All hail Philippe Senderos, the giant who denied Ronaldo, Raul & Zidane
Philippe Senderos had a pretty average career, but for one wonderful season at Arsenal, the defender was literally unbeatable.
With a caveat or two in hand, it’s possible to argue for 2005–06 being Arsenal’s most memorable season under Arsene Wenger.
More than the double-winning team of Overmars and co, more than the title winners of 2001–02 or even the Invincibles, the side that so nearly tasted Champions League glory was an Arsenal that thrilled in unusual ways: rock-solid, pragmatic, grinding out victories like a Jose Mourinho team.
Not in the Premier League, of course…
Domestically, a more familiar Wenger unit swerved between 7-0 victories and error-strewn 2-3 defeats, eventually finishing fourth.
It was an awkward transition between a too-old Dennis Bergkamp and a not-quite-there Robin van Persie, and half the team left at the end of the season.
In the midst of that madness, however, one man stood tall. Very tall. One man played for 630 minutes in the Champions League, facing some of the best attackers of the era — and some of the best ever — without conceding a single goal.
That man, that legend, that giant of Geneva, was Philippe Senderos.
Another type of player
In 2002, Philippe Senderos was the hottest of prospects.
Breaking into the Servette first team at 17, the centre-back attracted the interests of some of Europe’s best clubs, and in December he turned down Real Madrid, Bayern Munich and Manchester United to sign for Arsenal — against the wishes of his father.
“Of course I would have preferred him to join Real,” said a disappointed Julian Senderos.
After watching Arsenal’s 2003–04 Invincibles campaign from the treatment table, Senderos junior made his debut in the League Cup in October 2004 and his Premier League bow a few months later.
By the end of the season he was an FA Cup winner, taking advantage of a Sol Campbell injury to play in the final against Manchester United.
The 20-year-old was praised for settling into the first team but expressed determination not to rest on his laurels. “I was always a hard worker at school,” he told The Independent.
“I always wanted to get things done. My dad used to say to me, ‘The time you don’t use now will not come back tomorrow,’ and I have never forgotten that. I was always a hard worker at football, too, because I’m not Ronaldinho. I’m another type of player.”
Four years later, while playing alongside Ronaldinho for AC Milan, Senderos would accidentally thump a header into the Brazilian’s forehead to win a match.
The start of an adventure
Senderos would never play against Ronaldinho at club level — though perhaps he should have.
Because during the 2005–06 season, the Swiss youngster faced some of the decade’s finest attackers and came out on top.
It was a strange season for the Gunners. In the Premier League, inconsistency prevented the team from making a title challenge.
In Europe, however, they found their groove, swatting away giants of the continent and putting in some of the best defensive performances of Wenger’s entire reign.
Senderos wasn’t initially part of that adventure. For Arsenal’s first four group-stage games, Campbell and Kolo Toure combined to overcome FC Thun, Ajax and Sparta Prague twice. The experienced duo conceded twice in those four games.
But Campbell was having a weird season.
On November 26, 2005, the Englishman gave a candid interview to The Guardian, explaining how injuries and off-field troubles were affecting him: “Sometimes you end up thinking, ‘Why is this not happening?’ The relationship with my body and the ball, my positioning on the pitch, the timing and touch, is just not right.”
A few days earlier, Senderos had taken Campbell’s place for Arsenal’s 1-0 away win over FC Thun. A downgrade? Surprisingly, it didn’t seem that way.
Taking on the world’s best
Juan Roman Riquelme
The sight of any one of these players would cause most defenders to curl up and die. To piss their pants on the spot. Or to retire, become an actor and design a “new line of jeans that is flexible and stylish”, as Sol Campbell wanted to do around this time.
Not Philippe Senderos though. Between November 2005 and April 2006, over the course of 630 minutes of Champions League football, the Arsenal defender faced every single one of those superstars.
And not one of them — not with a lunging Ronaldo run, nor a David Beckham free-kick, nor a Zlatan backheel, nor a Zidane pirouette, nor a Raul chip — could soil the defender’s clean sheets.
These were big matches too. In the round of 16, Arsenal kept out Real Madrid home and away — proving Julian Senderos wrong — then did the same to Juventus in the quarter-finals.
A 21-year-old Philippe then played the home leg of the semi-final against Villarreal, shutting out Riquelme’s gang in a 1-0 win.
A stalled career
And that was that for Senderos. For the season and — give or take a big, bald partnership with Brede Hangeland — for his career.
Campbell returned for the second leg of the semi-final, then put in a goalscoring appearance in the final. Ronaldinho, a different player to Senderos, lifted the Champions League trophy as the young Swiss, an unused sub, watched his side suffer the cruelest of defeats.
A mass exodus followed. Arsenal departed Highbury, and a host of senior players — Bergkamp, Pires, Cole, Campbell — departed Arsenal.
Campbell’s replacement, the man to partner Toure and help Senderos develop further? William Gallas, esteemed No.10, a man with all the interpersonal leadership skills of the Highbury clock.
Senderos failed to press on. Johan Djourou overtook him as Arsenal’s primary Swiss apprentice, and the towering centre-back would struggle to cement a first-team spot basically ever again.
Although he played 14 more seasons, retiring in December 2019, he would only twice play 20 league games in a campaign — on both occasions for Fulham, between 2011 and 2013.
The failure to capitalise on early promise wasn’t entirely Senderos’ fault.
Backtracking a little on these implied declarations of his greatness, the Swiss was obviously the junior centre-back during that watertight Champions League run.
He didn’t always look assured, and the imperious form of Toure and Jens Lehmann was certainly a bigger factor in those consecutive clean sheets.
But you have to wonder if a defender and captain other than William Gallas might have better served Senderos’ career after 2006.
In September 2018, the classy Frenchman revealed how Senderos would mentally crumble before big games: “I saw him against Chelsea, against Didier Drogba, where he would genuinely panic, like he was going through his match before playing it.
“And unfortunately, when you saw him on the pitch, he lost his playing abilities, he didn’t play well.”
Given the array of attacking talent that failed to get past Senderos in 2005–06, it seems like something or someone else might have been the bigger problem.