Friday, November 6, 2009
ESPNsoccernet: December 16, 5:06 PM UK
Patrick Vieira: He came from Senegal...
As French Revolutions go, Arsene Wenger's transformation of Arsenal in 1996 was decidedly less brutal than its 1789 predecessor. But at the beating heart of a side that espoused the values of a liberated style of football was a totemic figure who struck fear into the hearts of opponents thanks to his formidable talent and fiery competitiveness. That man was Patrick Vieira.
A born leader, who combined his authority off the pitch with technical superiority on it, Vieira was the driving force behind an Arsenal side that, under Wenger's careful tutelage, produced some of the most spellbinding football that England has ever seen. Whether steaming into a tackle, launching a counter-attack by stealing possession, distributing the ball with aplomb or putting a classy finishing touch to a move himself, Vieira was a consummate midfielder and a true Premier League hero.
Born in Senegal (a fact that did not escape his nemesis Roy Keane, but more on that later), Vieira moved to France as a child and his first club was Cannes. In the south-east corner of his adopted home country, Vieira was quickly identified as a player of some talent and he was named club captain at the age of just 19.
This early promise resulted in a move to AC Milan in 1995, but Vieira's career stalled in the Italian fashion capital as a restrictive ruling on foreign players meant that the more glamorous quartet of Marcel Desailly, Zvonimir Boban, George Weah and Dejan Savicevic were allowed to show their stuff under Fabio Capello. Vieira made only two appearances.
But a studious compatriot managing in Japan had not forgotten the leggy midfielder from Cannes and, as negotiations continued over whether he would take the Arsenal job, Wenger urged the Highbury hierarchy to prepare for his arrival by recruiting Vieira for £3.5 million. Indeed, the midfielder made his Arsenal debut before the formal arrival of the man who was to become his mentor and it was a performance full of endeavour and promise that was permanently etched into the minds of many an observer, this correspondent included.
Rapidly securing a place in the first XI, Vieira was to truly rise to prominence the following season - Wenger's first full campaign - as he struck up an immediate and intuitive rapport with Emmanuel Petit following his fellow Frenchman's arrival from Monaco. The two were very distinctive characters - Petit's flamboyance in contrast with Vieira's focused calm, the former excelling in the long ball and the latter dominating in tight positions - but together they helped Arsenal secure their first Double since 1971, as well as combining to good effect in France's victory in the 1998 World Cup final as Petit scored his country's third goal.
But while it was Petit who started the game alongside Zinedine Zidane, Christian Karembeu and Didier Deschamps in the France midfield, Vieira was clearly the senior partner at club level. The Eric Morecambe to Petit's Ernie Wise. With his telescopic legs, brutish physical presence and excellent close control, Vieira was able to bend a game to his will and his poise on the ball meant he rarely gifted possession, particularly when flicking the ball over his head, spinning around and leaving his marker for dead.
Petit departed for Barcelona in the summer of 2000 and, for a few tense days, it appeared as though Vieira would be following him out of the Highbury exit door. In a clear indication of the stigma of indiscipline that had attached itself to the Frenchman, he was dismissed in the opening two games of the 2000-01 season, leading him to question his future in England. This damaging reputation was well-deserved though. An infamous incident in October 1999 saw him dismissed for a tackle on Neil Ruddock and then accrue a further four-match ban for disgracefully spitting at the West Ham defender.
Having stayed in North London, and with his influence growing by the season, Vieira secured another Double in 2002, but despite the efforts of Edu and Ray Parlour, the Frenchman was still seeking a regular partner to dovetail alongside him. When that man did arrive in the summer of 2002, it was the unassuming figure of the quiet Brazilian, Gilberto Silva, fresh from Brazil's triumph at the World Cup finals in Japan and South Korea. It was a partnership around which the greatest team in the club's history would revolve.
