For Matteo Guendouzi, it was memories of the Arsenal matches he had watched on television as a child. For William Saliba, it was “the history, the badge.”
For Nicolas Pepe, the opportunity to wear the red shirt with the white sleeves meant following in the footsteps of “all the French guys like Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira and Robert Pires” who had worn it before. For Alexandre Lacazette, it was nothing less than the fulfilment of a childhood dream.
Arsenal may no longer punch with the same power as they did during Arsene Wenger’s heyday, but as the testimonies of some of their most high-profile recent signings demonstrate, the club’s aura remains undimmed for the modern generation of French-born footballers.
It helps to explain why, even though Arsenal no longer qualify for the UEFA Champions League as a matter of routine, and despite 15 long years’ having elapsed since they last won the Premier League, the Emirates Stadium remains an attractive destination for the best players in the French game.
The trophy torrent may have slowed to a trickle, and the glory nights might now be few and far between, but seen from the other side of the Channel, the French heroes of yesteryear continue to loom large.
It is easy to forget now, but when Wenger metaphorically planted the Tricolour flag in the Highbury turf in the autumn of 1996, English football viewed French footballers very differently to how it views them today. The France national team were still two years shy of the country’s first FIFA World Cup win, having failed to even qualify for the most recent tournament in 1994.
Although Manchester United’s Eric Cantona and Newcastle United’s David Ginola were thrilling English audiences on a weekly basis, French footballers tended to be seen as temperamental mavericks rather than players you would want to flood your first XI with.
When Didier Six was in talks to join Aston Villa in 1984, his agent, Gilbert Lienhard, became exasperated by what he felt was the lack of respect shown for the France winger’s achievements.
“For them, we were the ‘little Frenchies,’ and at one point I even stopped the negotiations to remind them that we were talking about Didier Six, a France international with 52 caps,” Lienhard told L’Equipe in 2016. Six, a dashing, tousle-haired left-winger, made only a handful of appearances for Villa before returning to his homeland in 1985.
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Patrick Vieira and Remi Garde were the advance party in Wenger’s French invasion. The pair signed for Arsenal on the same August day, having been recommended to the club by the incoming manager, who did not officially take up his role until the end of the following month.
A further 26 French players would follow before Wenger’s departure in 2018, but it was Vieira—tall, elegant and as tough as he was talented—who prepared the ground.
“Vieira was the key to it. A lot of the French players’ credibility flowed from him,” Fred Atkins, author of Arsenal—The French Connection: How the Arsenal Became L’Arsenal, told Bleacher Report.
“One of Wenger’s quotes from that era was that in his first season, it took at least three players to get the ball off him. If there were any preconceptions that they were soft because they were from France and the league there was less physical, they were shattered.”
Vieira was followed by Nicolas Anelka, Emmanuel Petit, Thierry Henry, Robert Pires and Sylvain Wiltord, who would help to turn Arsenal into one of the most celebrated teams in English football history. Other French players followed in turn—Gael Clichy, William Gallas, Samir Nasri, Laurent Koscielny, Olivier Giroud—and the chain remains intact thanks to Lacazette, Guendouzi and Saliba (who was loaned back to Saint-Etienne for this season), as well as French-born players like Ivory Coast winger Pepe and Gabon striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.
For the French players who marked the club’s modern golden age, Arsenal’s sensational attacking football was only possible because so many of Wenger’s key men were on the same—Gallic—wavelength.
“If you want to click, you need a very good feeling,” Pires explained to the Arsenal website in 2017. “For example, for me it was easy to play with Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira or Sylvain Wiltord. It was the French connection.”
Arsenal’s exploits inevitably sparked interest in France, where Wenger was already a well-known figure courtesy of his achievements as manager of Monaco. Canal+ started broadcasting live English top-flight games in 1997, a year after Wenger’s arrival, and the French sports media carried regular reports on goings-on in north London.
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For a football-mad youngster like Lacazette, who has spoken about being inspired by Henry when he was growing up in Lyon, Arsenal would have felt like a thrillingly vivid part of the football landscape.
“Lacazette was eight years old when Henry signed [for Arsenal in 1999],” says Atkins. “And he was at an age when you could suddenly see a lot more English football in France than you could four or five years earlier.
“All of a sudden, all these French players were playing there, and the French media were very good at covering them. L’Equipe and magazines like France Football were always doing special reports on players overseas.
“It would have seemed more exciting than French football, and the intensity of the matches, particularly the games with Man United, must have caught the imagination.”
Like many Arsenal fans from France, Vincent Arfeux was initially drawn to the club by its French standard-bearers before falling for the sense of history and prestige that hung within Highbury’s marble halls. A Paris native, he cites the rise of the internet in the early 2000s as a key factor behind Arsenal’s success in establishing a popular foothold on the other side of the Channel.
“When I started supporting the club, it was a time when the internet was developing. So you could talk with Arsenal fans around the world and follow news from the…
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