Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Zlatan Ibrahimovic: Arsenal's top 50 signings that got away (25-1)
Arsene Wenger was honest enough to admit he missed out on some of the world’s best players. These are Arsenal’s ultimate nearly men...
By Kaveh Solhekol, Dharmesh Sheth, Emma Paton & Matt Ford
Last Updated: 08/06/20 8:05am
Arsenal have signed some of the best players in the world, and they have missed out on some of the best players in the world. For every Thierry Henry, there’s been a Cristiano Ronaldo. These are the ones that got away...
50 Arsenal signings that got away
Jamie Vardy, Wilfried Zaha, David Ginola: Arsenal's top 50 signings that got away (50-26)
25. Xabi Alonso
"I was with Xabi on the phone the whole summer. He was dying to come. He was literally begging everyone to go to Arsenal."
Cesc Fabregas revealed earlier this year just how close Xabi Alonso really came to joining him in north London back in 2008.
A central midfield partnership of Fabregas and Alonso was really on the cards.
Alonso had spent three seasons at Liverpool, and as Rafa Benitez stepped up his pursuit of Aston Villa's Gareth Barry, he was prepared to let the Spaniard leave.
Alonso ended up staying on Merseyside for one more year though before joining Real Madrid.
24. Jadon Sancho
It's unclear how the coronavirus pandemic will affect the summer transfer window, but one thing we do know is Jadon Sancho will be talked about a lot.
The England international has emerged as one of the world's most exciting young players since he swapped Manchester City for Borussia Dortmund in 2017, but things could have been very different if he swapped City for Arsenal instead.
Arsene Wenger says he tried to get the former Watford academy player back to London when he was struggling for game time in Manchester.
City refused to sell to a Premier League rival but he would have been a lot cheaper then. Borussia Dortmund signed him for £8m. They now value him at more than £100m.
23. N'Golo Kante
Arsenal made two attempts to sign N'Golo Kante, first when he was playing for French side Caen, and the second, more memorably, in the summer of 2016.
After just one season in the Premier League, Kante was one of the most in-demand players in Europe, having played a lead role in Leicester's historic title win.
His contribution was so big that Claudio Ranieri said they lost two players when he left Leicester that summer.
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Arsenal, who were looking for a defensive midfielder with Mikel Arteta and Mathieu Flamini heading towards the exit, joined Manchester City and Chelsea in a battle for his signature.
In July that year, Chelsea announced that they had signed him in a £32m deal.
Meanwhile, Arsenal signed Granit Xhaka from Borussia Monchengladbach for £35m instead.
As for Kante? He went on to win a second consecutive Premier League title.
22. Paul Pogba
Seven years on from Patrick Vieira's departure from north London, Arsenal were still searching for a replacement, with Arsene Wenger admitting he tried to sign Paul Pogba when he left Manchester United in the summer of 2012.
"We were interested in him," Wenger said.
"We tried to get him to come here but he very quickly signed for Juventus."
In Italy Pogba went on to become one of the most exciting young prospects in Europe, winning four consecutive Serie A titles.
He of course ended up returning to the United for £89m in 2016. It might not have been the reunion some United fans had hoped for, but Pogba's quality is undeniable, while Arsenal are still searching for that Vieira replacement.
21. Claude Makelele
The name Claude Makelele probably still winds up Arsene Wenger.
He could have been one of Wenger's first signings at Highbury.
Makelele came through the ranks at the famous Nantes academy which produced midfielders such as Didier Deschamps, Marcel Desailly, Christian Karembeu.
Arsenal could have signed him in 1997 but he moved to Marseille instead. He went on to play for Celta Vigo, Real Madrid, Chelsea and Paris Saint-Germain, establishing himself as one of the best defensive midfielders of all time.
At Madrid, many of his teammates said he was the most important player at the club. He sat back and covered for players such as Zinedine Zidane, Ronaldo, Figo, and Ronaldo.
He was controversially sold to Chelsea in 2003 for £16m to make room for the arrival of David Beckham.
