Ronaldinho, Ronaldo, Messi, Mbappe and more - the stars Wenger claims he could have signed for Arsenal

A near 22-year stay at Arsenal for Arsene Wenger means there have been a lot of hit signings... and a fair few flops.

But throughout Wenger's long reign at the club, one of the prevailing trends has been the Frenchman's insistence that he tried to sign various big names, amid criticism over the club's perceived lack of ambition in the transfer market. 

With the 68-year-old now set to depart Arsenal at the end of the season, we have put together an XI of players Wenger has said Arsenal missed out on in the past.

This lot would certainly give the current starting line-up a run for their money, with Arsenal facing another campaign in which they have fallen short of Champions League qualification.

GOALKEEPER: JOE HART

He lost his place under Pep Guardiola, but Joe Hart was a mainstay of the Manchester City team that won two Premier League titles and established themselves as a force in English football. He also effectively cemented his place as England's number one, although his place at the World Cup could now be in doubt after an error-strewn season on loan at West Ham. According to Wenger, he could have joined Arsenal before he forced his way into the City first team. "I remember when Hart played at Birmingham [in 2009-10]," he said. "I asked about him and they told me he is at Man City. I thought he would be the keeper there."

DEFENDER: CHRIS SMALLING

Wenger hasn't always got it right in defensive reinforcements but he saw something he liked in Chris Smalling during his Fulham days. Eventually, Arsenal were outmuscled by Manchester United, who signed the centre-back for a reported £7million. "I am sorry because we were very close to getting him," said Wenger. "We were on the case very early. I wish the player well. At the end of the day it is important he has a good career." He's not everyone's favourite but Smalling has certainly managed that. He has won two Premier League titles, an FA Cup, the Europa League and an EFL Cup with United - and was named the players' player of the year for 2015-16. Smalling has also scored twice in his last three United appearances.

DEFENDER: RAPHAEL VARANE

This one appeared to bother Wenger. Raphael Varane has developed into one of the world's finest young defenders since joining Real Madrid in 2011 and has won two LaLiga titles and three Champions Leagues with the Spanish club. According to Wenger, it could have been very different. He told Eurosport: "He was at Lens and we might well have caught him there. Yet at the same time, when you are in charge of a club like Arsenal, you have to wonder why this player is not playing for us." Ouch. Getting Per Mertesacker from Werder Bremen instead wasn't bad business, but the whole thing still rankles with Wenger.

DEFENDER: GERARD PIQUE

Gerard Pique was more of a pipe dream than a certifiable option who snubbed the Gunners' advances. The Spain international was one of a trio of Barcelona youngsters Wenger had his eye on back in 2003. "It worked only for Cesc Fabregas," said Wenger in 2014 after revealing the three La Masia graduates he was after. In the end, Pique moved to Manchester United and claimed Premier League and Champions League winners' medals before returning to Barcelona, where he has become one of the most decorated centre-backs in the modern game. Who was the third Barca boy, we hear you ask? You'll find out later...

MIDFIELDER: N'GOLO KANTE

One of the latest additions to this formidable line-up, N'Golo Kante has been the driving force behind Premier League title charges from Leicester City and Chelsea in the last two seasons. He has also established his place firmly in the France team. The all-round qualities of the combative, creative and utterly relentless 27-year-old led to inevitable questions about why Wenger never spotted the former Caen man's potential and made an offer. Well, it's quite simple: he did. Twice. Apparently. "Have I looked to sign Kante? Yes. When he was in France and when he was at Leicester," Wenger said. "I cannot explain everything [about why he preferred Chelsea] but it is quite obvious when you look at where he has gone. Was it the money? I do not want to talk about that. Transfers are transfers - you cannot explain absolutely everything."

FORWARD: CRISTIANO RONALDO

Multiple leagues, Champions Leagues, domestic cups, Euro 2016 and five Ballons d'Or are just some of the trophies Cristiano Ronaldo has lifted. In fact, his personal museum in Madeira holds more accolades than Wenger brought to Arsenal in 20 years. Things would have been very, very different had it not been for compatriot Carlos Queiroz's influence at Manchester United in 2003. At least, according to Wenger. "He was very close to coming here," he told ITV. "He has a number nine shirt with Ronaldo on the back from Arsenal Football Club. What happened was that Carlos Queiroz went to Manchester United and they snapped him away from us because he knew him from Sporting."

FORWARD: RONALDINHO

It has often been a bone of contention for Manchester United fans that they failed to get a deal for Ronaldinho over the line before he accepted Barcelona's offer. The Brazilian left Paris Saint-Germain for Camp Nou in 2003 and became the leading star at a club that was striving to return to the glory days of Johan Cruyff's Dream Team in the 1990s. A true modern great who also won three major tournaments with Brazil, Ronaldinho was one that got away for the Premier League's elite - and, yes, that includes Arsenal again. "We could have got Ronaldinho before he went to PSG," Wenger told Sky Sports. "I met his brother, who is his agent, a long, long time before he went to PSG - when he was 20 - but we just could not get him to England because of the rules here. Basically, what the rule does is force you to wait to buy the player but, by then, you cannot afford him anymore."

