Sitting on the substitutes’ bench at the Stadium of Light, Robert Pires wondered if he’d made the right decision in listening to Arsene Wenger.
Pires had just witnessed the opening 20 minutes of Arsenal’s 2000-01 Premier League campaign, played at a ferocious pace away at Sunderland.
But before Niall Quinn’s headed winner and long before Patrick Vieira was sent off for hitting out at Darren Williams, Pires had made up his mind.
A phone call from Arsene Wenger convinced Robert Pires to leave Marseille and join Arsenal
Pires is now back with his former manager Wenger 17 years after first signing for the Gunners
He was talking to Sportsmail as part of his role with UEFA partner Enterprise Rent-A-Car
‘Wenger put me on the bench for my first game, against Sunderland,’ Pires told Sportsmail. ‘He said “I know you are disappointed, I know you wanted to play but trust me, just sit and watch”.
‘After 20 minutes of watching the game I said to myself, “What am I doing here, this football is not for me. I cannot play here.”‘
Wenger was the reason he joined Arsenal, the reason he was sat on that bench in August 2000, watching as Sunderland battled their way to a scrappy win over his new team. For Pires, whose game was based on silk not steel, the match was a rude awakening.
Patrick Vieira is sent off during Arsenal’s loss to Sunderland as Pires watched from the bench
Early impressions of Wenger
Growing up in northern France, Pires admired Wenger from a distance during the manager’s spells at Nancy and Monaco, where he won the league in 1988.
Pires was part of the Metz side that defeated Wenger’s Monaco, featuring Lillian Thuram and Youri Djorkaeff, in the opening fixture of the 1994-95 season two months before the manager’s departure.
He’d watched as Wenger made the puzzling move to take over Nagoya Grampus Eight in Japan, before his shock appointment at Arsenal in August 1996.
While Wenger’s French revolution was taking hold during his first four seasons at Highbury, Pires won the 1998 World Cup with France and joined Marseille the same summer.
Pires stayed at his first club Metz until 1998 before leaving for Marseille as a 24-year-old
He battled relegation during his second season at Marseille as they survived on goal difference
Wenger spent seven years at Monaco between 1987 and 1994, winning the Ligue 1 title in 1988
Marseille finished as runners-up in the league and reached the UEFA Cup final in Pires’ first season in the south of France but struggled mightily the following year. When Pires received a phone call from Wenger in January 2000 with Marseille mired deep in a relegation battle, his head was turned.
‘I was in my second season with Marseille and things were difficult for me and for the team,’ Pires said. ‘He called me one day and just said “I need you. You are a very good footballer and the right profile to play for Arsenal.”
‘He told me I could take the place of Marc Overmars (who left to join Barcelona that summer). I told him “Yes, maybe”. The next five months with Marseille were difficult but I always kept this phone call from Wenger in my head.’
By the summer Real Madrid and Juventus had joined the clamour for his signature but Pires was sold by Wenger’s personal touch, as well as some firm advice from his France international team-mates.
Patrick Vieira (right) urged Pires to join him at Arsenal during the Euro 2000 tournament
Pires and Marcel Desailly kiss the World Cup trophy after France beat Brazil in the 1998 final
‘It was difficult – I had three options in Arsenal, Real Madrid and Juventus,’ Pires said. ‘And normally if Madrid want you, you go to Madrid. It’s one of the best clubs in the world.
‘But then Wenger called me. If the manager calls you, you know you are very important to him. When I had this contact with Wenger I thought: “This is the great opportunity”.
‘And then I spoke with Patrick Vieira, Thierry Henry, Nicolas Anelka, Emmanuel Petit at Euro 2000 and they all told me: “No, no. You need to go for Arsenal!”.’
Two days after setting up David Trezeguet for the golden goal in the Euro 2000 final against Italy, Pires was an Arsenal player.
Posing with fellow new signing Lauren, Pires joined after turning down giants Real Madrid
Joining Wenger’s French revolution
‘I met him in preseason. I was still young so I was very impressed,’ Pires recalls. ‘I was just happy to shake his hand.
‘He just said: “Welcome to the club. The most important thing is to enjoy your football”. It was a simple message, everybody knows Wenger keeps things simple. A simple manager.’
But watching as the tackles flew in during Arsenal’s loss to Sunderland, Pires questioned whether his faith in Wenger was misplaced, whether he was cut out for the Premier League, whether he’d have been better off in Madrid.
‘The first six or seven months were very hard,’ Pires said. ‘It’s very tough in the UK. For me, it was totally different. English football and French football are not the same.
