of the campaign. A momentum and a swagger appeared in Arsenal‘s play, which can only be described as (and forever will be) The Invincible.
The visit to Anfield saw Pires produce a man of the match display, providing the cross for Edu’s deflected header which resulted in a Sami Hyppia own goal. Pires would then seal the victory with a delicious curling effort into the top corner.
Pires’ combination with Henry was at the heart of Arsenal‘s stunning season. The international teammates dovetailed perfectly down the left flank, with their combination of speed and positional interplay unlike anything the league had witnessed previously.
Pires was the definition of an inverted winger, cutting and drifting infield, carving up defensive lines and dragging his man out of position. Henry’s scintillating speed and intelligently timed runs complimented Pires’ craft. The pair were unplayable when in full flow.
From late February up until mid-April, there were only two names on the goals column for Arsenal in the Premier League: Pires and Henry. Over a 7-game run, defeating the likes of Liverpool and drawing with their nearest title challengers, Man Utd, Pires scored 5, whilst Henry plundered 11 goals in total.
The run culminated in the demolition of Leeds United at Highbury. The visitors were blown away by Arsenal’s scintillating one touch champagne football. Henry would score four times; however, it was Pires who grabbed the opener, finishing off wonderful interplay between Gilberto Silva, Sylvain Wiltord and finally Dennis Bergkhamp with the through ball.
The following week would see Arsenal needing only a draw to secure the title as they visited White Hart Lane and bitter rivals Tottenham Hotspur. Pires would score as he typically did against Spurs, seemingly reserving some of his best displays in the red and white for the North London derby. The 2-2 draw secured the title and left 4 more games to cement Arsenal’s place in the history books.
Two more seasons would follow at Arsenal, as did his trademark eye for goal. In the 2004/05 season, he finished 3rd in the Premier League goal scoring charts, behind Henry and Andrew Johnson with 14. Seven more would follow in the 2005/06 campaign, which culminated in the Champions League Final with Barcelona and ultimately Pires’ last game for the Gunners.
Substituted after 12 minutes following Jens Lehmann’s red card, and with his contract up in the summer, the tactical move made by Wenger sealed Pires’ exit:
“I will never forget that,” Pires told FourFourTwo. “I knew Villarreal wanted me, but I hadn’t made a decision, yet what happened in the final left me feeling very bad. That was the end; my mind was made. I knew a player had to go off after that red card, but I never thought it would be me. When I saw it was my number, it killed me.”
Pires would go on to spend four seasons at Villarreal, followed by short stints back in the Premier League with Aston Villa and in India with FC Goa. Pires’ world-class ability showed in Spain, with his game naturally evolving with age. Spending the twilight of his career playing under the expansive philosophy of Manuel Pellegrini seemed fitting. His 4-2-2-2 system granted attacking players the freedom to roam, and Pires flourished alongside the likes of Marcos Senna and Arsenal fans’ favourite in waiting, Santi Cazorla.
There will undoubtedly be new foreign imports lighting up the Premier League for years to come, but few will carry his class and swagger. Robert Pires was ahead of his time.