Arsène Wenger is arguably the greatest manager to never win a major European trophy.
Across an illustrious managerial career, spanning three decades, he reached the final of Uefa’s three most important competitions — Champions League, Cup Winners’ Cup and Uefa Cup — at least once, but each time the wily French tactician fell at the final hurdle.
His status as a nearly man extends into the transfer market, despite forging a reputation of being a pre-eminent talent spotter as he recognised the potential of Ballon d’Or recipient George Weah and converted Thierry Henry from being a frustrated winger into Europe’s most deadly marksman.
It’s become somewhat of a running gag, players the legendary Arsenal boss could have signed, the names are a who’s who and the potential line-up is a frightening sight. Oh what might have been for the Gunners….
GK: Gianluigi Buffon
The end doesn’t seem to be in sight for veteran Italian shot-stopper Gianluigi Buffon who earlier this year celebrated his 43nd birthday. Now back at Juventus, following a brief sojourn with Paris Saint-Germain, his stature as a club legend may never have been achieved if Wenger had got his way.
Buffon in 2017 revealed whilst at boyhood club Parma, whom he left for Juve in 2001 for a then world record fee paid to sign a goalkeeper, two Premier League clubs were keen to acquire his signature. One was Manchester United and the other, you’ve guessed it, being Arsenal.
Key quote: “I remember when I was 20 years old in 1998, I had dinner once with Wenger.” — Buffon.
CB: Raphaël Varane
There’s no question the positive impact Wenger had on the Premier League. His way of doing things, from coaching methods to training and diet, has forced others to reevaluate themselves and that’s ultimately led to the competition we have today.
The Gunners between 1997 and 2004 were a sight to behold, key behind this success was recruitment, and the former AS Monaco coach had the French market on lockdown. It wouldn’t be long before rival teams caught up, and by the 2010s he wasn’t finding those gems, such as Raphaël Varane who is now an integral part of Real Madrid.
Key quote: “He was at Lens, and we might well have caught him there.” — Wenger.
CB: Gerard Piqué
Barcelona’s youth academy, dubbed ‘La Masia’, became the pre-eminent development factory this past decade with the footballing education on offer there playing a key role in the first team’s unprecedented successes and Spain’s national team as well.
However, not every graduate makes the Camp Nou grade, some ultimately leave, though few ever managed to return like Gerard Pique, who left for Man Utd as a youngster. If things had worked out differently the Catalan centre-back would have plied his trade in north London instead.
Key quote: “We wanted to take [Cesc] Fabregas, [Lionel] Messi and Pique. It worked only for Fabregas.”
CB: Vincent Kompany
During the mid-2000s Brussels-based Anderlecht had two of Europe’s hottest young talents in Anthony Vanden Borre and Vincent Kompany, only the latter though realised his full potential, and that would be at Manchester City following a stint at Bundesliga outfit Hamburg.
Given the hype surrounding a teenage Kompany, it stands to reason every major club was monitoring the Belgian defender, in fact Sir Alex Ferguson famously scouted him personally. His long-time rival, however, managed to secure a meeting with Kompany’s agent but nothing came of it.
Key quote: “I had meetings with Emilio Butragueno at Real Madrid, the club leaders at Barcelona and by Arsene Wenger himself at Arsenal.” — Jacques Lichtenstein.
RWB: Gareth Bale
Southampton can be proud of their youth set-up, which is currently up there as the best in England, and Wenger knows so first-hand having brought Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain from the South Coast club.
That being said, the Saints’ most successful graduate slipped through, but you can’t blame the former Gunners boss as no one back then could foresee Gareth Bale becoming the devastating forward he is now.
Bale’s former Tottenham manager Harry Redknapp even suggested the left-back role, where he initially began, would be his calling card. Wenger felt the same way, hence the Welshman never played for the other north London club.
Key quote: “We didn’t take him as we had Ashley Cole and Gael Clichy and didn’t want another left-back. I must confess it was a huge mistake.” — Wenger.
CM: Yaya Touré
This story is well known and has even taken on a life of its own. Yaya Toure, the brother of then Gunners centre-back Kolo, underwent a trial — even playing a pre-season friendly against Barnet in July 2003 — however a signing was never forthcoming, even though Wenger was keen, due to issues obtaining a work permit.
