After former Gunner Alexander Hleb joined Genclerbirligi on transfer deadline day, we pulled an interview with the Belarus midfielder about his time in north London from our archives. This piece first appeared in the Arsenal Magazine in June 2010.
Alexander Hleb arrived at Arsenal in 2005, after setting the Bundesliga alight with some dazzling displays for Stuttgart.
After taking a while to adapt to the tempo of the English game, he went on to make his mark as a wonderfully skilful and energetic attacking midfielder, blessed with marvellous close control, whose versatility allowed him to operate on either flank or through the middle.
"My time at Arsenal was without a shadow of a doubt the best three years of my career"
The Belarusian left to join Barcelona at the end of the 2007/08 season, arguably when he was just finding his most potent form for the Gunners. By his own admission he has struggled to rediscover such a strong sense of well-being on the football pitch since.
The path from north London to Catalunya has become a well-trodden one over the last decade. Emmanuel Petit, Marc Overmars, Sylvinho, Gio van Bronkhorst and most recently Thierry Henry have all also made the switch to the Camp Nou in recent years; by and large it has proven to be a tough transition, which was the case for Alex Hleb, who struggled to establish himself in Pep Guardiola’s first team, and spent the last season on loan back at Stuttgart.
In a frank interview with Dan Brennan, Alex, then 28, looks back with great fondness on his time at Arsenal, describing it as the pinnacle of his career to date. And he expresses the hope that former Arsenal teammates – including close friend Cesc Fabregas – who have been linked with moves away, stay put at the Emirates, where, says Alex, Arsenal are on the cusp of achieving something great.
You spent the last season on loan from Barcelona at Stuttgart, the club from which you joined Arsenal and where you first made your name. How has the club, and the Bundesliga in general, changed during the five years that you were away?
A lot has changed. The level of the Stuttgart team at the moment is a lot lower than the one I played in during my original spell there. Frankly I felt it would be a good move as I was always at home in Germany, and I wanted to return to my roots so to speak; but I was disappointed by what I found. These days the style and level of play mean that it’s all about running and chasing. We used to play a neat one-touch game, and there was a high level of understanding between the players. But I can’t complain. It was my decision. It turned out to be the wrong one. As for the Bundesliga in general, I’d say that there are currently three teams in Germany which play at a high level: Bayern Munich, Hamburg and Bayer Leverkusen.
Two years on, how do you look back on your three seasons with Arsenal?
My time in England, and at Arsenal, was without a shadow of a doubt the best three years of my career. I’ll never forget my three years there: Arsène Wenger, Boro [Primorac], the support I received at the club, the confidence that was placed in me – it all added up to my best experience in football, and Arsenal has a special place in my heart. I still make a point of watching their games when I can, and I care about their results.
What do you think the current Arsenal side needs in order to push on to the next level and put some more silverware in the trophy cabinet?
Me! [laughs] But seriously, I’d say it’s just a case of the fact that they have a lot of young players who are still developing, but they have huge potential. Occasionally you felt that in the big matches there was something missing – calm, stability perhaps – but you also have to remember they were very unlucky with injuries throughout the season. So, all in all, I thought they were unlucky not to win something this season – I was desperately keen for them to do so. They had a big chance and it’s a shame it didn’t happen. But next season I think they will have an even better chance.
What are your favourite memories of your time at Arsenal?
Where to start? The squad, the atmosphere, the pleasure I used to get whenever I went out onto the pitch at the Emirates, the style of football, the fans – all of these were unforgettable and will stay in my heart forever. I mean that sincerely.
Do you still stay in touch with any of your former Arsenal teammates? As I recall you were particularly close to Cesc Fabregas and Tomas Rosicky?
Yes, I stay in touch with Cesc a lot, we always try to talk after we’ve had a game.
The English media has been full of stories suggesting that other Arsenal players may follow your path and move to Barcelona. What advice would you give them?
That’s hard for me to judge. They are very good players who must take their own decisions about their future. But I would advise them to stay. Arsenal are a great side, they play great football. It didn’t work out for them this season, but if Arsène Wenger manages to keep the side together, they can really go far and win the title next year. It’s partly a question of experience and next season they will have more experience. All things being equal, I think they have a very good chance of the title next season.
The Premier League likes to think of itself as the best in Europe, a claim which La Liga also makes for itself. As someone who has played in both recently, what’s your view?
In Spain, not many of the other teams can live with Barcelona and Madrid, and you know it’s going to be a two-horse race for the title these days. In England, I’d say increasingly, there are more teams in with a chance of the title, and every other team can surprise you. You don’t see too many 5-0 walkovers in England. The games are always properly contested until the last minute. On top of that, I’d also say that the Premier League is the most entertaining to watch.
You remain a Barcelona player, but there has been plenty of speculation about a return to England. Is that something that you would like? Do you have a clear idea where you will be next season?
Well, it’s not something I can really comment on right now. For the moment I remain a Barcelona player, I’ll be going back to Spain to sit down and talk about my future, and then we’ll see what happens.
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