Part of the French Revolution that unfolded at Arsenal under the guidance of Arsene Wenger, Patrick Vieira is probably at the peak of Wenger’s greatest transfer coups after being plucked from AC Milan’s reserves for £3.5m in 1996. With his leggy dashes, brutish frame and tremendous close control, the central midfielder was able to mould a match to his will and his equanimity on the ball meant he rarely gifted possession. There have been many naturally talented footballers, but what makes a player ‘great’ – a word that is tiresomely overused in modern society – is the stage in which his art is performed. Vieira was a big-name, big-game player who exerted sweat and flair when it really mattered. His battles with Manchester United’s Roy Keane were belligerent displays of two men at war. Much like the rivalry between Sir Alex Ferguson and Wenger, they loathed one another, but a profusion of mutual respect was evident.
If you were heading for the trenches of Old Trafford, you wanted Vieira rallying the troops, excelling individually and inspiring collectively. If Vieira was the hero through the eyes of a Gunners fan, then Keane was the pantomime villain. Keane’s physicality stemmed from the brain – a nurtured defence mechanism that made up for his average height – while Vieira’s physicality was unconcealed and palpable on the surface. The way in which he could barge his way through a forest of players was matched by no-one else in the world. Nevertheless, his ire did get the better of him in his early Arsenal years. He was sent off in the first two matches of the 2000/01 season, but his self-discipline improved dramatically when he was given the captain’s armband after Tony Adams’ retirement in 2002.
Centre-midfield, although not as illustrious in tradition as the centre-forward, is arguably the most influential position on the pitch. Despite the vividness that graced the Old Trafford turf in the 90s and 00s, would Manchester United have been the dominant force without Roy Keane? Equally, would Liverpool have got anywhere near the 2005 Champions League Final without Steven Gerrard? World Player of the Year Lionel Messi gets the lion’s share of the plaudits at the Nou Camp and what imbecile would protest his adulation. But would Barcelona’s recent acclaim been possible without the orchestration provided by Xavi in the engine room?
Abou Diaby’s bustling runs have recently been likened to Vieira, but his valiant marches through opponents have been far less frequent and he does not flex the defensive expertise of his predecessor. Vieira’s imposing figure was not at the expense of pace. His gangly legs allowed him to get from A to B in fewer steps than the average player and his tackling range was vast, with his long-limbs equipped to reach balls that seemed to be beyond him. Leggy footballers can sometimes look awkward but the Senegalese-born France international coupled the grace and guile of a gazelle with the heart and desire of a Trojan, disinclined to be easy-feeding for his opponent. He did not have easy shoes to fill in the captaincy department, as his predecessor – ex England captain Adams – illustrated the leadership virtues and adoration for his club that John Terry portrays at Chelsea. Vieira’s installation as captain denoted a dramatic reduction in English performers at Arsenal, as home-grown stalwarts like Adams, David Seaman, Martin Keown and Ian Wright began to fade into history. The lack of English players under the Wenger commandment continues to attract disparagement.
Analogous to Cesc Fabregas’ role at the Emirates today – although the individuals are divergent in style and structure – Vieira was the conductor of the team. Wenger has always promoted equality and a flat hierarchy in his squad but the teams that the Frenchman has moulded have always had a pinnacle performer – a player who supplies the heartbeat. Before Fabregas there was Henry. Before Vieira there was Bergkamp. There is no coincidence that the aforementioned names have all adorned the captain’s armband. Wenger has been criticised for a lack of genuine leadership since Vieira’s departure, but he likes personal performance to act as his skipper’s chief tool of commandment.
Vieira did not feature regularly on the Arsenal scoresheet, but he was a tidy finisher when he occasionally galloped into the opposition’s penalty area. Also capable of unleashing a powerful long-distance shot, he formed a tremendous partnership with Emmanuel Petit at both domestic and international level. The rise of Vieira was contemporaneous with Arsenal’s double winning seasons of 1997/98 and 2001/02, and in 2003/04 he captained the side on a momentous unbeaten season in the Premier League. Arsenal’s style of football remained technically superior and romantically dominant following his exit, but replacing the sheer physical presence and leadership of the talismanic Frenchman was not a straightforward task. Sparkling under a meticulous manager and born with a combatant frame, the fruitful marriage between nature and nurture lends itself to Vieira’s je ne sais quoi.
Name – Patrick Vieira
Age – 33(23 June 1976)
Position – Centre-midfield
Clubs – Cannes, AC Milan, Arsenal, Juventus, Internazionale
Club level honours – Premier League (1997/98, 2001/02, 2003/04),FA Cup (1998, 2002, 2003, 2005), FA Community Shield (1998, 1999, 2002, 2004), Serie A (2005/06 – Trophy revoked due to Calciopoli scandal – 2006/07, 2007/08, 2008/09) Italian Super Cup (2006, 2008)
Nationality – French
Caps/Goals – 107/6
National honours – FIFA World Cup (1998), UEFA European Championship (2000), FIFA Confederations Cup (2001)