Alex Hleb says he’s still not sure why he quit Arsenal to move to Barcelona and admits he cried on receiving a desperate message from Arsene Wenger calling on him to stay at the Emirates.
The Belarussian joined the Gunners from Stuttgart in 2005 and became an integral part of the club’s midfield as they made the Champions League final in 2006 and challenged for the Premier League title in 2007/08.
Pep Guardiola went on to make the playmaker his first signing at Barcelona in a deal that earned Arsenal £12 million. Hleb’s time in Spain was to prove unhappy as language issues hit his confidence.
After one year he returned to Stuttgart on loan and then spent subsequent loans at Birmingham City and Wolfsburg. At 36 he’s currently without a club but still interested in continuing his playing career.
“It’s still difficult for me to explain why I left Arsenal,” Hleb told Planet Football.
“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 also revealed that Arsene Wenger was a paternalistic figure from the moment he arrived at London Colney, convincing him that he could make it as a top player at a big European club.
“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.”
It’s well worth reading the full interview with Planet Football in which Hleb talks about his time in Spain, living in Thierry Henry’s house, why he fell out with Pep Guardiola and a bit more on his Arsenal regret.