A tribute to Patrick Vieira, Midfield Colossus

Hello one and all. Little bit of bonus reading for you today – I wrote the blow piece for former Arsenal player Danny Karbassiyoon’s new website Soccer Without Limits. Be sure to check it out – there are some excellent pieces on a few other Arsenal legends available too.

I’ll be back soon with an FA Cup Preview. Till then.

“Why, man, he doth bestride the narrow world
Like a Colossus, and we petty men
Walk under his huge legs and peep about
To find ourselves dishonourable graves.”
William Shakespeare; Julius Caesar; Act I Scene II

It was September 1996. Arsenal were trailing 1-0 to Sheffield Wednesday, and midfield dynamo Ray Parlour was struggling with injury. In his stead, caretaker manager Pat Rice turned to a gangly twenty-year old debutant. Before full-time, I had a new favourite Arsenal player.

Patrick Vieira was unlike anyone I’d seen before in an Arsenal shirt. He was tall with a lean build, yet capable of surprising bursts of power. Most strikingly, he was hugely technically accomplished.

His impact at Arsenal was immediate. I remember one of his early starts at Ewood Park when he took Blackburn apart, playing a one-two with Paul Merson and slipping in Ian Wright with a nonchalant swing of his right foot. In the course of that move, Vieira travelled fully 50 yards in a matter of seconds. Arsenal had a player who could defend, attack, and crucially manage the moment of footballing alchemy which allowed him to transition instantaneously between the two.

Arsene Wenger had some idea what he was getting. Prior to taking the reigns at Arsenal, he insisted the club went ahead and bought Vieira from AC Milan, where his career was in danger of stagnation. Wenger had witnessed Vieira’s emergence in the French league, where another of his key qualities had become evident: he was a born leader. Vieira captained Cannes while still in his teens.

It was in summer 1997 that Vieira’s Arsenal career really took off. Arsene brought in Emmanuel Petit from Monaco, and that pair dove-tailed beautifully. I have not seen a better midfield partnership anywhere in football. Both were such complete footballers, able to defend and attack in equal measure. Arsene’s later switch to using three central midfielders is the ultimate compliment to the Vieira-Petit axis: without them, he had to add another player to match their influence.

That season brought the first silverware of Vieira’s time at the club, as the club captured a historic double. They would be the first trophies of many. Vieira’s time at the club is synonymous with glory. He was the figurehead of the first half of Arsene Wenger’s reign. Between his debut in 1996 and his final appearance in 2005 he was a key figure in lifting three Premier League trophies and four FA Cups. Throughout that period, there were many stars: Thierry Henry, Dennis Bergkamp, Sol Campbell and more. Vieira was the constant. He was the beating heart of the side from the moment he first pulled on the shirt.

And he had so much heart. Vieira was a fighter – sometimes literally. His disciplinary problems became infamous, but they showed an inherent battling spirit. It has become de riguer to lament the modern Arsenal’s lack of leadership and fight on the pitch, but in his day Vieira was a true general.

The driving narrative of the early part of Arsene’s reign was the rivalry with Manchester United, and at the very core of that was the battle between Vieira and Roy Keane. These were two of the great players of their era, both driven by a desire for supremacy that spilled over in to antipathy. When they weren’t scrapping on the pitch, they were scrapping in the tunnel.

It was tense, but it was also hugely entertaining. The Premier League has become a very sterilised environment, but here were two players who plainly didn’t like each other and made absolutely no secret of the fact. Thankfully, these were the days before an enforced handshake before the game.

Picking out individual highlights for Vieira is difficult. He was the engine in so many fantastic team performances, and was a fundamentally selfless player. Take a look at perhaps the most memorable goal of the last twenty years at Arsenal: Dennis Bergkamp’s pirouette and finish at St. James’ Park. Watch that goal again, and Vieira’s contribution to a sweeping move immediately becomes clear. There is an outstretched left leg to take the ball from his opponent, then an instant burst of acceleration beyond three Newcastle midfielders. Suddenly, Arsenal are in space and have launched an attack.

That was Vieira’s most remarkable gift. The ability to win the ball and begin a counter-attack in the same motion. Arsene Wenger has a habit of talking about Jack Wilshere’s “little burst”. Vieira had a big burst, and it was devastating.

The greatest insult to Vieira’s legacy is that he is remembered by some as purely a destroyer. That’s nonsense: he was as elegant as he was aggressive. Watching Vieira lift the ball over an opposing player’s head, saunter round him and collect it on the other side was an awe-inspiring experience.

Vieira’s reputation is tainted for some by the fact that in several consecutive summers he agitated for a move away from the club. I prefer to remember the fact that he stayed until his peak was past. I saw him play games with his knee strapped and clearly causing him enormous pain, but his determination to win remained absolute. He suffered for the cause.

Vieira joined as just another player, and left as an icon. Like his international colleague Claude Makelele, his name became short-hand for the complete midfielder: any tall athletic midfielder is liable to be labelled as a “Vieira-type”. Such comparisons flatter these players, and yet they persist. One wonders if Arsene Wenger’s continuing patience with the injury-prone Abou Diaby is borne out of a desperate hope that Diaby could be the closest thing to a reincarnation of Vieira’s brilliance.

Any such hopes are false: I don’t think we will ever see the likes of Patrick Vieira again. He was a one-off, and I’m glad I was around to enjoy him.

 

Gunnerblog is the brainchild of childbrained football writer James McNicholas. Aside from Gunnerblog, James currently contributes to Bleacher Report, The Mirror and ESPN.