Since 2004-05 we have witnessed two types of disappointments. Firstly the years without trophies despite the fact that we have played trophy-worth games on four occasions (Community Shield 2005, League Cup 2006, 2011 and, the most important one, Champions’ League 2006) only to end on the losing side with an identical scoreline – 2:1. The second might have been one of the reasons for the lack of silverware – our armband has been passed around too many arms in the previous 8 seasons.
The wandering destiny of our armband have caused people to make sour jokes about how we should have made Squillaci or Chamakh as our captain in order to lose them ASAP. Here are the stories of our recent captains and this time it’s going to be about the man who is an non-disputable Arsenal legend, one of the greatest players our club have had, the man whose departure started the whole armband curse.
Arsenal Fact File:
Name: Patrick Vieira
Born: June 23, 1976, Dakar, Senegal
Position: Defensive midfielder, midfielder (center)
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Previous Club(s): AS Cannes, AC Milan, Arsenal FC, Juventus Torino, Internazionale, Manchester City (now retired)
Joined Arsenal: August 14, 1996
Left Arsenal: 2005
Total Appearances: 349+8
Total Goals: 33
Total Assists: 11
They say that number “13” is unlucky but in my case it turned out to be good. My 13th birthday was the first I celebrated after the war in Bosnia ended and that was also the day when Patrick Vieira (20), a very talented defensive midfielder, signed for Arsenal. I heard about Vieira a year before when he was given the armband at AS Cannes by Safet Sušić (who is now in charge of the Bosnian national team) and I knew that he had to be something special if he deserved such a privilege despite his age. He struggled at AC Milan but it was logical given the fact that the Italian giants went through rough times after Fabio Capello had left for the green pastures of Real Madrid. Milan were struck with a lot of problems and signing millions of players that didn’t leave their mark at San Siro didn’t help at all and, in that situation, it’s no wonder that Vieira’s arrival into the best league in the world back then didn’t turn out to be a good piece of business for either side.
Vieira was the real pioneer of the French revolution at Arsenal in the middle of the nineties. His physical abilities would be an asset on their own even let alone his technical abilities as well. If Bergkamp was the pepper of Arsenal game, than Vieira was the salt – those two ingredients gave our game taste and spice. He was capable of both tackling and passing the ball forward. Vieira imposed himself as a real class in the first season despite the fact Gunners didn’t reach the Champions’ League due to having three goals less than Newcastle’s goal-difference. Poor results against title rivals FAnchester United, Liverpool and Newcastle (only one victory in six matches with all three rivals winning at Highbury) made the difference.
Vieira’s first full season at Highbury was fantastic. The arrival of Emmanuel Petit, who played as a central defender at French champions AS Monaco, meant more for Vieira than anyone could guess. Petit and Vieira formed a strong partnership in the midfield that made our recognizable defensive line even stronger. Vieira scored a brilliant goal against main rivals for the title FAnchester United in the 3:2 victory at Highbury and, although glimpse of his discipline problems or, maybe even more precise, his problems with referees in England, started to show (Vieira received 9 red cards during his Arsenal career). He was an integral part of the team that won the first double in the Wenger-era despite a huge advantage FAnchester United had. Arsenal made a second consecutive victory over United thanks to the goal of Marc Overmars and that turned out to be the crucial victory for the Gunners who never looked back. That season ended in a perfect way for Vieira as he won the 1998 World Cup with France and it was his pass that Emmanuel Petit sent past Taffarel in the very last minute of that World Cup Final to make it 3:0 for Les Bleus.
However, despite Wengers continued domination over Ferguson in the head-to-head matches (two 3:0 victories in Charity Shield and a home league match respectively), Ferguson’s side won none of five matches against Arsenal in 90 minutes or Arsenal’s defense let only 17 goals for a whole league campaign, Vieira and co. had to watch United win the treble in a close race that involved Chelsea as well. It was a relatively unsuccessful period in which Arsenal kept coming second behind United for three seasons in a row with further wounds being defeats in the FA Cup final to Liverpool (thanks to poor refereeing of Steve Dunn who didn’t sanction the hand-ball of Henchoz on the goal-line when the score-line was 1:0 for Arsenal) and the UEFA Cup Final to Galatasaray on penalties (Vieira was one of two Gunners to miss the penalty – the other one was Davor Šuker) despite a storming performance from another Frenchman Arsene Wenger rescued from the tunnels of Serie A – Thierry Henry joined Arsenal from Juventus after a short unsuccessful spell in 1999.
During the 2001-02 pre-season Vieira wasn’t very happy with the lack of results and aggression in the transfer market. The signing of Vieira’s compatriots Robert Pires and Sylvain Wiltord didn’t compensate the departure of his midfield partner Emmanuel Petit who joined Barcelona (sounds familiar, eh?) alongside Marc Overmars as Vieira stated that he wants to leave Arsenal. He didn’t believe Arsenal would fight for the Champions’ League spot in 2001-02. Still, Vieira stayed at Arsenal and was even named as vice-captain of the club. As we all know, Arsenal won the double without a single defeat in any league away match ending season with incredible 13 consecutive victories and mathematically securing the title at Old Trafford thanks to Wiltord’s goal. The only flaw in an otherwise brilliant season was our unfortunate failure in Champions’ League to qualify from the Second Group Stage. Despite the fact we were brilliant against Bayer Leverkusen – that later became runners-up of the competition – two consecutive defeats against Deportivo and Juventus ended our European campaign.