His then team-mate Roberto Carlos was not impressed: "Why put another layer of gold paint on the Bentley when you are losing the entire engine?" he said at the time.
Vieira and Makelele would have been some engine at Arsenal.
20. Roberto Carlos
Speaking of Roberto Carlos, during the summer of 2003 it looked like he might be moving to Highbury.
"I think as a club they are like Real Madrid," he told the News of the World, "They have a supreme confidence that looks utterly unbreakable."
He was right. Arsenal were utterly unbreakable. The following season they were 'Invincible' with Ashley Cole playing at left-back.
19. Raphael Varane
"When you are in charge of a club like Arsenal, you have to wonder why this player is not playing for us," Arsene Wenger said when he was asked about Raphael Varane in 2013.
It's no different if you are an Arsenal supporter. Part of the deal is having to accept that your club regularly misses out on signing some of the world's best players.
That was certainly the case with Varane when he was just 18 and playing for Lens. Arsenal watched him closely but they backed out of a deal because they thought it would take him too long to mature into a top-class defender.
Real Madrid didn't have any doubts and in 2011 they signed him for £9m. At the Bernabeu, he has won 17 major honours and become one of the best defenders in the world.
18. Vincent Kompany
2006 was a memorable year for Arsenal. The club's last season at Highbury. Their first and only Champions League final. Beating their bitter rivals Tottenham into fourth on the final day of the season. And letting Vincent Kompany slip through their fingers.
Arsene Wenger thought Kompany, who was playing for Anderlecht at the time, could be a long-term replacement for Sol Campbell. He met his agent, but Arsenal failed to make a concrete offer.
Instead, Kompany joined Hamburg before Manchester City signed him for £6m in 2008. The rest is history.
17. Peter Schmeichel
Peter Schmeichel could have been an Arsenal player? Are you having a laugh? We are not joking.
According to George Graham, he was offered the chance to sign Schmeichel but he decided against it because he had total faith in David Seaman to be his No 1.
Schmeichel ended up moving from Brondby to Manchester United for £500,000 in the summer of 1991. At Old Trafford he proved himself to be one of the greatest goalkeepers of all time, winning five titles in eight seasons and the Champions League.
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16. Karim Benzema
A picture of Karim Benzema on a private jet and the fact he'd followed an Instagram account called 'Wengerland' sent some Arsenal fans into meltdown in the summer of 2015.
Some were so convinced the move was going to happen they even had 'Benzema, 9' printed on the back of their shirts.
The French striker had been on Arsene Wenger's wish-list since he started making a name for himself at Lyon.
In July 2009 Real Madrid signed him for £35m and he is still at the Bernabeu, despite being regularly linked with a move to Arsenal.
15. Harry Kane
Yes. That's right. Harry Kane should be playing for Arenal. He was signed by them when he was eight, but he was released after one season.
"He was a bit chubby. He wasn't very athletic - but we made a mistake," said Liam Brady, the former Arsenal academy director.
The problem is, Kane has been proving Arsenal wrong at the home of their most bitter rivals.
He's already scored well over 100 Premier League goals for Tottenham, won the World Cup Golden Boot in 2018, and is captain of the England national team.
14. Antoine Griezmann
It was the summer of 2013 and Arsenal had just missed out on signing Luis Suarez.
A then 22-year-old Antoine Griezmann had scored 10 goals in La Liga for Real Sociedad and a move to Arsenal was said to interest him and he was keen to speak to Arsene Wenger.
That summer though was the window when Arsenal signed Mesut Ozil for £42.4m from Real Madrid and any interest in Griezmann was soon placed on the back burner.
Atletico Madrid subsequently triggered his £24m Sociedad release clause in 2014 and Griezmann quickly established himself as one of the world's best young forwards. He moved to Barcelona last summer in one of Spanish football's most controversial transfers of all time.
13. Gianluigi Buffon
According to Gianluigi Buffon, he had dinner with Arsene Wenger in 1998 and you don't have to be Albert Einstein to guess what was on the menu.
