Arsenal re-acquainted with at one time the world's most underrated footballer
Arsenal take on Villarreal in Spain later this evening in a Champions League quarter final first leg. This match will see two of the most football-intelligent and progressive managers of the last two decades pit their wits against each other: Arsene Wenger and Manuel Pellegrini. For those who admire football played on the ground in technical, attacking, quick-moving style this is the match you want to watch: these two managers make it their life-mission to create such football and to win with this style.
For those who also like tradition, memories and goodwill in football there will be the great moment tonight of 35 year old Robert Pires coming up against the team he helped earlier this decade to a fantastic era of success and sublime football that will never be forgotten in the history of the English game.
Pires was a technical fighter of a left winger who could finish and assist with equal world class ability and composure and who was excellent at dribbling with close control in attacking straight lines up the pitch. I liked the repeating ways he would curve his right foot round the ball to curve in shots from the left inside the right post or alternatively how he would glide pass a defender to the touchline and side-foot pass the ball with deliberate accuracy into the path for a player like Thierry Henry or Freddie Ljungberg to tap in from short range.
Pires was integral to the attacking total football of Arsene Wenger's second generation side that won the double in 2001-2002 and then superbly went the whole season unbeaten to win the title in 2003-2004 season. He scored loads of goals from his left midfield starting position and stacked up multiple assists. His attacking combination down the left side of the pitch with a young Ashley Cole at left back (the good old days of Ashley Cole!) and Thierry Henry roving in a left forward position was the source of many goals and was a major weapon of Arsene Wenger's genuinely great second generation footballing squad.
In Pires' last season at Arsenal aged 32 years old he was the most senior outfield player of a squad undergoing a transition with far lesser-experienced players like Fabregas, Clichy, Senderos, Reyes, Adebayor, Eboue, RvP, Flamini, Hleb, Diaby, Walcott coming through. I liked the 'old-head' role he was playing and I remember in particular a memorable performance on the right side of midfield in a 3-1 home win against Liverpool where a young Cesc Fabregas and Thierry Henry also had excellent games in what was a must-win league match in the come-from-behind race with Spurs for fourth place. And of course there was THAT tackle on his former teammate and fellow Arsenal legend, Patrick Vieira, in which after winning the ball his forward pass led to a crucial home goal in the Champs League quarter-final first leg against Juventus.
Pires deserved in his career to have a starting place in a Champs League final and he was not alone in frustration and disappointment when he was tactically taken off the pitch for Manuel Almunia by Arsene Wenger after only ten minutes of the 2006 final in Paris because of the sending off of Jens Lehmann. Wenger really had no alternative as Ljungberg was a fitter and more energetic player - but it was a bitter moment for a classy player and character like Pires to be removed so prematurely from an occasion that his football would have adorned.
My younger brother was always consistent in saying that Robert Pires was the most underrated player in the world. And he was not alone, in 2004 we were happy to see that the captain of Mexico and the coach of Vietnam put Pires as number one in their votes for FIFA World player of the year. It was great that he got this recognition - albeit not in the places you would expect it! - in what was Arsenal's fantastic year.
For me Robert Pires was a superstar player with a great balance in his temperament between determination and composure. This reflected in his game - always attacking with intent and in the heat of the moment more often than not he knew and could execute with precision whether it was best to pass, shoot or dribble. And from what I've seen in my glimpses of the Spanish league, little has changed in his style of play and effectiveness with Villarreal.
So tonight there will be great scenes when Pires lines up against Arsenal shirts and shakes the hands of his former manager, Arsene Wenger; those of former teammates like Toure, Clichy, Cesc, and greets the travelling Arsenal fans. Next week, at the Emirates, his reception will similarly be fantastic, and that will be produce more great scenes reminding us of the capacity of football to produce excellent moments of solidarity and genuine goodwill.
It will be a deserving moment and fitting legacy for a player of the quality and character of Robert Pires.