Before they became 'Invincibles' with Arsenal and sealed their place in Premier League history, the players who formed the spine of that team had one thing in common. From the maniacal German between the posts to the velvety Frenchman leading the line, some of the most talented footballers in the side had tried to make careers for themselves in Serie A, and ultimately failed. Back in the nineties and early noughties, Italy was still the promised land as far as world football was concerned, with conventional wisdom dictating that clubs didn't come bigger than Juventus, Inter and AC Milan. Between the 1984/85 season and 1995/96, the European Cup was won five times by Italian teams – twice by Juve and three times by the Rossoneri – while Serie A produced another three runners-up in the form of Sampdoria and AC Milan again, twice.
The general consensus on Italian dominance was not exactly unfounded, then, as further evidenced by the fact that – in that same period – Serie A provided 10 finalists and six winners of the UEFA Cup. As such, it should have been little wonder that promising youngsters from across the continent gravitated towards the Italian peninsular, desperate to win major silverware and make their names on the European stage. Many of those youngsters fell by the wayside, finding their opportunities limited either by the influx of talent, homegrown players, or their own struggles with confidence and cultural dissonance. Luckily for Arsenal, several of them learned from this dispiriting experience, recovering from disappointment and rejection before going on to do great things elsewhere.
Immediately prior to the arrival of the Invincibles generation in Italy, there was one intrepid pioneer at Arsenal who had already experienced the harsh world of Serie A. That exotic adventurer was David Platt, a man who was somehow both balding and mulleted by the time he arrived in North London. Having started his senior career with Crewe Alexandra, the lad from Lancashire somehow found himself in Apulia in the early nineties, snapped up by an ambitious Bari side for a then British record fee of £5,500,000. While Platt was not quite at the standard of the future Arsenal stars who followed him, he was nonetheless a robust and skilful midfielder whose goalscoring feats caught Bari chairman Vincenzo Matarrese's eye.
Platt was a precursor to the Invincibles who came afterwards, in that he struggled intermittently in Italy. While his performances for Bari were generally acclaimed – scoring 11 goals in a notoriously defensive league across the 1991/92 season was no mean feat – the team were relegated come the end of the season, with their main problem a chronic lack of goals from his teammates. He moved on to Juventus that summer, but only made 16 league appearances for a Bianconeri side which boasted the midfield flair of Andreas Möller, Giancarlo Marocchi and Antonio Conte, the latter of whom would later join him in making the hair transplant socially acceptable in the world of retiree footballers. After a year in Turin, Platt earned another lucrative transfer to Sampdoria, where he played with relative distinction for two seasons before heeding the call of Highbury and its famous marble halls.
At roughly the same time that Platt left Sampdoria, a young Frenchman named Patrick Vieira signed for AC Milan from AS Cannes. Already showing huge potential as an ambitious, fierce and aggressive midfielder, he joined up with the Rossoneri at a time when they were domestically dominant and had won their most recent European Cup only a couple of seasons before. Much like Platt, he found himself competing with a plethora of established stars, not least Demetrio Albertini, Massimo Ambrosini, and Marcel Desailly in his days as a defensive midfielder. Having held down a starting berth at Cannes, Vieira soon became frustrated with only a handful of first-team appearances, and was unsatisfied with a season largely spent featuring for Milan's reserves.
Wanting to ensure his place in the France squad for the 1998 World Cup, Vieira was receptive to the overtures of Arsene Wenger. Before he had officially been announced as the new Arsenal manager, Wenger manoeuvred for Vieira to be signed as an absolute priority for the club, who duly fended off interest from Ajax to secure his coveted signature. No doubt when he arrived in North London he exchanged stories of Serie A with Platt, with whom he struck up a professional relationship that would be rekindled at Manchester City a decade and a half later. While Vieira represented a different direction in the midfield that didn't necessarily accommodate Platt – something that surely contributed to the Englishman's departure after three seasons in 1998 – they still had some memorable moments together on the pitch, not least their famous showing against Manchester United in November 1997.
