Big Boots to Fill

When Per Mertesacker officially retires on June 30th, another popular shirt number becomes vacant. Numbers two, three, four and five are available ahead of next season, and although there are a number of interested players, some changes being confirmed just yesterday, without doubt these will all be ‘big boots to fill’.

Number two was vacated in January when Mathieu Debuchy left for Ligue 1. Three became available during preseason when Kieran Gibbs departed for West Brom, and five has been unoccupied since Gabriel returned to Spain last August. Throw Mertesacker’s number four into the mix and based on teams in the 80s and 90s, you have the beating heart of any XI.

Arsenal’s most iconic number two was Lee Dixon. The marauding right back played for the Gunners for over ten years joining from Stoke City and debuting for the club in 1988. Dixon also appeared for England during an esteemed career, where he played 22 senior games for his country. Wenger’s (and possibly Arsenal’s) best ever right back to date, Dixon ended his Red Army career with 458 total appearances, winning fourteen trophies including two Premier Leagues, two Old First Divisions, three FA Cups, one League Cup, five Charity Shields and one UEFA Cup Winners Cup. Big names to precede Dixon in donning the number two shirt include Pat Rice (1977-1980) and Michael Thomas (1987-1988).

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Post Dixon, talented but unfortunately crocked midfield man Abou Diaby occupied the number two from 2005 until 2013 where he then moved to number twenty-four in an attempt to break his injury hoodoo. This was unfortunately not successful and the Frenchman never really fulfilled his Vieira-like potential at the club, nor beyond. Eventually leaving Arsenal in 2015 and signing for Marseille on a bosman free transfer, he is yet to play this season in any of Marseille’s games and looks to be retiring at the official end of the French season.

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The aforementioned right back Mathieu Debuchy became the next number two in July 2014 until January 2018. Joining from Newcastle United for a rumoured £12 million, he never really established himself in any of Wenger’s teams through lack of form, injury and the emergence of young Hector Bellerin. The latest now is that academy product and regular first-teamer Hector Bellerin will move from twenty-four to two for next season.

Arsenal v AS Monaco - Emirates Cup

In the Premier League era (1992-1993 season to present), Arsenal number twos have totaled 584 appearances in all competitions (Lee Dixon 372 [10}, Abou Diaby 182 [1], Mathieu Debuchy 30 [3]), winning fourteen trophies.

Much like number two, number three has a similar big-name heritage, leaving its next occupant with much to live up to. When you think of Arsenal number threes of the past, the likes of Nigel Winterburn and Ashley Cole come to mind. Winterburn, part of George Graham’s well organised, English defence (and keeper combination), amassed 440 total appearances for the Gunners. Whilst occupying the number three shirt, he won six trophies. An adventurous yet positionally-astute defender, Winterburn led from the front alongside the likes of Bould and Adams in Wenger’s early years. And whilst the next number three was being promoted through the ranks, Winterburn took his game up a notch each season until he eventually found his peak – a solid eight out of ten performer every week.

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After Winterburn’s retirement, academy graduate Ashley Cole stepped into the number three shirt and went on to become England’s most capped full back and arguably Arsenal’s best all round left back ever. Part of Wenger’s Invincibles, earning 225 Arsenal caps and winning nine trophies, Ashley Cole moved onto Chelsea in a part-ex deal with William Gallas in 2006. Now well-travelled, Cole may have had his best days at Chelsea, and no doubt Chelsea got the better of the Cole-Gallas deal, he will always be remembered at Arsenal as the first real academy graduate in the Wenger era to go on and deliver on the pitch as well as off it with an abundance of trophies, throughout his career.

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Following in Cole’s footsteps, fellow academy graduate Kieran Gibbs moved to number three in 2014 having been numbers forty and twenty-eight since making his first team debut in 2007. He won two FA Cups and two Community Shields during his time as Arsenal number three. Prior to Kieran Gibbs, Bacary Sagna wore number three for his entire seven year Arsenal career starting in 2007 (from Auxerre) until 2014 (leaving for Manchester City). Ending on 284 Arsenal appearances, he won one trophy, playing the entire 2014 FA Cup final against Hull City where the Gunners turned round an early two-nil deficit to a three-two win after extra-time.

