Alexander Hleb might not be the first name that springs to mind when you think of the 2006 Arsenal team which came so close to winning the first Champions League trophy in club’s history.
But it was Arsenal where the versatile Belarusian midfielder played the best football in his career – and eventually earned himself a £12million move to Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona in the summer of 2008.
Yet what would be a dream move for most players turned out to be an utter disaster for Hleb, who spent just one year at Barcelona before leaving loan to Stuttgart and never returning to Spain.
“It’s still difficult for me to explain why I left Arsenal,” Hleb says. “I was absolutely happy there. Arsene completely trusted me, it was idyllic. And then I decided to leave.
“I was on vacation and agents and managers convinced me that I had to go to Barcelona. To be honest, I didn’t really understand what I was doing. At some point, I realised, ‘Oh god! I’m leaving Arsenal!’
“When Arsene said that it was a matter of hours, I felt devastated. It was really hard for me to accept that. Wenger did everything to make me stay at Arsenal.
“He even texted me as I was fishing. ‘Alex, I won’t let you go, we need you here.’ I cried when I read it.”
Hleb reckons he is one of many players who’ve regretted leaving Arsenal and Wenger behind over the years, but his relationship with the Gunners boss survived the transfer.
“Yes, we even met in Minsk a few months ago when Arsenal played against BATE in the Champions League,” Hleb says. “Wenger is like a father to me. It was really easy to work with him, you always felt his support.
“During my first season in England, I picked up in injury while playing for the national team. So, as I was trying to recover from it, I told Arsene that maybe it would make sense to send me on loan to Germany or something.
“He was like, ‘Stop it! I believe in you! Don’t even think about things like that.’ Honestly? I just flew out of the room. It really felt like I had wings.
“Arsene truly feels his players. He says exactly what a player needs to hear. I think there are very few guys who might say that they haven’t enjoyed working with him. Everyone felt like they would get a chance. And I think most players who left ultimately regretted it.”
Hleb moved from Stuttgart to Arsenal in 2005, a year after the Invincibles wrote their way into Premier League folklore.
It would have been hard for anyone to get into a starting XI featuring players like Thierry Henry, Robert Pires and Dennis Bergkamp, but a 24-year-old Belarusian who didn’t have any Premier League experience and couldn’t understand a word of English? Imagine that.
“When I first came to London, the first team was still on vacation because they finished the season a bit later than I did in Germany,” Hleb says. “So, during my first days at Arsenal, I was mainly surrounded by youngsters.
“Everything was great although I got really upset when I found out that Patrick Vieira was leaving. I mean, I just came there and one of the greats was already on his way out.
“Then the first team came in, but I couldn’t speak to anyone because I didn’t know English! And all the main guys spoke either English or French. The only two players I could really chat with were Jens Lehmann who obviously spoke German and Philippe Senderos who spoke six languages.
“Then the club gave me a teacher and it all worked out well, but I definitely had to train very hard because Premier League football was extremely intensive, much more intensive than it was in Bundesliga.
“We played one-touch football and you had to make a decision before you even got the ball. You need time to adapt to that. Fortunately, I had Arsene who really believed in me so after six months or so I felt completely settled and ready to go.”