It seems indeed possible to build a couple of combined elevens of great players from the history of Chelsea FC and Arsenal FC; settling at one seems almost cruel and disrespectful to the wonderful players who will ultimately be left out from this selection.
The debates and variables that exist which have to be taken into account are plentiful as are the restrictions, too. How can someone born, for example, 30 years ago, expertly talk about a football player from 70 years ago that they have never seen play live and are only aware of the ability said football player possessed through word-of-mouth or old footage? This is the problem football writers have to deal with and an issue that football readers can enjoy. So without further ado, in the 4-1-2-1-2 formation with a midfield diamond, the list begins with…
Petr Cech (Goalkeeper)
The Czech international cemented himself as a Chelsea legend in his 11 year spell at Stamford Bridge after being signed from French club Rennes in the summer of 2004 for £8 million, displacing Chelsea favourite Carlo Cudicini. 15 trophies later, and after a season of being second choice behind Thibaut Courtois, Cech switched sides in the capital and joined Arsenal in the 2015 summer transfer window for £11 million.
It was feared that Cech would never play again following a kick to the head from Stephen Hunt in the 2006-2007 season but it is a testament to the mental fortitude, professionalism and ability of Cech that the goal keeper not only recovered from the injury, but maintained that high level of performance that made him, arguably, the greatest keeper of the modern era.
The contribution Cech made to Chelsea's victorious Champions League campaign of 2012 is sometimes overlooked. After all, it was Cech who was magnificent throughout the final, saving regularly from Mario Gomez, halting Arjen Robben's penalty in extra-time from finding the net and guessing correctly on each penalty in the shoot-out, saving two from Bastian Schweinsteiger and Ivica Olic.
Pat Rice (Right-back)
Voted 17th in a poll of the greatest players to ever play for Arsenal, the Northern Irish right-back was never the most talented player Arsenal had ever seen progress through their academy, but through his dedication to hard work and maximising his ability, Rice endeared himself to the Gunners faithful.
Strong in the tackle and a composed passer, Rice’s breakout season was the double winning campaign of 1970/1971. The defender stayed on at Arsenal as players from the double-winning side went their separate ways; for his loyalty and longevity, Rice was eventually named captain in 1977 following the departure of Alan Ball, and captained the side to a 3-2 victory over Manchester United in the FA Cup final of 1979.
After over 500 games with Arsenal over 13 years, Rice joined Watford for a four-year spell before re-joining his beloved club in a coaching role. During the transition from Rioch to Wenger in 1996, Rice was named caretaker manager before serving Wenger as assistant manager until his retirement from the role in May 2012; Rice had accumulatively worked at Arsenal for 44 years, solidifying his place as a truly legendary servant to the club.
Tony Adams (Centre-back)
Adams is possibly the most iconic Arsenal captain, a player that symbolised his club so much, he was given the nickname ‘Mr Arsenal’. Having joined the Gunners as a schoolboy aged 14, Adams would make his debut for the club three years later. By 21, he was named Arsenal captain and would hold that role until his retirement in 2002. By then, Adams had amassed 669 appearances for the club, scoring 48 times, winning 10 major trophies with the rare distinction of winning a league title in three separate decades.
Adams’ career on and off the pitch was busy to say the least. Part of the famous back four that had an instinctive quality to their relationship, the defender's career was also marred with drink-driving offences before he announced he was an alcoholic to the press in 1996. But, Adams would go on to recover, aided by the meticulousness Wenger brought with him upon his arrival to the club with regards to diets and continue playing until age and injury would force him to retire.
A player who combined the two types of centre back by being a no-nonsense pure defender as well as being a ball-playing defender who could join the attack and contribute with an important goal, Adams was voted third in a poll of the best players to play for Arsenal and a statue of Adams in celebration with his arms above his head after that goal against Everton adorns the outside of the Emirates.
John Terry (Centre-back)
If Adams is the academy graduate who went on to symbolise the club and captain it for Arsenal, then John Terry is the equivalent for Chelsea. A banner draped over Stamford Bridge has the three words “Captain, Leader, Legend” along with a picture of a roaring Terry and it seems that concise description is more than fitting.
Disregarding a loan spell with Nottingham Forest as a 20-year-old, Terry has spent his whole professional career with Chelsea after joining the academy as a 14-year-old and making his first-team debut aged 17. Now 34, and with 672 overall Chelsea appearances as well as 62 goals plus 16 trophies and a whole host of record, including being the Premier League’s highest scoring defender with 39, it will be a dark day in Chelsea history when their colossus of a captain decides to retire; the one direct link between Chelsea fans and their ever-increasing international club will need replacing.
