When Robert Pires joined Arsenal in 2000, the perception was that the team was already complete. But the Frenchman provided that final touch of class that made them one of the Premier League’s greatest ever outfits.
Pires was a relatively late arrival to the attack which would go on to spearhead the Invincibles. By the time he arrived from Marseille in the summer of 2000, Dennis Bergkamp had been at Arsenal for five years, Freddie Ljungberg for two and Thierry Henry for around 11 months.
Arriving as a replacement for another gloriously elegant player, Marc Overmars, Pires was won over to Arsenal’s cause despite strong interest from Real Madrid and Juventus, drawn to the club by its French connection and the guiding hand of Arsene Wenger.
It was one of the best signings Wenger would ever make, with Pires providing the finishing touches to a team which would go on to achieve near perfection.
Fresh-faced and clean-shaven apart from a dark chin strip when he first arrived in north London, Pires would become an emblem of the flourishing Francophile culture at Arsenal.
Growing out his hair, his sideburns and his moustache to become a sort of d’Artagnan figure, he was a footballing musketeer in as much as he was at once dashing, majestic and lethal in his approach to the game.
If Bergkamp was ‘The Iceman’ and Henry was a steely presence up front, Pires was a silky finisher who brought a velvety finesse to Arsenal.
He was a luxury, absolutely, but he was also necessary in Wenger’s quest to assemble one of the most aesthetically pleasing sides to grace the Premier League.
In an era before English people freely used the term gegenpressing, and high-press football was less fashionable than it is now, Pires was not constrained by arduous defensive duties.
This gave Pires a free role on the left wing to create and finish chance after chance, while his pace and in-game intelligence were crucial to the deadly counterattacks for which the Invincibles would become famous.
He was not a tough tackler or a have-a-go hero without possession, he lacked Bergkamp’s vicious streak and needle-like elbows, but he nonetheless became a firm fan favourite on the merit of his sleek skills, glossy passing, keen vision and genius brain.
Of course, it didn’t do Pires’ standing amongst the fans any harm that he helped fire Arsenal to the title in his second season at Highbury, topping the Premier League assists table and scoring nine goals as the Gunners finished seven points clear of closest rivals Liverpool.
He was both the Football Writers’ Player of the Year and Arsenal’s Player of the Season, despite having torn his cruciate ligament in March and subsequently missed out on the triumphant cup final against Chelsea.
The 2001-02 campaign also saw him score what many would argue was his career-defining goal, an unbelievable double lob over George Boateng and Peter Schmeichel which inspired one of the most quoted moments in the history of football commentary.
Though the lob over Schmeichel was probably Pires’ most memorable effort, the one which epitomised him best came against Southampton the following season.
In an otherwise disappointing campaign in which Arsenal blew an eight-point lead to hand the title to Manchester United (even if they did win the FA Cup as a consolation), Pires had slowly built himself back up to top form after his injury and begun to exhilarate the fans again.
On the penultimate matchday of the league campaign he scored a hat-trick against the Saints, setting in motion an unprecedented 49-match unbeaten streak.
His third and final goal was quintessential Pires: an impudent chip from almost 30 yards, it required incredible technique and ambition, a touch of arrogance even, celebrated with an unapologetic smile.
The same silky touch with which he bamboozled Southampton was ever-present throughout the Invincibles season, in which Pires was second only to Henry in the team’s goalscoring charts.
Henry got 39 in all competitions, but Pires popped up with 19 of his own, a total which in other circumstances would have been respectable for someone leading the line alone.
Not only did Pires make a habit of scoring beauties – his iconic early-season winner against Liverpool, for instance – he also continued a trend of scoring with remarkable regularity against Tottenham in the north London derby.
This included a goal in the 2-2 draw at White Hart Lane which saw Arsenal seal the title with four games to go, another reason for the red half of north London to glorify Pires and the white half to resentfully remember the name.
Arsenal would finish that campaign undefeated in the Premier League, down in no small part to Pires’ attacking elan and stylish brilliance. It would be the undisputed pinnacle of his time at Highbury, even if he would win the FA Cup again a year later.
Sadly, his time at the club came to an end on something of a low note, when he was substituted prematurely in the 2006 Champions League final after the sending-off of Jens Lehmann. Pires would move to Villarreal not long afterwards, leaving many Arsenal fans despondent.
It was a rough break for the man of silk, but with six years at the club, numerous honours and some of the most acclaimed goals ever scored to his name, Pires was always going to leave behind an Invincible legacy.
By Will Magee