Goodbye My Pires!

Arsenal Football Club can today confirm the departure of midfielder Robert Pires to Spanish side Villarreal CF.

Pires, 32, made a total of 284 appearances for the Club in all competitions in his six seasons at Highbury, scoring 84 goals.

One of only five Arsenal players to have won the Football Writers’ Player of the Year award (2002), Robert has been instrumental to the Club’s success since his arrival in the summer of 2000; helping the team to two league titles in 2002 and 2004 as well as picking up two FA Cup winners’ medals in 2003 where he scored the winning goal and in 2005.  Robert was also a key member of the record-breaking “Invincibles” side that went 49 games unbeaten.

Of the move Robert said: “After six wonderful years at Arsenal, full of fantastic moments, I have decided to accept a new challenge at Villarreal for the next two years of my career. I am very grateful to Arsène Wenger, the players and all the fans for their amazing support over the years”

Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger said: “Robert has had six tremendous years with us and made a huge contribution to the team’s success during his time here.  He is not only a great footballer but a good man, so of course, we are sad to see him go.  It’s difficult to pick out one or two highlights but he was superb in our double winning season during the 2001/02 campaign and contributed hugely to our unbeaten season with 19 goals. I would like to thank Robert for the dedication, determination and passion he has shown and wish him well in his career.”’Balanced, twinkle-toed and beautiful to watch’

Robert Pires’ last contribution for Arsenal was to make way for substitute keeper Manuel Almunia after Jens Lehmann had been sent off in the Champions League Final. After the French midfielder completed a move to Villarreal, editor Richard Clarke argues it was hardly a fitting epitaph.

For a man with “ten to two feet”, Robert Pires could time his runs into the penalty area to perfection. While club-mate and compatriot Thierry Henry specialised in the spectacular it could be argued that the former Marseille man monopolised the more mundane strikes.

Yes, there were some crackers — the winner at Liverpool in 2004 for example — but Pires’ major goals were often the result of educated runs and elementary finishes. Think back to the winning goal of the 2003 FA Cup Final or the 2001 Semi-Final for the perfect illustrations.

But it was not always this way.

Before March 23, 2002, Pires was en route to becoming one of the most sublime talents ever to grace Highbury. After signing in the summer of 2000 he had slowly adapted to the rigours of the English game to become graceful and incisive in equal measure. He was balanced, twinkle-toed and beautiful to watch. In the estimations of this observer, the Pires of the season 2001/02 was the only Arsenal player in the last 30 years whose technique is comparable to Dennis Bergkamp and Liam Brady.

The Frenchman was on fire against Newcastle in the FA Cup Sixth Round replay back on that March day. In the opening nine minutes he had scored himself and set up a second for Bergkamp. Then, in the 27th minute, the Frenchman hurdled a challenge from Nikos Dabizas near the touchine and landed in a heap on the other side. Pires had seriously damaged the cruciate knee ligament in his knee. He would be out for seven months. spoke to Pires during his rehabilitation and, somewhat surprisingly, he was his usual smiling self. He even had a phlegmatic attitude to missing the French defence of the World Cup. ‘Been there, won that,’ he argued, ‘there are plenty of people worse off than me’.

But very few had his talent. So when he hobbled on to the podium to collect the Premiership at the end of the 2002 season, Highbury erupted and the entire squad got down on their knees in homage. For that season at least, no one was worthy.

It is testament to Pires that he rebuilt his career following an injury that, in years gone past, would have ended it. He became much more of goal-taker than goal-maker and the statistics bear this out. He scored a total of 84 goals in 284 Arsenal appearances, an average of one goal every 3.38 games. Before the injury his strikerate was a goal every 4.6 games, afterwards it was 2.98. In his final four seasons he hit 63 goals — a decent tally for a striker let alone a midfielder.

And Pires also had a feeling for the Club too. On the day David Rocastle died he spoke of the honour of wearing “numero sept” and his last interview with a few weeks ago was truly appreciative of those who had cheered him on.

“I am privileged because the fans always liked me, ever since the beginning. There is a song about me and I am proud of that. When the fans like you and sing your name it’s very special and I don’t want it to stop.

“Playing on the wing I can hear what they are saying. They help us when they cheer. It is a force to help give everything you have. You don’t want to disappoint them.”

Pires rarely did.

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