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Since the Premier League’s inception, Arsenal number threes have totaled 901 appearances (Nigel Winterburn 311 [6], Ashley Cole 224 [9], Bacary Sagna 284 [1], Kieran Gibbs 82 [4]), winning twenty trophies. The next candidate for number three could be either a switch for Sead Kolasinac or a change for someone like Calum Chambers, or maybe even a new arrival. A certain Ryan Sessegnon likes number three…

Patrick Vieira and Cesc Fabregas; two of the best central midfield players to ever play in the red and white of Arsenal Football Club, both donned the iconic number four shirt for long periods. Another big name to have occupied this shirt is Michael Thomas, who after vacating number two, wore number four from 1986 to 1992. Following his six years, a few other players shared the shirt based on starting XIs and injuries before registered numbers became mandatory.

However, ‘the first signing of the Arsene era’ Patrick Vieira arrived for £3.5 million in 1996, the time of Bruce Roich’s departure which affectively signaled the start of Arsene’s Arsenal. Vieira was signed on the premise that compatriot Wenger was coming in, he knew – but the fans did not, until Wenger’s tenure officially began a month later in September 1996. When Tony Adams retired, Wenger’s new captain was Patrick Vieira which became official in May 2002. From 1996 to 2005 though, Patrick Vieira amassed 327 first team appearances, grabbing 34 goals and 28 assists. He won ten trophies during his Arsenal career including three Premier League titles, four FA Cups and three Community Shields, captaining the team in two of these winning finals. He won a number of individual accolades during his time at Arsenal too, however, no personal or team accolade comes close to captaining the Invincibles. Wenger’s (and Arsenal’s) greatest achievement; the 2003-2004 season, going unbeaten in the Premier League – a record that will surely never be matched. Patrick Vieira was the linchpin of this midfield alongside Gilberto Silva in one the of the most dynamic and explosive duos the club has ever had. He was the embodiment of Arsenal Football Club for a number of years and the fact that he was so critical to the Invincibles team, couldn’t say more about the vocal Frenchman. Arsenal through and through, he eventually left to join Juventus in August 2005.

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In the background of Vieira’s dominance, a young Spaniard arrived from Barcelona’s famed academy to join Arsenal’s academy in September 2003. Baby-faced and mullet-haired, and going by the name of (Fran)Cesc Fabregas, he initially struggled to settle in London before Spanish-speaking teammate Phillipe Senderos helped him adapt. After a month’s tenure in the academy, it was clear that Cesc was destined for greatness, and he made his first team debut in the League Cup in late October 2003. The stuff of dreams for a sixteen year old kid, training day-in day-out alongside world-beaters like Patrick Vieira and Gilberto Silva – he eventually went onto replace Patrick Vieira in the Arsenal midfield in 2005. Also part of the Invincibles team, Fabregas immediately struck a partnership with then skipper Gilberto Silva. The experienced Brazilian knitted well with Fabregas who became the forward thinking force, with Gilberto himself anchoring in a more defensive role. Developing into a world class player, at the ripe of 21, Cesc was named as the club’s new captain in November 2008 following William Gallas’ departure, after he replaced Gilberto a few years before. Cesc Fabregas amassed 303 appearances before moving back to boyhood club Barcelona in 2011.

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Following this, the BFG Per Mertesacker arrived in August 2011. He soon became a fan favourite and a wise head in the camp, and going on to win the World Cup with Germany in 2014 made him even more valuable to the developing Arsenal squad. Officially named skipper at the start of the 2016/17 season, following Arteta’s retirement, the BFG made a total of 221 first team appearances and lifted two FA Cups as captain, one as stand in, and the second as out and out leader. This second FA Cup final win was ironically Mertesacker’s first and only first team start of the season. Yet he dusted of the boots and put in a man of the match performance to lead his team to glory, pocketing a certain Diego Costa in the process. A legend in his own right!

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Since the Premier League began, Arsenal number fours have totaled 842 appearances (Paul Davis 40 [1], Patrick Vieira 327 [10], Cesc Fabregas 254 [2], Per Mertesacker 221 [5]), amassing a total of eighteen trophies. Arsenal’s next number four has been confirmed as tidy Egyptian midfield man Mohammed Elneny. He’ll move from thirty-five to four ahead of next season. Big boots Mo!