With Vieira a natural choice to be named as club captain following the retirement of Tony Adams, the 2002-03 season was a difficult one for Arsenal. Leading going into the final straight, a late collapse handed the title to Manchester United. Their pain was only partly assuaged by a 1-0 victory over Southampton in the 2003 FA Cup final. Vieira missed the game due to injury but both he and David Seaman, captain for the day, lifted the trophy at the Millennium Stadium.
A growing unbeaten record at the start of the 2003-04 season was placed in jeopardy during a dramatic 0-0 draw at Old Trafford when Ruud van Nistelrooy missed a penalty - with Vieira sent off again for clashing with the striker - but fulfilling the prediction of their manager 12 months previously, Arsenal became the first team in the modern era to go an entire league campaign unbeaten. The highlight coming at the home of bitter rivals Tottenham Hotspur on April 24 when a 2-2 draw handed Arsenal their third title under Wenger, Vieira completing a lovely flowing move for the opener. In its conception and execution, the goal was typical of an Arsenal side that had sauntered their way to the title with some panache, with Vieira starring alongside Robert Pires and Thierry Henry.
The next season, Arsenal would extend their unbeaten run to 49 games, surpassing the tally set by Brian Clough's Nottingham Forest, before suffering the psychological trauma of missing out on the 50 landmark following a controversial defeat at Old Trafford. Their next league meeting with United would be a memorable one indeed for Vieira. When the two teams convened in the tunnel at Highbury on February 1, 2005, an extraordinary row erupted between those two old combatants, Keane and Vieira. His finger jabbing in Vieira's direction, Keane went after the Frenchman following a perceived slight against Gary Neville and the two had to be pulled apart, the Irishman questioning loudly why Vieira did not represent his home country of Senegal. That the incident was captured on television made it all the more incendiary and Keane's act of intimidation clearly paid dividends when United won 4-2 en route to recapturing the title.
Although they surrendered the league that season, Arsenal were to triumph over United in the 2005 FA Cup final. It was Vieira who stepped up to take the deciding penalty in the shoot-out and buried his effort in a decisive act that was to prove his final one for the club. Perennial rumours of a possible departure for one of Europe's biggest sides reached a crescendo and after much deliberation from both player and manager, a bid of £13.75 million from Juventus was accepted.
After nine years of sterling service, 402 appearances, three league titles and four FA Cup triumphs, Arsenal's captain left Highbury's marbled halls to consternation amongst the club's support. They were not forced to wait long for his return when, the following season, Vieira's Juventus were drawn against Arsenal in the Champions League. The wisdom of selling such a strong individual had been widely questioned but his return perhaps demonstrated that Wenger had cut his losses at the right time. Dispossessed on the half-way line by that renowned midfield battler Robert Pires, Vieira could only watch as Cesc Fabregas, the talented Spaniard whose promise convinced Wenger that Vieira's time was up, scored the opening goal.
Although Vieira went on to win Serie A with Juve (before the title was rescinded due to match-fixing), and three successive Scudetto titles with Inter, the suspicion remains that he has not been the same player since leaving North London. Indeed the same could be said of Arsenal. The club have not won a trophy since Vieira's penalty against United and although it would be too simplistic to attribute recent failings to the absence of their former captain, what is not in doubt is that he left a chasm in the dressing room that the club have struggled to fill since.
Four-and-a-half years since his exit, Arsenal have a new group of heroes, spearheaded by Vieira's successor in the midfield and eventual successor as captain, Fabregas. But debate never ceases over whether Arsenal require a Vieira-style presence in midfield, most notably when the possibility of the former captain returning to Arsenal was publically opened by Wenger last summer.
While he did not arrive at the Emirates Stadium, his name is synonymous with the final, glorious years of Highbury and such is Vieira's legacy at Arsenal, his famous song still rings out around the new stadium on a regular basis as the more vocal elements of the support hail their former heroes. That he occupies pride of place alongside Dennis Bergkamp, Tony Adams, Ian Wright and Thierry Henry is testament enough to the huge impact that the midfielder made during his time in the Premier League.