In yesteryear, Robert Pires was one of Arsenal’s star attackers in tempestuous, frantic title clashes against Manchester United which captured the imagination of the British public.
Now, ahead of the two old foes meeting at Old Trafford this evening, times have changed. Both teams have struggled to consistently compete with this season’s runaway title contenders in Chelsea, Manchester City and Liverpool.
Yet Pires backs his old club, for whom he made 287 appearances over six seasons, to finish above United this season and seal a top-four finish – their first since the 2015-16 season.
Robert Pires was one of Arsenal’s biggest stars in title clashes against Manchester United
The Frenchman was full of praise for Arsenal boss Mikel Arteta and an ex-team-mate, Edu (left)
‘Since they beat Tottenham in September, Arsenal have struck the right balance and finally the players believe in themselves,’ Pires tells Sportsmail.
‘I think they can reach the top-four. What I also believe is [that] the connection between Mikel Arteta and Edu (a former team-mate of Pires’) is very positive at the club.
‘They will find more great players. But the present and the future of Arsenal has definitely come from the academy in Emile Smith Rowe and Bukayo Saka. The pair are not afraid to take responsibility on the field – and I love that!’
Pires, a two-time Premier League winner with Arsenal in 2002 and 2004, speaks glowingly – as a fan he now admits – about his former club.
Under Arsene Wenger, the French World Cup winner hit heights that were not surpassed in the rest of his career. While an elusive Champions League crown will always be that generation’s ‘what if’ moment, Pires insists he owes a great deal to Wenger for forming a team which went down in history.
Piers was an integral part of the Invincibles, which went the 2003-04 league season unbeaten
The French winger won two Premier League titles during six successful years at the club
‘I’m not arrogant but I think we simply had everything!’ a smiling Pires adds.
‘Quality, ability, talent, spirit, commitment. If you are a manager you want to build a great team around this.
‘Arsene focused on every single player and I think his secret was the way he mixed the English players with the foreigners. In the end it was fantastic but the most important thing we had was spirit. Without this, the unbeaten season would have been impossible.’
A team-mate of Pires at club and international level was Patrick Vieira, the captain of that all-conquering side who is now cutting his cloth in management at Crystal Palace.
Pires backed Patrick Vieira to be a coaching success – and he could even take over at Arsenal
The former Arsenal captain is in the first few months of his job as Crystal Palace manager
Pires, though, insists Vieira could have his sights set higher sooner rather than later.
‘I was talking to Patrick a month ago and he says the squad at Crystal Palace is of a very good quality.
‘But he will for sure be a great manager. When Patrick was on the field he was like a warrior and as a manager he is always positive. He of course knows the Premier League very well too.
‘If you have an opportunity like Palace, you have to take it. But in two or three years time, Patrick will receive some offers from big Premier League clubs, he could manage Arsenal too. You never know for the future – but trust me, he will be a good manager.’
Vieira certainly learned from one of the best in Wenger, who is now making headlines as the star of his very own film, as well as pushing forward some bold proposals in his role as FIFA’s Chief of Global Football Development.
Pires acknowledges that he played the best football of his career under Arsene Wenger
His concept of a biennial World Cup has divided opinion across the board, though most are sceptical. Pires, who was part of the France 1998 squad which triumphed on home soil, is in that club too.
‘I talk with and am in contact with Arsene… but to be honest I’m not in favour of making the World Cup every two years.
‘I want to see the quality, not the quantity. The players would be tired and it’s not about the marketing, sponsorship or money – we need to think about the players.
‘It’s special when it’s every four years. Why don’t we ask the players about it, instead of FIFA president Gianni Infantino?’
As for Pires himself, he is very happy taking things easy after his retirement in 2016, when he concluded his career following further spells at Villarreal, Aston Villa and FC Goa in India.
Pires briefly worked under Wenger as a first-team coach at Arsenal following retirement
The 48-year-old dipped his hands in coaching under Wenger later that year. However, he accepted quite happily that it wasn’t for him.
‘I don’t want to be a manager,’ he admits. ‘It is very difficult – it’s not just the game but it’s every morning, thinking abut everything.
‘Talking to Arsene and Patrick about it, it’s not easy believe me!’
Pires, who does not want to be a manager, still follows his old club with great interest
Robert Pires was talking as he participated in the second episode of the second series of Hotels.com’s Dream Island. The series will showcase Hotels.com’s role as the Official Travel Partner of the UEFA Champions League and will see presenter Craig Mitch grill UEFA legends on their ultimate holiday booking.
Fans will enjoy hearing about where the former players’ dream get-away would be, what they never forget to take with them and who would make up their dream beach football team, as well as answering fans’ travel questions along the way.
To watch Dream Island, visit Hotels.com Europe on YouTube: YouTube.com/hotelseu
Pires participated in the second episode of the second series of Hotels.com’s Dream Island