The midfielder was taken aback by the level of intensity during Arsenal’s training sessions
Pires struggled with the physicality of the Premier League during his first few months
‘You need to learn spirit, to learn fight. And to fight not only in the game but also during the training session. And that was all new to me.
‘Wenger helped me by talking to me almost every day in training,’ Pires said. ‘At the beginning my English was very bad, I needed a translator. So when he spoke to the whole team it was in English – with us, Thierry (Henry) and Patrick (Vieira) and me, it was French.
‘Then during the game it was Pat Rice talking to me and Patrick (Vieira) was always shouting at me. Some of the thing he would say in French… it was terrible! But he was captain. We had everyone in place and Wenger was the right teacher’.
After receiving criticism for an early admission that the English game was too physical, Pires soon adapted to the intensity of the Premier League. And during his second season, Pires emerged as one of the league’s finest players.
Wenger gave Pires regular pep talks during Arsenal’s training sessions to help him settle in
The Arsenal manager would address Pires, Vieira and Thierry Henry and Co in French at times
His defining moment came at Villa Park in March 2002. Collecting a long ball forward, Pires flicked it round George Boateng before executing a side-footed lob over Peter Schmeichel in the Aston Villa goal.
As Martin Tyler stated on the Sky Sports commentary, Pires was now dominating a league he had initially struggled in.
So impressive were his displays, he won the 2002 Football Writers’ Footballer of the Year award despite missing the final two months of the season through injury.
Pires doesn’t recall Wenger dishing out the hairdryer treatment during that period, there was no need. ‘Not really. He didn’t have to,’ he smiled. ‘For me it became easy because when you know you have the talent, you become more comfortable.’
The Frenchman netting an impressive solo goal in the Champions League clash against Lazio
Pires is hailed by Sylvain Wiltord and Edu after scoring the brilliant lob against Aston Villa
His second season at Arsenal ended with silverware as they clinched the Premier League title
Wenger and Pires tasted Premier League success together that season. The glory of the Invincibles campaign in 2003-04 followed and they added three FA Cups along the way – Pires scoring the winner in the 2003 final against Southampton.
But by his sixth year with the Gunners, Pires’ influence had waned considerably and he started just 23 league games with Wenger rotating in new signing Alexander Hleb. Pires was still showing flashes of genius, but less consistently.
In the Champions League quarter-final win over Juventus at Highbury, Pires produced a decidedly un-Pires moment when he slid in to dispossess his old team-mate Vieira in the build up to Cesc Fabregas’ goal.
But the relationship between Wenger and Pires was brought to an abrupt end later in that competition by one fateful decision taken by the Arsenal manager.
In the Champions League final against Barcelona, disaster struck after 18 minutes as Jens Lehmann was sent off for bringing down Samuel Eto’o who was clean through on goal. Manuel Almunia readied himself on the sidelines and the fourth official’s board flashed up with No 7, the man he was replacing.
Pires scored the only goal of the game in the 2003 FA Cup final against Southampton
He celebrates with Kolo Toure and Ashley Cole after Arsenal won the league at White Hart Lane
Pires toasts his opener on the last ever match at Highbury – a 4-2 win over Wigan in May 2006
Pires trudged off the Stade de France with his eyes fixed on the floor, ignoring his manager as he headed to the bench. Eighteen minutes into the biggest match of his career, his night was over.
‘Two days after (the final) I told him I wanted a meeting to talk about my future,’ Pires said. ‘And I told him it was time for me to leave.
‘I was angry because we lost the final and I wanted to play the whole game. He later said it was the worst decision he had to make in his career. It was 20 minutes into the Champions League final!
‘He had to make a decision in just 20 seconds or so. For me it was the wrong decision, for him maybe it was the right one. But that’s football.’
After some persuasion, Wenger reluctantly granted Pires’ wish. The Champions League final defeat in Paris was his last game for the club – he joined Arsenal’s semi-final opponents Villarreal a week later.
Pires was used more sparingly in his final season at Arsenal after facing increased competition
Pires walks past Wenger after being substituted 20 minutes into the Champions League final
Pires was then back playing against Arsenal for Villarreal in the Champions League soon after
Back with the boss
But bridges were never burned and when Pires reached out to his former manager following his retirement, Wenger welcomed him back into the fold. He first returned in 2013 before coming back again in 2015, either side of a brief spell in India.
‘I’m ambassador for Arsenal so I play in legends’ games – I played in Singapore last month – so I need to stay fit,’ Pires said.