Buffon was only 20 but he had already established himself as one of the best young goalkeepers in the world. Wenger had David Seaman as his No. 1 at Highbury but he had to be interested when it came to someone as talented as Buffon.
Despite Arsenal's interest, the move never materialised and Buffon moved to Juventus for £50m in 2001. Apart from one season at Paris Saint-Germain, he has been there ever since, winning nine Serie A titles and the 2006 World Cup with Italy.
12. Kylian Mbappe
"I met with Arsene Wenger, who is a great coach. He has a great reputation here in France, he's well-respected and knows how to develop young players. This was a real option for me."
Oh, what might have been.
Long before Kylian Mbappe was a household name, Arsene Wenger tried to bring him to north London and he tried again in 2017.
Talks were held but the cost was astronomical and Mbappe joined Paris Saint-Germain on loan from Monaco before signing permanently a year later for £160m.
He's not done too badly since - winning a World Cup and three Ligue 1 titles, and he's still only 21.
11. Alex Ferguson
Alex Ferguson wasn't a player when Arsenal tried to get him, but why not stick him on this list?
Close your eyes and imagine Fergie at Highbury. All those titles. All those European Cups. It did almost happen twice, in 1983 and in 1986.
In 1983 Arsenal needed a new manager after Terry Neill was sacked. Ferguson had led Aberdeen to victory again Real Madrid in the European Cup Winners' Cup and he was an outstanding candidate.
He said all the right things as well.
"I think Arsenal are the most glamorous team," he told The Sun in December 1983.
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"I include Manchester United when I say that."
Nevertheless, he decided to stay in Scotland and wait for another opportunity to move to England.
That chance came again three years later and it was Arsenal again.
They offered him the chance to take over from Don Howe and they wanted a quick answer.
Ferguson met the Arsenal board but according to his account, they did not hit it off. He decided to stay at Aberdeen until the Manchester United job became available in November 1986.
At Old Trafford he won 25 major trophies including 13 league titles and two European Cups.
10. Gareth Bale
Arsene Wenger is human and he has made his fair share of mistakes. One of them was not signing Gareth Bale from Southampton for £5m in 2007.
In those days Bale was a left-back and Arsenal already had Ashley Cole and Gael Clichy.
"I must confess it was a huge mistake," Wenger said, "He struggled at the start at Tottenham, then they moved him to midfield.
"The career of a player sometimes depends on playing in the right position."
Tottenham sold Bale to Real Madrid for £85m in 2013 and he has won the Champions League four times with the Spanish giants.
9. Eden Hazard
Like every other big club in Europe, Arsenal were very keen to sign Eden Hazard from Lille in 2012. Unlike their rivals though, Arsenal were very careful when it came to spending money.
Their business model was self-sustaining and they weren't doping financially, as Arsene Wenger famously described clubs with rich spendthrift owners.
The total package for Hazard was going to cost £40m and that's before you factored in his wages. It was too much for Manchester United and that meant it was much too much for Arsenal.
"We wanted to do that deal," Dick Law, the former Arsenal transfer negotiator said.
"It was very, very difficult."
Hazard signed for Chelsea where he established himself as one of the Premier League's best-ever players before moving to Real Madrid in a £150m deal last summer.
8. Virgil van Dijk
Virgil van Dijk is the best defender in the world. He came second in both world player of the year awards last year and he lifted the European Cup as Liverpool captain in Madrid.
He is also the captain of the Netherlands and is about to win the Premier League.
It's safe to say he doesn't have any regrets about moving to Liverpool from Southampton for £75m in January 2018. He knows though that it could all have been very different.
Arsenal were interested in signing Van Dijk when he was playing for Celtic in 2014. There was a big buzz around him and he was available for £12m.
Arsenal decided against making a move because their scouts were worried that Van Dijk was too laid back.
7. Yaya Toure
"It would be at the top of my list of regrets." Those were the words of Arsene Wenger when he reflected on how close Arsenal came to signing Yaya Toure.
Yaya even wore the red and white shirt in a pre-season game at Barnet in 2003 - he missed a sitter and Wenger described his performance as "completely average".
