Robert Pirès’ Ultimate Arsenal XI selection, memories of a departed friend, and Ducks Can’t Tackle.

by Tony Attwood

I know many fans have a whole plethora of pictures of Arsenal in their homes.  I’ve got a lot of books, which of course I use as reference material for the Arsenal History Society articles I write, but there is only one Arsenal picture.

It is the cover of a Highbury programme, dated 21 December 2002, enlarged to double size, showing Robert Pirès after he scored, raising one finger to the sky.  (Wiki has the game listed as 22 December, a Sunday, so perhaps it was moved after the programme was printed, I can’t remember that detail).  Arsenal beat Middlesbrough 2-0 and the scorers were Campbell in injury time at the end of the first half, and Pirès in time added on at the end of the second half.  It was the second in a 12 match unbeaten run, and Arsenal were top of the league.

This memory is particularly important to me because my friend Roger, (with whom I travelled to Arsenal games home and away for many years,) and I had been discussing Robert Pirès on the journey from Market Harborough to London, and had talked about Pirès’ imperious qualities and began to call him The Emperor.   And when we got our programmes at the game, there he was the following week in full Imperial style.

To mark the event I later bought an Arsenal t-shirt, all red with an image of Robert’s face and the number seven on it.  I still have it, and indeed wore it on my holiday in Greece last month.   Such things seem an important link to the past.

After Roger was taken from us at a ludicrously early age I dug out the picture, got it framed and enlarged, and it has hung in my kitchen ever since, the only Arsenal picture in the house.  More meaningful than a thousand pictures from the Doubles or the Unbeaten Season could ever be, one part of the memory of a dear, dear friend.

My other tribute to my pal came with the book “Making the Arsenal” which is dedicated to him.  It sits on the shelf beside me as I write my little Untold Arsenal pieces.  Towards the end of his life, when he wasn’t at all well, Roger (knowing how much I thought of Robert Pirès contribution to the team queued for 90 minutes at the old Arsenal shop by Finsbury Park station where Robert Pirès was doing a book signing and got Robert to sign a copy of his autobiography “Footballeur”.  I had no idea he was doing that, and I would most certainly have told him not to do it.  But he did and that book too sits on the shelf.  Inside Robert wrote “To Tony” and then put is signature and wrote below that “Pires.R.”

I mention all this today because Robert Pires has been doing some of the PR stuff that ex-players do, in this case with Europcar, the Official Car and Van Rental partner of Arsenal FC.  To preview its new ‘Selection’ car hire service they got Robert to make a selection of his own –  his ‘Ultimate Arsenal XI’.

During his six years with Arsenal, Robert made 284 appearances in midfield and scored 84 goals. He won three FA Cups and two Premier League titles with Arsenal from 2000-2006. Robert earned his place in the immortal history of Arsenal by being a member of the ‘Invincibles’.

But to me he was more than that, because he played so perfectly with Thierry Henry I think he made Henry even more of a player than he naturally was.  How many times did we see Henry drag two or even three defenders out towards the left corner flag while Pirès ran unmarked into the centre.  Henry managed to break free, passed and there was Robert Pirès unmarked ready to score.

The Premier League title was secured at White Hart Lane of course with Robert scoring Arsenal’s second goal in the 2-2 draw with Tottenham. So Robert was asked to select his Ultimate Arsenal XI during Europcar’s ’Selection’ range preview and ahead of this Sunday’s North London derby.

Here it is


Lauren, Adams, Koscielny, Cole

Cazorla, Coquelin, Vieira, Sanchez

Bergkamp, Henry

Bench: Lehmann, Keown, Gilberto, Wiltord, Ozil, Giroud, Pires

I once met Robert in Highbury stadium, although perhaps “met” is putting it a bit strongly.  Roger had given up his season ticket because of his illness and was just going to occasional games, buying tickets individually for each match.   At one game we got to his allocated seat in the west stand only to find a season ticket holder had it.  I left Roger there and walked around the inside of the ground to the box office to get the ticket sorted out.

Walking through the inner part of the East Stand with the game just kicking off, I found myself face to face with Robert Pirès and Patrick Vieira in deep conversation heading the other way to take their seats.  I think Robert was injured and Patrick was serving one of his suspensions.