‘A couple of years ago I sent a message to Arsene seeing I if I could train with the team and he said “yes, of course. For you the door is always open.”
‘I’m 44 now and I’m still training with the first team. Sometimes I can give some advice for the players because I have experience. I talk every morning with the guys. It is a strange situation because I’m not on Wenger’s staff but it’s good for me.’
Wenger welcomed Pires back with open arms when he first asked to train at the club in 2013
Pires scores during an Arsenal legends game against AC Milan at the Emirates in 2016
While Pires doesn’t receive specific instructions from Wenger to give to the players or hold meetings alone with him, he has a front row seat to watch the manager work with the squad.
‘Is he harder (on the current players)? No, never,’ Pires said. ‘He’s never hard. He’s always very calm and sometimes he is quiet.
‘He wants to maintain a good relationship with his players. He’s always talking with his players.’
The second half of Wenger’s tenure has been considerably less successful. Since Pires left a decade ago, Arsenal’s only silverware has come in the form of the FA Cup, which they have won in three of the last four seasons.
Pires doesn’t have an official role on Wenger’s staff but works closely with the first-team squad
Pires (third right) during a light-hearted moment with new boy Sead Kolasinac earlier this year
But Pires insists the current crop have more talent than any of the sides he played in including the Invincibles, widely regarded as one of the greatest teams in the Premier League era.
What they are lacking, is what he repeatedly refers to as ‘warriors’.
‘I think this team have more quality than my teams. Even in 2003-04,’ Pires said. ‘But they need more character, more spirit, more warriors. That comes from the heart.
‘In my teams we had Vieira, Ray Parlour, Lee Dixon, Martin Keown, Gilberto Silva, Tony Adams, Dennis Bergkamp was a leader with his quality. And even Freddie Ljungberg was a warrior.
Arsenal lack ‘warriors’ such as ex-captain Vieira in their current squad, according to Pires
Pires believes Arsenal’s Invincibles side didn’t have as much talent as the 2017-18 Gunners
‘I’m not a warrior but it comes naturally to people like Patrick, like Adams. You need the mix between that and the quality. That’s very important.’
Pires isn’t the first person to question Arsenal’s mental fragility and look back longingly to the days of Adams and Vieira.
But Pires’ opinion that Alexis Sanchez, Mesut Ozil and Co, who finished fifth last season, boast more quality than the teams of Henry, Bergkamp and himself, who went the entire season unbeaten, is alarming. Though it is a view shared by his former captain Vieira.
When asked if that means Wenger has assumed more of a leadership role for the current crop in the absence of ‘warriors’ to delegate to, Pires agreed.
Pires says the current crop featuring the likes of Mesut Ozil (left) have the necessary quality
Ozil and Alexis Sanchez couldn’t lift Arsenal to a top-four finish in the league last season
‘Yes. That’s why it’s so difficult to find a player who has both a good technique and good spirit,’ he said. ‘It’s capital.’
Pires is well-placed to assess whether Wenger has changed throughout his time at Arsenal, having returned to work for the manager 17 years after their first meeting.
So has he noticed anything different about Wenger’s management style now he’s back? Pires shakes his head and laughs.
‘I met him in 2000 – 17 years later he is the same manager. The same man. I think it’s too late to change now!’.
Robert Pires is working with UEFA Europa League partner Enterprise Rent-A-Car on their Backseat Pundit competition. To find out how you can enter and enjoy special rates on car hire across Europe, visit Backseat Pundit.
PIRES ON THE ASTON VILLA GOAL
In March 2002 with Arsenal 1-0 up away at Aston Villa, Freddie Ljungberg launched a long ball into the path of Pires. He flicked it over the oncoming George Boateng before letting it bounce twice and side-footing a lob over Peter Schmeichel in the goal.
‘I’d received the long ball from Ljungberg, let it bounce and then I needed to make a quick reaction and a quick decision. So I went first time over Boateng.
‘Then I saw the big man (Schmeichel) and I don’t know why but I thought I’ll try to put it over him. He was on the line so even he was surprised – I’m sure of that. Sometimes it’s just instinct but it was perfect.
‘For pure technique that’s the best goal of my career and that’s why I went over to celebrate with the Arsenal fans like I did.’
Pires received a pass from Freddie Ljungberg and flicked the ball over George Boateng
Pires ran on to the ball as Peter Schmeichel began to come off his line before retreating
And Pires side-foots over the keeper, despite Schmeichel standing just a yard of his line
Pires celebrates after scoring what he described as ‘the best goal’ of his career