Note Platt and Vieira celebrating after the latter's thumping goal
Speaking to Arsenal TV in 2016, Vieira gave a telling insight into how his time with Milan improved him as a player. "It was unbelievable," he said of his time at the San Siro. "I was looking around in the dressing room and I said: 'What am I doing here?'" While playing alongside a host of Serie A legends may have been overwhelming, it also reminded him that he "had it all to prove and all to do". What's more, there were crucial elements of their game that rubbed off on him. "Fabio Capello was the manager and when he was doing his tactical training, I was always going behind Marcel Desailly or Demetrio Albertini, so I learned my movement on the pitch from them."
Though Vieira may not have broken through with the Rossoneri, he clearly gleaned technical and tactical benefits from his stay in Milan which he carried with him through the rest of his career. Had he not experienced an abortive spell in Serie A so early on, it's feasible that he would never have reached the heights he did with Arsenal, nor brought quite the same dynamism to the Invincibles' midfield. The same might be said of Dennis Bergkamp's unique cultivation of the forward role in England, the roots of which went back to his unhappy stint with Inter Milan. Though Bergkamp faced bitter criticism from fans and the media throughout his two seasons in Italy, he too has credited his time in Serie A as teaching him tactical awareness, resourcefulness, initiative and, perhaps most importantly, more about himself.
When Bergkamp signed for Inter in 1993, he was one of the hottest properties in European football. Unlike Vieira, he had already achieved much in the game, even if he was still only 23 years of age. Having come through the youth ranks at Ajax and made his senior bow in 1986, the Dutchman had scored 122 goals over seven full seasons in Amsterdam, winning the Eredivisie, European Cup Winners' Cup and UEFA Cup along the way. By the early nineties, on the back of several sparkling performances at Euro '92, he was reportedly being courted by Real Madrid and Barcelona, with his close mentor Johan Cruyff unsurprisingly advising him to wait for an offer from the latter. Bergkamp plumped for Inter, however, with the hierarchy of the Nerazzurri promising him expansive, attacking football tailored to suit him.
When Bergkamp arrived in Italy, signed for £7,100,000 along with Ajax teammate Wim Jonk, the reality at Inter turned out to be rather different. Squeezed into an unfamiliar front three by manager Osvaldo Bagnoli, the new signing looked unusually laboured as the team lurched towards the wrong end of Serie A. Soon enough, Bagnoli was sacked, with Inter going on to avoid the drop by a single point, finishing a lowly 13th. It is a testament to Bergkamp's genius that he nevertheless managed 25 goals in all competitions that season, as Inter won the UEFA Cup to assuage their difficulties in the league.
This didn't save Bergkamp from the wrath of the Italian press, who criticised everything from his lifestyle to his body language. In a second season blighted by injury and poor form, one Italian paper famously renamed their 'L'Asino Della Settimana' (or 'Donkey of the Week') Award to 'Bergkamp Della Settimana', which most would agree was a spiteful touch. Accordingly, when Bruce Rioch came along with a £7,500,000 offer for Bergkamp, both he and the club were more than happy to facilitate the move. Though it would be Arsene Wenger, as opposed to Rioch, who would see the greatest return for that money, Bergkamp's transfer to Arsenal would of course precipitate a decade of unprecedented success.
While Bergkamp's time in Serie A must have been far more disheartening than Vieira's experience, the Dutchman has spoken about what the league taught him in even more emphatic terms. In an interview with Four Four Two in 2011, Bergkamp said: "Italy was good for my development. I learned to be more professional, learned to play against two or three defenders, and learned to play with players who are there for themselves rather than for the team." While this final remark was most likely a barb intended for former Nerazzurri teammate Ruben Sosa, a fellow striker with whom Bergkamp apparently struggled to get on, the basic upshot of his comments was that Serie A made him a better footballer. Much like it did with Vieira, Italian calcio helped Bergkamp to hone his technical abilities and finer skills.
In another revealing admission from that same interview, Bergkamp compared the openness of Dutch football to the greater defensive rigours of Italy. "At Ajax you knew you'd get five chances a game," he said, "While at Inter you were lucky if you got one." This perhaps explains how the 'Iceman' perfected his frosty finishing abilities, appreciating as he did the value of a good opening. After pitting himself against tight-fisted centre-backs like Ciro Ferrara, Alessandro Costacurta and Paolo Maldini, it's no surprise that Premier League defences marshalled by Phil Babb and Neil 'Razor' Ruddock seemed ludicrously generous to him.