Now those walkways within Highbury were fairly narrow anyhow, and with two footballers coming towards you, there isn’t much room.  I flattened myself against the wall to let them pass.  “Hello Robert,” I managed to squeak, completely overcome by the occasion, and he turned and nodded, before passing on his way.  So you see, me and Robert…

I’ll tell you something else about Robert that isn’t normally talked about in England.  After “Footballeur” he wrote a second book. Les canards ne savent pas tacler

I only found out about it because I read a review of it in L’Equipe in 2011 when the volume came out.  It has never been published in English.  But in case you fancy it, here’s a taste:

En équipe de France, une légende circulait : “Un tacle de Pirès, c’est comme un but de Thuram. Sous-entendu : il faut se lever tôt pour en voir un.”

In the French game, there’s a story that does the rounds: ‘A tackle from Pirès is like a goal from Thuram.  You need to get up early to see one.

So, as you can see, me and Robert Pirès, we’re pretty close.

Two more anniversaries

  • 7 November 1964: Geoff Strong sold to Liverpool for just £40,000
  • 7 November 1970: Blackpool 0 Arsenal 1. This was League match 16 of the first Double season and Arsenal’s fourth consecutive win, but it still left Arsenal second, one point behind Leeds.  Radford scored in a game that was part of a sequence of four consecutive scoring matches for the centre forward.

Also from earlier…

Untold Arsenal

8 Replies to “Robert Pirès’ Ultimate Arsenal XI selection, memories of a departed friend, and Ducks Can’t Tackle.”

  1. No Sol Campbell in Pires’ Ultimate XI?

    I still remember how thrilled I was when we signed him from Marseille. He had been a big thing at Metz (they ended up second in Ligue 1, just behind the champions Lens) before he was signed by Marseille. Even though a commentator on Bosnian TV was saying during EURO 2000 that Pires had already signed for Real Madrid, I hoped it wasn’t true. Sometimes incompetence of the journalists is a good thing.

    One of my favourite players of all times. Unrivaled elegance on the pitch.

  2. What a player, very humble too (putting himself on the bench in his all time XI, although I’d probably put in the starting XI 🙂 ).

  3. Ozil has an article at, where he mentions that Francis Coquelin has another nickname (Pit Bull).

    I am lousy at French, but maybe: le Coq et Terrier
    It would make an unusual image.

    Maybe someone could correct my butchering? Wikipedia does not have French page on the Pit Bull, but some of the Terriers that go into the breed do have French pages.

    In any event, I think it was very nice for Pires to include Francis in his XI.

    I looked at a bunch of predictions for the game tomorrow last night. I think most of the muppets have the game ending in a tie (usually 1-1). Arsenal and the Spuds are equal, and there is no home advantage? After accounting for the PGMO that is. I found almost as many predictions, showing an Arsenal win. But not by famous muppets (or not famous to me). The most optimistic I remember is Merson, at 3-0. And I did see one prediction of a Spud win, by a single goal.

    Let’s get that win!


  4. Great read, Tony. Thanks for sharing your memories with us. As for the squad Pirès elected, there are fascinating things there. Look at that midfield. He chose Coquelin, which is just amazing (no one at all on Earth would have predicted that as little as a year and a half ago)! That should tell any lingering doubters how utterly unbelievable he is in his defensive role (it´s also why I´m not too bent out of shape by Özil being on the bench, it makes sense in this particular tactical setup). Oh, and look, another complimentary Olivier sighting! And here I was thinking it had been conclusively established that Giroud was the worst player ever, with FACTS! and pundits alike making a case against him. As for Kos, there´s really nothing much to say, is there? Pleased he´s in, he truly is that good.

  5. Bobby Pires was awesome when he was on form . Was a great partner to TH 14 and a very important piece of the completed puzzle that was the Invincibles . His goal against Aston Villa where he not only brushed aside George Boateng , but went on to chip the giant Peter Schmeicheal in goal, will forever linger in my mind . Alzheimer or senile dementia excepted of course !
    Pure class !

  6. I was so gutted when Overmars left us , but then along came Bobby a majestic player alongside the imperious Bergkamp.

  7. Until this season I have only ever had one Arsenal shirt of any kind (Ok it was one of those you can buy from outside the ground) with a players name on it and that was Pires. I wore it to every game I attended until he left. This season I bought an Ozil shirt.

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