Terry may not be liked for his actions outside of football, which have been well documented, but his quality is undeniable. Comanding in the air, a superb tackler and able to ping the ball however many yards with either of his feet, the man nicknamed 'JT' has captained Chelsea through the most successful period in the history of the club.
Ashley Cole (Left-back)
Certainly a polarizing figure depending on where your loyalty is as a football fan in London; Arsenal fans used to love him but now hate him whereas Chelsea fans love Cole not only because of his ability, but because Arsenal fans hate him. The second player in this combined Chelsea – Arsenal XI to have played for both teams alongside Petr Cech in goal, Cole was a member of, arguably, the greatest moments in both clubs' history.
A key component of the Arsenal side that went ‘Invincible’ in 2003/2004, as part of the left-sided trifecta of Cole – Pires – Henry, Cole was also one of the most significant players in Chelsea’s Champions League winning side of 2011/2012, with supremely high performances in the two-legged semi-final against Barcelona and another awesome performance in the final against Bayern Munich.
A player who splits opinions but a truly great one ability wise, Cole will retire as one of the best left-backs in modern history and certainly the best left-back in English history. His haul of FA Cup medals, at seven, is unmatched; he has won three Premier League titles along with every other major trophy that can be won at English and European club level.
Claude Makélélé (Central defensive midfielder)
When a player is so good at a certain position, that a new term in the football vocabulary is coined, then that is a sign to the ability said player possesses. Lionel Messi revolutionised striker play with his interpretation leading to the phrase ‘false-nine’. Manuel Neuer, whilst not the first, showed millions the notion of ‘sweeper-keeper’. Makélélé is the same. His arrival in 2003 for £16.8 million from Real Madrid, where he was severely under-appreciated, led to a redefining of the central defensive midfield position in English football – the ‘Makélélé role’ was created.
In his five-year spell in West London, Makélélé amassed six trophies, including two league titles. An immaculate reader of the game, efficient in the tackle and a superb distributor of possession, Makélélé was the foil which allowed the attacking talents of Lampard and Essien to flourish.
It was Zidane who famously said following the leave of Makélélé from the Galacticos in 2003 and the arrival of Beckham straight after that “Why put another layer of gold paint on the Bentley when you are losing the entire engine?” And that’s what Makélélé was to Chelsea when he was with the club from the King's Road: the engine of the team.
Patrick Vieira (Central midfielder)
The Senegalese-born French midfielder arrived at Arsenal after a recommendation from Wenger just before he got the job, with Vieira coming in the summer of 1996 and Wenger arriving in September of that year. In his nine-year spell with the Gunners, Vieira won 11 trophies, including three Premier Leagues, with one being ‘Invincible’.
Vieira is in this selection not just because of his undeniable ability as a box-to-box midfielder and his ability to come up with important goals in important games, but also for his clashes with Manchester United midfielder, Roy Keane. The titanic battles between the two are some of the defining moments of early noughties Premier League football; the mini-match within the overall match between these two combative midfielders was worth the admission fee alone.
After the retirement of Adams in 2002, Wenger named Vieira captain, a position he would hold until his departure in 2005 to Juventus. In the true fashion of a big-game player, Vieira left after scoring the winning penalty kick in a penalty shoot-out in a 1-1 draw against Manchester United. It’s no wonder Patrick Vieira was voted as the 5th greatest Arsenal player of all time.
Frank Lampard (Central midfielder)
When Ranieri signed Lampard for £11 million from fellow London side West Ham United, many had thought that Chelsea had over-paid for the English midfielder. Lampard would go on to become part of the spine of Chelsea’s team for the next 13 years and break the long-standing highest goal scorer record left by Bobby Tambling in 1970 at 202, eventually leaving the record at a lofty 211.
The already impressive achievement is enhanced when it is remembered that Lampard broke the goal scoring record playing from midfield and assisting in bringing a haul of 13 trophies with it, including a Champions League and three Premier League titles.
Lampard in his prime contributed 22 league goals as well as 14 assists to Chelsea’s victorious league campaign under Carlo Ancelotti in 2009/2010. Combining intricate passing, vision and a tireless work-rate to go box-to-box with a striker’s instinct to find space and finish, Lampard may not have been as talented as some of his contemporary peers but his professionalism and work ethic ensured that Lampard rose to the top of the world’s footballing stage.