While Bergkamp was being tested at Inter, Jens Lehmann was establishing himself as one of the most promising young goalkeepers in Germany, winning the UEFA Cup with Schalke and earning his reputation as a maverick between the sticks. What many forget is that Lehmann himself had an ill-fated stay in Serie A, joining AC Milan in 1998 but lasting only a single campaign. In an echo of future madcap moments, he was heavily criticised for a game against Fiorentina when he conceded a hat-trick to Gabriel Batistuta, with one of the goals a free kick from five yards after Lehmann had unthinkingly handled a back pass. Lehmann was fallible throughout the match, and after several other high-profile howlers his early exit from Italy was sealed.
Whether Lehmann ever really took in the essential lessons from his time in Italy – and, lest we forget, another highly fallible performance eight years later suggests he did not – he only added to the Invincibles' pool of useful Serie A experience. Kanu is another Arsenal star whose Serie A career is often overlooked, with the erratic and yet brilliant Nigerian making barely two dozen appearances for Inter between 1996 and 1999. While Kanu only played a cameo role in the Invincibles season, making a mere 10 appearances in the league that year, his unpredictable genius was still a feature of Arsenal's irresistible forward line. That said, his contribution can hardly be compared to that of perhaps the greatest of Arsenal's Italian rejects, and a man who scored a majestic 30 goals that campaign.
Before Thierry Henry signed for Arsenal in the summer of 1999, he had gone through a chastening eight-month spell with Marcello Lippi and then Carlo Ancelotti at Juventus. While Arsenal had been in for him the previous year, leading him to describe the North London outfit as his "dream club", Monaco's asking price was considered too high and so the Bianconeri swooped. Having just won the World Cup with France, Henry linked up with Didier Deschamps and Zinedine Zidane in what was a markedly Francophile Juve team. If it was hoped that the presence of his compatriots would help the young striker settle in, however, the French connection never quite had the desired effect.
Even more so than Bergkamp before him, Henry struggled to adapt to Serie A. He was used sparingly by both Lippi and Ancelotti, making only 19 appearances and scoring a meagre three goals. Neither manager was entirely convinced that Henry could play through the middle, with Ancelotti later divulging that failing to cultivate Henry as a striker was one of his biggest regrets as a manager. The Frenchman spent his Juve career on the left wing, lacking for both form and confidence during a season in which the Bianconeri would finish seventh.
In Philippe Auclair's book Thierry Henry: Lonely at the Top, the prudence of Juve signing Henry in the first place is questioned, with Auclair pointing to the fierce competition he faced from, amongst others, Gianluca Zambrotta and Alessandro Del Piero, and writing: "the more one looked into it, the less one could see how and where the young Frenchman would slot in." While Henry no doubt learned new skills while covering Juventus' left flank, there were many who wondered aloud at the time whether he would ever find his natural place in the team. Still, it is not necessarily the spatial and positional awareness he took away from Italy that most benefitted him, but rather the maturation of his outlook. When speaking about his impressions of the young Henry, Wenger seems most often to mention his appetite for success and his desire to win.
Often presented as a sulky character by the Italian press during his time in Serie A, the attitude Henry showed on his arrival at Arsenal was one of consummate professional hunger. Though he took a few games to get going in his new role as an out-and-out striker, he had soon set about proving that Juve had failed to utilise the best of his skills. In hindsight, the taste of rejection in Serie A was the making of Henry as a player more than perhaps any of his contemporaries. It spurred him on to greatness at Arsenal, and gave him the insatiable need for victory that made him an inherent part of the Invincibles mentality and the spearhead of that unbeaten team.
For Henry, Vieira and Bergkamp and especially, failure in Serie A was the prelude to Premier League immortality. Italian football not only shaped them as players, but also proved to be a formative experience which saw them transcend their status as callow young men. While Vieira would eventually return to Italy, swapping Arsenal for Juventus before the Calciopoli scandal catapulted him back to Milan with Inter, the other two would never again play in the country that had helped to define them. That will always be a great loss for Italian football, just as their departure will always be to Arsenal's gain.