FORWARD: LIONEL MESSI

Still wondering who that third Barcelona player was? Oh, just the man considered by many to be the greatest footballer of all time. Eight LaLiga titles - soon to be nine - four Champions Leagues, five Ballons d'Or, scoring records for Barca and Spain's top flight - it's all just the tip of the iceberg for the undisputed star of one of the greatest club sides the game has ever seen. Still, if Wenger had his way, Messi would have learned much of his craft at London Colney rather than Catalonia. "I think, in the end, he was not so keen to move, because it was at a period where Fabregas came, and Fabregas and Messi played together in the same team," said Wenger. "We wanted to take Fabregas, Messi and Pique. It worked only for Fabregas. It was down to the fact that, in the end, Messi was comfortable at Barcelona."

 

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FORWARD: GARETH BALE

A slight variation to the theme this time - according to Wenger, at least. The Arsenal manager says they looked at the Wales star while he was a fresh-faced youngster at Southampton, while they were assessing emerging talents including Theo Walcott. Ultimately, Wenger decided against an offer. Bale went on to join Tottenham, where he was transformed from unwitting full-back to a man who eats full-backs for breakfast, before heading to Real Madrid, where he has won three Champions Leagues. "I must confess it was a huge mistake as he can play in midfield," Wenger conceded in 2006. "He struggled at the start at Tottenham, then they moved him to midfield and he has done exceptionally well."

STRIKER: DIDIER DROGBA

A hero in the eyes of Chelsea fans and a real scourge of the Arsenal defence, Didier Drogba was one of the continent's finest centre-forwards for half a decade. He won 12 major trophies, including four league titles and the Champions League, across two spells at Stamford Bridge. Chelsea forked out a reported £24million for Drogba in 2004, but Arsenal could have signed him for a fraction of that price two years earlier. Please explain, Mr Wenger... "We watched Drogba very carefully when he was at Le Mans and his value was just £100,000. But we felt at the time he might not be completely ready... Looking back now, of course it was a mistake." Yup.

STRIKER: KYLIAN MBAPPE

The final starting spot goes to the most recent entry. Kylian Mbappe took Europe by storm last season, scoring 26 goals and assisting 14 as Monaco roared to a Ligue 1 title triumph and a place in the Champions League semi-finals. Paris Saint-Germain will complete a permanent move for the teenager at the end of the season for EUR180million after a successful one-year loan. Wenger, however, could have snapped him up for something significantly less than that had a visit to the forward's house last year gone to plan. "The player would tell you that I was at his home last year to try to get him here because he was at the end of [his] contract, but Monaco managed to keep him and the decision was very, very tight," said Wenger. "But I could understand it as well because he was educated there and at the end decided to stay there."

 

SUBSTITUTES:

If that starting line-up isn't formidable enough, just look at the options on the bench for our If-only-eh-Arsene XI.

Dimitri Payet ("He played at Saint-Etienne and we watched him many times"), Angel Di Maria ("We identified Di Maria when he was 17... he could not get a work permit here"), Eden Hazard ("I had his agent at my home but again the barrier was financial and Chelsea made an effort that I couldn't make"), Kingsley Coman ("Yes we really tried to sign Kingsley Coman in the summer of 2014. The transfer was almost completed, but he preferred Juventus"), Romelu Lukaku ("Yes, we knew him in Belgium but at the time he opted to go to Chelsea"), Yaya Toure ("It's not because we did not want to sign him that he went to Ukraine) and Paul Pogba ("We tried to get him to come here. But he very quickly signed for Juventus").

HONOURABLE MENTIONS:

We couldn't let these names slip through the net entirely.

Gianluigi Buffon (He claimed to have met with Wenger in 1998, while he was still at Parma. He went to Juventus in the end), Vincent Kompany (This one came from the player's agent, rather than Wenger himself. Apparently, the centre-back had been scouted by Arsenal before joining Manchester City in 2008), Roberto Carlos (The Brazil great actually said he wanted to go to Arsenal, but apparently never got a phone call. "When my contract finishes [the Premier League] is definitely my priority and at Arsenal there are fellow Brazilians," he said towards the end of his Real Madrid deal), Luis Suarez (Wenger launched a definite bid to sign the striker from Liverpool in 2014. However, his £40,000,001 offer - which he hoped would trigger Suarez's release clause - only served to infuriate Anfield officials, who allowed him to leave for Barcelona instead), Zlatan Ibrahimovic (Another who went for a trial at Arsenal, the story goes that the striker - then only 16 - rejected the chance to sign for the Gunners after being asked to prove himself. "Zlatan doesn't do auditions" was his famous assessment)

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