Dennis Bergkamp (Attacking midfielder)
In this fantasy eleven, Bergkamp would be given the number 10 shirt. Voted the second best player in Arsenal’s history and anyone who ever watched him play would be able to tell you why. Whether it was the amazing goals he scored, or the millimetre-perfect assists he provided, not enough superlatives can be laid upon the Dutch forward that merit his ability.
An example, if ever anyone with any knowledge of football needed it, that numbers and stats are not the be-all and end-all of a footballers career. A glance at his Premier League stats consisting of 94 assists and 87 goals in 315 appearances, could lead to the conclusion that Bergkamp was just a very good player. He wasn’t – he was an exceptional player and possibly the greatest second-striker/attacking midfielder the Premier League has ever seen.
With his fear of flying and penchant for scoring wonder goals, the eccentricities within Bergkamp made him an endearing character to the Arsenal faithful. The fact he contributed to 10 trophies in his 11 year spell helped too.
Didier Drogba (Striker)
It seems a bit ironic that Drogba should be in a combined Chelsea and Arsenal team seeing as he was such a regular tormentor of the Gunners whenever he came up against the side from the North of London. Drogba simply could not be left out of this side. Voted the best Chelsea player ever in a poll conducted by Chelsea fans in 2012, the Ivorian striker is Chelsea’s all-time highest foreign scorer with 164 and is one of the best big-game players of recent history.
In the most successful period trophy-wise in Chelsea history, Drogba has contributed to 14 trophy wins, with nine goals being scored in cup final victories, including both of the goals in Chelsea’s 2-1 win over Arsenal in the 2007 League Cup, the decisive goal in Chelsea’s 1-0 victory over Manchester United in the 2007 FA Cup and, most famously, the equalizer against Bayern Munich in Chelsea’s penalty shoot-out victory over the Bavarian side. Drogba also went on to concede a penalty in extra-time of that game, which Petr Cech saved from Robben, before scoring the winning penalty in the shoot-out just for good measure.
It would prove to be his last kick of a ball in his first spell with the Blues but a return last season yielded a League title and League Cup with Drogba being key in the dressing room, if not so key on the pitch. A player who thrived on the big occasion, who loved being isolated against an entire defence and found an almost sadistic enjoyment from battering defenders for 90 minutes, Didier Drogba is a true Chelsea legend. Who would have thought that would be the case after the Ivorian’s first few months in English football?
Thierry Henry (Striker)
Last but by no means least in completing this eleven of Chelsea and Arsenal greats combined is the man Arsenal fans voted as the best player to ever pull on the red shirt of Arsenal: Thierry Henry.
When Wenger brought Henry to Highbury from Juventus, the French forward was a winger by trade but it was under the tutelage of Arsene Wenger that Henry transformed from a promising winger to a world-class striker. After going nine games without scoring at the very beginning of his Arsenal career, a brace against Derby opened the floodgates – Henry would eventually finish with 228 goals in 377 appearances, breaking the record set by Ian Wright.
With his combination of blistering pace, clinical finishing, astute passing, height, set-piece ability and leadership, Henry was the perfect striker, the archetypal number nine. Capable of scoring all manner of goals, from his trademark open-body pass into the net from the inside left channel to audacious spinning volleys, to delicate chips, Henry’s time at Arsenal was a pleasure for the Gunners’ faithful who got to witness the Frenchman in his pomp before a move to Barcelona occurred so Henry could capture the one medal that had evaded him: the Champions League.
But a return in 2012 on loan was sweet. A goal against Leeds in the FA Cup was even sweeter. The man who is cast in bronze outside the Emirates Stadium produced a golden moment to add to the many more he had provided in his spell with Arsenal that returned seven trophies and a star role in the ‘Invincible’ season. Henry was not only invincible, he was indispensable.
Those who missed out on making the team include Arsenal’s second highest goal scorer Ian Wright as well as marauding winger Robert Pires, Irish superstar Liam Brady, third highest goal scorer Cliff Bastin, sensational stopper David Seaman and the ever-reliable Lee Dixon from Arsenal’s side.
Those from the Chelsea side who just missed out include the Italian wizard Gianfranco Zola, French World Cup winner Marcel Desailly, a right back described by Sir Stanley Matthews as the best he had ever faced, Peter Sillett, one of the toughest defender of his era - Ron ‘Chopper’ Harris, Peter ‘King of Stamford Bridge’ Osgood and the second highest goal scorer in Chelsea history, Bobby Tambling.