Toure joined Ukrainian side Metalurh Donetsk before embarking on something of a well-travelled career. Toure would eventually cross paths with Arsenal after joining Manchester City where the Ivorian box-to-box midfielder lifted three Premier League titles.
Key quote: “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.” — Wenger.
CM: Paul Pogba
In recent years we’ve seen Arsenal and Man Utd trade players on several occasions. Robin van Persie, Alexis Sanchez, Mikel Silvestre and Henrikh Mkhitaryan could have been joined by Paul Pogba if Wenger got his way.
The opportunity was there when Pogba, who joined the Red Devils as a youngster, grew increasingly frustrated with the path to United’s first team being restricted. The moment Ferguson brought Paul Scholes out of retirement seemed to be the final straw and the Frenchman planned his exit strategy.
Pogba left United as a free agent, meaning any club that feasibly matched his demands could be acquiring his services, a determined Wenger however was blindsided by Italian giants Juve who helped develop the Frenchman into Europe’s most exciting young midfielder.
Key quote: “We tried to get him to come here. But he very quickly signed for Juventus.” — Wenger.
LWB: Jadon Sancho
As touched upon, Wenger’s strength in his early days was spotting the next big thing and that ability never truly deserted him. A case in point being Jadon Sancho, now at Borussia Dortmund — where he’s continually setting the world alight, but the Londoner could have remained English football.
A highly promising talent while coming through Man City’s youth set-up, his decision to leave was based on the belief Pep Guardiola wasn’t able to guarantee him regular playing time. That wouldn’t have been the case at Arsenal, but the extremely talented winger opted for a Bundesliga adventure instead of a place in Arsenal’s attack.
Key quote: “I wanted to take him from Man City when he didn’t get the games. I tried to lure him because he’s from London. I tried to get him to Arsenal.” — Wenger.
FW: Lionel Messi
A number of teams were looking at Lionel Messi before he truly made it big. Juventus, managed by Fabio Capello, was one such club, but the powers that be at Barcelona weren’t reluctant to enter any discussions given the potential he possessed.
Arsenal, meanwhile, were successful in nabbing his youth teammate Cesc Fabregas but any move for the Argentine playmaker never really took off given Messi’s love for his current surroundings.
Key quote: “I think in the end he was not so keen to move. It was down to the fact that Messi was comfortable at Barcelona.” — Wenger.
FW: Cristiano Ronaldo
When it comes to ‘what ifs’ it doesn’t get any bigger than Arsenal (and reportedly Liverpool) failing to sign then Sporting Portugal winger Cristiano Ronaldo, who is now widely recognised as among the greatest players to have kicked a ball.
As the story goes, after Man Utd faced Sporting in a pre-season game, a number of United’s senior players encouraged manager Ferguson to sign the scrawny teenager. Unbeknown at the time was Wenger’s own interest.
Wenger’s subsequent failure to sign him would come back to haunt the Gunners as the Portuguese forward played an instrumental role in the Red Devils’ resurgence in the Premier League after a barren spell in the mid 2000s.
Key quote: “He was here with his mother and we were very close. Then Man United came in and they had Carlos Queiroz at the time, who was their coach. against Sporting Lisbon and Ronaldo was outstanding and they signed him.” — Wenger.
ST: Luis Suárez
A move from Amsterdam to London is a path well travelled in the past. However, in recent times it’s seemingly reserved for Spurs, but the Ajax-Arsenal connection remains strong especially through Dennis Bergkamp and Marc Overmars. Joining the famous Gunners duo could have been Luis Suarez, who earmarked himself as a future Premier League footballer after terrorising Eredivisie defences.
He did end up in England, but not at the Emirates where ex-teammate Thomas Vermaelen called home, instead Suarez joined Liverpool and the rest — 82 goals across 133 matches — is history.
That and the Gunners’ infamous £40,000,001 bid for Suarez’s signature when he was flirting with an Anfield exit. This offer was scorned by the Reds owners, with John Henry quipping: “What do you think they’re smoking over there at Emirates?”
Key quote: “It was not meant to be provocative at all – it could be interpreted like that, but it was not our purpose.” — Wenger.