Wenger's nearly men
In a recent interview with beIN Sports, Arsene Wenger admitted he tried to sign Jadon Sancho before the winger swapped Manchester City for Borussia Dortmund in 2017.
The England international isn’t the only big-name player who supposedly came close to joining the Gunners, though. As this slideshow reveals, Wenger has been surprisingly open in admitting that several high-profile stars came close to moving to north London…
Ex-West Ham hero-turned-villain Payet was looked at "many times", but Wenger chose not to make a move for a "top talent" who had "periods of up and down".
To be fair to the Arsenal manager, he probably had a point on this one. Payet was superb for the Hammers but soon forced through a return to Marseille, where moments of brilliance have been punctuated by some underwhelming displays.
Wenger claimed in February 2017 that he'd made two attempts to sign Kante before Chelsea laid their claws on him the previous summer, following the Frenchman's sensational displays for title-winning Leicester.
"I tried to sign Kante when he was in France and when he was at Leicester," said the sexagenarian. "We can't explain everything - transfers are transfers - but it’s quite obvious when you look at where he has gone. I believe Kante has had a huge impact. It's no coincidence Chelsea are where they are and Leicester did what they did."
Arsenal were interested in signing the Belgian soon after he broke through at Anderlecht. Wenger probably isn’t to blame for the fact this deal didn’t go through, with Kompany’s agent admitting the then 20-year-old was keen to play regular first-team football.
“I had meetings with Emilio Butragueno at Real Madrid, the club leaders at Barcelona and Arsene Wenger himself at Arsenal,” explained Jacques Lichtenstein. “But heading to an absolute top club immediately was not the right solution because Vincent is someone who feels alone in an environment where he is not properly valued.”
Manchester United paid £89m – a world-record fee at the time – to re-sign their former midfielder in summer 2016, but Wenger claims the France international could easily have joined Arsenal after his first exit from Old Trafford.
"Things happened very quickly," the Frenchman revealed in 2014. "We were interested in him. We tried to get him to come here, but he very quickly signed for Juventus."
The man who scored 13 goals in 15 games against Arsenal could have been playing for them instead. Wenger expressed regret at missing out on a striker who won four Premier League titles and the Champions League with Chelsea.
"I missed him when he played in France at Le Mans – not even in the top league," the Arsenal chief recalled. "I knew he 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."
Ever a student of youth, Wenger signed Theo Walcott, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Calum Chambers from Southampton, but he was unable to get his hands on the south coast side’s best-ever academy graduate. The Real Madrid forward was a full-back in those days, and Wenger concedes he didn’t anticipate the Welshman moving into a more advanced role.
“We didn't take him as we had Ashley Cole and Gael Clichy and didn't want another left-back,” he said in 2013. “I must confess it was a huge mistake as he can play in midfield.”
It's almost 15 years since Patrick Vieira left north London behind, but Arsenal are still crying out for an adequate replacement. Even more galling for the club’s fans is the fact they could have nabbed Toure had red tape not denied them – he even played for the Gunners in a 2003 pre-season friendly against Barnet.
"It would be up at the top [of my list of regrets]," Wenger lamented when remembering the passport trouble which prevented the Ivorian from joining the Gunners. "He had an agreement with us – and it's not because we didn't want to sign him that he went to Ukraine."
Wenger was once asked if he'd ever wondered what might have happened had he signed Suarez from Liverpool in summer 2013. “Not now”, he said. “It happened to me before, but not now.”
The Gunners lodged a bid of £40,000,001 in the belief that the striker’s release clause at Anfield would be triggered as a result. Yet Liverpool dug their heels in, with owner John Henry memorably asking on Twitter, “what do you think they’re smoking over there at Emirates?”
The story of Ibrahimovic rejecting a trial at Arsenal because he "doesn't do auditions" isn't entirely true, but the north Londoners did want to land the striker in his younger years.
Malmo's director of football Hasse Borg actually advised Ibrahimovic not to attend the trial and, taking a firm stance, told Wenger he either wanted to buy the player or he didn't. The Gunners boss wasn’t ready to commit, and Ibrahimovic stayed put.
Wenger and then-Parma goalkeeper Buffon once shared a meal together, with the Arsenal boss looking for a long-term David Seaman replacement.
Juventus soon jumped ahead of Arsenal in the queue, though, taking the goalkeeper to Turin in 2001 for an eye-watering £32.6m – more than Wenger paid for a player until Mesut Ozil in 2013. Eighteen years on, that price – still an all-time record for a goalkeeper in euros – looks like a steal, with the Italian having won eight league titles and three domestic cups with the Bianconeri.
"I showed him around and I gave him a shirt. It had his name on the back," Wenger said of the Portuguese superstar in 2008. "But in the end it was a question of the transfer fee between the two clubs."
Simply, Alex Ferguson and Manchester United wanted him more – and the Gunners honcho has since admitted it’s his biggest ever regret. "Man United went to £12m, which we could not afford at the time," the Frenchman huffed this week.
One of the most influential players in Premier League history, Makelele helped Chelsea to back-to-back titles in 2004/05 and 2005/06 while convincing the rest of the division that a no-nonsense holding midfielder was a must. But if Wenger is to be believed, the former Real Madrid man could have been strutting his stuff in north, rather than west, London.
"I have been offered many players, like Petr Cech, who could have done well for us. Claude Makelele was close to signing for us. I missed a few," Le Professeur told the Independent in 2006. "Makelele was straight after Vieira came, August 1996."
Sancho's phenomenal breakout campaign in 2018/19 established him as one of Europe's hottest prospects, with the England winger scored 12 goals and set up 14 more in the Bundesliga as Borussia Dortmund pushed Bayern Munich all the way in the title race. His superb season thoroughly vindicated the teenager's decision to join Dortmund from Manchester City in 2007, but Wenger says Arsenal made an attempt to keep him in England.
"I wanted to take him from Man City when he didn't get the games," the former Gunners boss told beIN Sports. "I tried to lure him because he's from London. I tried to get him to Arsenal."
Chelsea's famously hijacked Tottenham's move for Willian in 2013, persuading the winger to move to Stamford Bridge rather than White Hart Lane at the last minute. But according to former Arsenal scout Daniel Musatti, the Brazilian could have moved to London much earlier in his career.
"I made the suggestion that we watch Willian and make a full report of him for the analysis of Arsenal’s chief scout, but at the time I was told there was no interest because they were looking at another player," Musatti told ESPN Brasil.
It can’t get worse than this. According to Marca, Arsenal had the chance to snap up Messi and Gerard Pique when they tempted Cesc Fabregas from Barcelona in 2003, with all three youngsters part of Barcelona’s fabled Generation ’87 youth team.
Sky Sports journalist Guillem Balague has reported that Messi decided to stay put due to Arsenal's failure to find a flat for his family. Wenger must still be kicking himself.
Greg Lea is a freelance football journalist who's filled in wherever FourFourTwo needs him since 2014. He became a Crystal Palace fan after watching a 1-0 loss to Port Vale in 1998, and once got on the scoresheet in a primary school game against Wilfried Zaha's Whitehorse Manor (an own goal in an 8-0 defeat).
Thank you for reading 5 articles this month* Join now for unlimited access
Enjoy your first month for just £1 / $1 / €1
*Read 5 free articles per month without a subscription
Join now for unlimited access
Try first month for just £1 / $1 / €1