Last in the chain of vacant ‘big’ numbers at the club is number five. When you think of the great Arsenal number fives, Bould, Keown and Toure come to mind. Others to don the shirt however include Gabriel and former skipper Thomas Vermaelen. Steve Bould, as a player, was won of the best around. Like Winterburn and Dixon, he too was a part of Arsene’s inherited back line of English guts and leaders. Steve Bould and his captain Tony Adams built a fantastic relationship and were the perfect platform for the likes of Vieira, Platt, Wright and Bergkamp to flourish. He totaled 234 Arsenal appearances winning three trophies during his Gunners career.

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Following Bould’s departure in 1999, Martin Keown moved from number fourteen to the iconic number five (freeing up fourteen for one Thierry Henry’s arrival). Arsenal’s legendary bully, hard man and all round lover of tackles, Martin Keown built a reputation for solid defending. Always hard in the tackle and never short of leaving it all on the pitch, he rarely (bar once) let emotions take over, and always delivered with leadership, experience and desire. Collecting a total of 381 Arsenal appearances between spells at Aston Villa, Everton and then Leicester City, he won an impressive thirteen trophies during his career in North London.

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Enter another invincible (and my favourite Arsenal player ever), Kolo Toure. According to Ray Parlour, upon Kolo’s trial at the club he flattened a few big names in training, before finishing up and clattering Arsene Wenger when he had the ball at his feet – what a first impression! After this somewhat successful trial, Kolo signed for Arsenal in February 2002 for a fee of £150,000. Now regardless of what he actually went onto achieve (not just at Arsenal), £150,000 for someone of this calibre is an absolute steal and the scout that unearthed him deserves all sorts of credit. Making his debut the following season, starting as number twenty-eight, Kolo Toure went onto be a vital cog in the Invincibles machine of 2003/04 – alongside centre back partner Sol Campbell. He switched to number five in 2006/07 and then went on to be junior vice-captain to Gilberto and Henry in the same season. Eventually falling out with then problem William Gallas, Kolo ended up leaving in the summer of 2009. During his Arsenal career, he amassed 327 first team appearances scoring fourteen goals, and winning five trophies.

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Thomas Vermaelen then arrived from Ajax in 2009 with quite the reputation. A product of the illustrious Ajax academy, the Belgian captained his Ajax team from a young age, and ultimately got a move to a better European club. Going on to skipper the Arsenal, Thomas was ultimately ravished by constant injuries during his five seasons at the club. He did however end with 150 first team appearances, grabbing fifteen goals. He won one FA Cup in 2014 before moving onto Barcelona for £15 million in the following August.

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Gabriel Paulista was the last number five Arsenal had. He arrived from Villareal in January 2015 for a rumoured £11.3 million. After an impressive season and a half with the Yellow Submarine, Wenger poached Gabriel with an eye for the following season. Initially struggling with the English language, Gabriel eventually settled and went on to do fairly well. However, he was soon to be a sufferer of the extremely weak and unorganised Arsenal defence that was so heavily criticised, Wenger then broke his transfer record to sign Shkodran Mustafi which kicked Gabriel down the pecking order a place or two. The reliable Laurent Koscielny kept his place, with Gabriel ultimately paying the price. He then departed for another stint in Spain in August 2017. During his season and a half at Arsenal, he played 64 times for the first team, winning two FA Cups and one Charity Shield before leaving for Valencia.

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Dating back to the start of the Premier League, Arsenal number fives have played 709 times for the club (Steve Bould 201 [3], Martin Keown 159 [13], Kolo Toure 135 [0], Vermaelen 150 [1], Gabriel 64 [3]), winning twenty trophies in this period. The Gunners’ next number five could come in the shape of a greek defender with both Sokratis Papastathopoulos and Kostas Manolas being linked with arrivals, as well as young Holding eyeing a number change. Calum Chambers and Shkodran Mustafi could also be eyeing a switch to number five, as could any other new arrival.

Whatever the outcome on shirt numbers, our club is facing some big changes this summer. A new manager and new backroom staff first and foremost. A new captain, new arrivals and some departures are also required for a genuine and worthwhile re-build. And regardless of who eventually takes up numbers the still vacant three and five (alongside Bellerin as two and Elneny as four), they will all have extremely ‘big boots to fill’. 3,036 appearances and seventy-two trophies in the Premier League era is no mean feat, and any new numbers two, three, four and five will have a lot to live up to.

@craigbennett10

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