Despite that, Wenger wanted him: "Let's not forget that Yaya Toure had an agreement with us," he said.
"We have made mistakes but he is not a mistake. It's just the fact that he preferred to go to Metalurh Donetsk. He could go there without any passport."
Yaya went on to win 10 major trophies playing for Barcelona and Manchester City.
6. Didier Drogba
This one really hurts. Didier Drogba loved scoring against Arsenal.
If Arsenal were playing Chelsea and Drogba was in a blue shirt you could almost guarantee that he would score.
What made it even worse was that he could easily have been an Arsenal. Arsene Wenger admitted that he turned down the chance to sign Drogba from Le Mans for £100,000 in 2004.
"I would have loved to manage Drogba for two reasons," Wenger said.
"One, I missed him when he played at Le Mans. I knew there was a good player there and I missed him. And secondly, because he hurt us so much in big games that all this pain would not have happened."
5. Luis Suarez
"What do you think they're smoking over there at the Emirates?"
This is the story about Arsenal, Luis Suarez and the pound. Let's clear it up. In the summer of 2013, Arsenal made a £40,000,001 bid for Liverpool striker Luis Suarez.
Arsene Wenger has since claimed Suarez wanted to come, but admitted the club had misunderstood the clause in his contract. £40m wasn't a release clause.
It was simply a clause that allowed Suarez to talk to another club. The bid prompted the now-famous "what do you think" quote from Liverpool owner John W Henry.
Suarez did leave the following summer. Unfortunately for Arsenal, he went to Barcelona. For £75m.
4. Zlatan Ibrahimovic
"Zlatan doesn't do auditions."
The year was 2000 and a cocky, skinny 16-year-old from Malmo arrived in London. His name: Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
In his mind, he was about to sign for Arsenal, however, Arsene Wenger needed convincing.
"I went for an appointment with Wenger, who asked me to audition for the Gunners," Ibrahimovic said.
"I told him I will not do a trial. Either you take me or not, I'm not here to waste time. I met Wenger because I expected him to tell me to start with them right away. But Ibra does not test." Zlatan moved to Ajax a year later.
Arsene Wenger said it so it has to be true. In 2001 Arsenal really did try to sign Ronaldinho.
Back in those days, Ronaldinho was a 20-year-old forward who had scored 72 times in 145 games for Gremio. Wenger was hopeful that he could tie up a £4m deal until red tape intervened.
As a non-EU player, Ronaldinho needed a work permit and he couldn't get one because he hadn't played enough games for Brazil yet.
"We could have got Ronaldinho before he went to PSG," Wenger said.
"I met his brother, who is his agent, but we just couldn't get him to England because of the rules. Basically, what the rule does is force you to wait to buy the player but by then you cannot afford him."
2. Lionel Messi
It's not easy being an Arsenal fan and it's not easy reading this list. Life is full of if onlys and if you support Arsenal they don't come much bigger than this.
In 2003 Arsenal were busy raiding Barcelona's youth teams. They signed 16-year-old Cesc Fabregas and Arsene Wenger wanted another young player who had caught his eye - Lionel Messi.
"We had discussions with Messi when we bought Fabregas," Wenger said.
"We were interested in him but he was untouchable at the time."
Messi is still untouchable and he is still at Barcelona where he has scored 627 goals and won 20 major honours, including the Champions League four times.
1. Cristiano Ronaldo
August 6th, 2003 will go down as a significant day in the history of Manchester United. Sporting Lisbon celebrated the opening of their new stadium with a glamour pre-season match against the English champions.
It was the game when Cristiano Ronaldo ran United ragged. It is said Sir Alex Ferguson was adamant he wasn't leaving Lisbon until Ronaldo had signed.
Within a week, Ronaldo moved to Old Trafford after United agreed to pay Sporting £12m. Things could have been a whole lot different, though. We could easily be talking about Cristiano Ronaldo - the Arsenal legend.
"It's true. Very close," Ronaldo said when asked if he could have joined Arsenal.
"Seriously. It didn't happen but Arsenal, I appreciate what they did for me. Especially Arsene Wenger."
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