Vieira took the armband in 2002-03 after Adams retired but, despite the fact Arsenal looked like a team in their own league for the large part of the season, FAnchester United won the title, mostly thanks to problems Vieira had with his knee that made him miss decisive moments of the season. Still, we won the FA Cup for the second time in a row.
Next season was the pinnacle of Vieira’s Arsenal career. The Gunners – led by brilliant the French trio Vieira, Pires and Henry – won the league without a single defeat and Vieira lifted the last Premier League trophy they have won. In one of the most memorable matches of the season Vieira was sent off against FAnchester United at Old Trafford in a match that put Ruud Van Nistelrooy’s name in the Hall of Shame for every Gooner in the world. Arsenal’s 2003-04 side have been the only 21st century team that have managed to win the Premiership without defeat and Vieira’s contribution was massive. He scored an equalizer in the 2:1 victory at Stamford Bridge in which Arsenal practically clinched the title and opened a score-sheet at White Hart Lane when Arsenal mathematically secured their 13th title.
Vieira was Arsenal’s captain in 2004-05 as well. He had already built up his reputation as the best defensive midfielder in the world and it’s no wonder all the big clubs in the world had wet dreams about signing the Frenchman. Real Madrid – who suffered heavily due to a stupid decision to sell Claude Makelele to Chelsea a season ago – seemed to be the most interested in signing him. Despite that, Vieira stayed in Arsenal for 2004-05 to lead the Gunners to prolong 49-match-unbeaten streak that was eventually stopped at Old Trafford after a disgraceful display from both Mike Riley and Ruud Van Nistelrooy. Although he developed a huge rivalry with Roy Keane who had been the FAnchester United captain during the biggest rivalry between Arsenal and United, Vieira gave some credit to the Irishman while the Dutch striker wasn’t that lucky as he was called names by the midfielder.
Vieira and Gunners had their revenge on United and Van Nistelrooy in the FA Cup final. Despite being the second best throughout the whole match, a penalty shoot-out turned out to be lucky for the Gunners as all five Arsenal spot takers scored while Paul Scholes’ penalty was saved by the “Mad” Jens Lehmann.
Patrick Vieira had the honour to take the final penalty. It turned out to be his last penalty in an Arsenal shirt – he scored it and gave us the joy of winning another FA Cup – our last trophy. Vieira was one of only two players that won all the trophies in the Wenger-era (the other was Dennis Bergkamp) including three league titles, four FA Cups and four Community Shields.
However, Vieira wasn’t our midfielder that was in the spot-light for 2004-05. The 17-year-old Spaniard Francesc Cesc Fabregas imposed himself as a world-class talent and, what was even more important, as one for today as well as the future. The main problem was that Arsene Wenger didn’t see the midfield partnership of Fabregas-Vieira as solid. In theory, they were supposed to be an ideal combination but – as Wenger said – it seemed that any other combination of midfielders other than Fabregas and Vieira worked much better.
With another young defensive midfielder demonstrating his potential – Mathieu Flamini who was signed from Olympique Marseille – it seemed logical that Wenger tried to cash in on Vieira during the summer of 2005. Vieira was 29 with a not-so-flattering injury record and the Arsenal midfield area got another exciting player in the ambidextrous Belarus Aliaksandr Hleb.
Eventually, Vieira was sold to Juventus where he joined a powerful squad (it turned out that Juventus were powerful both on and off the pitch) that included world-class talents in all squad departments – Gianluigi Buffon (goalkeeper), Lilian Thuram, Fabio Cannavaro (defenders), Pavel Nedved (midfield), Alessandro Del Piero, David Trezeguet, Zlatan Ibrahimović (attack) with matching quality in the manager role (Fabio Capello). It’s no wonder that Juventus won Serie A with losing just one game.
Juventus’ European campaign gave an opportunity for Vieira to return to the stadium where he achieved his greatest success, to the stadium which counted its last days. The quarter final draw decided that Arsenal will play Juventus which meant Vieira would return to Highbury – not even a year after he left. The clash between the Arsenal past and future (Viera vs Fabregas) ended with convincing 2:0 victory for the latter. Fabregas scored a goal, assisted Henry for the second and bossed the midfield in a way that nobody would expect from a 18-year-old in a quarterfinal of the Champions’ League. The 0:0 draw in Torino meant Arsenal advanced to the semifinals. Vieira had a consolation in a way that he received a warm welcome from Arsenal fans which he totally deserved for his nine-year-service in the British capital.
In the 2006 summer the Calciopoli match-fixing scandal shaded an Italian celebration of the fourth title in World Cup history that the Azzuri won at the expense of Vieira’s France. After an investigation and further procedures, Juventus were mostly hit on a legal field – they were relegated to Serie B with a 30 point deduction (after an appeal the fine was reduced to 17 points) and stripped two titles won on the field during 2005 and 2006. Most of world-class players left Juventus including Lilian Thuram and Gianluca Zambrotta (Barcelona), Fabio Cannavaro (Real Madrid), Zlatan Ibrahimović and Patrick Vieira (Inter). That’s how Vieira became a team-mate of his foe Siniša Mihajlović who was banned for racist abuse of Vieira in 2000-01. Vieira made an instant impact in an Inter team scoring a brace in his very first match in the Supercup that Inter won 4:3 and went on to win the title with a record number of points (97). However, despite the fact that Vieira still had something to offer, he wasn’t given a starring role anymore. Both Mancini and Mourinho decided that Muntari, Motta and Stanković are better options than the towering Frenchman. In January 2010, Vieira left Inter to return to the Premiership. Sadly, he didn’t return to Arsenal – he signed for Manchester City. He spent a year-and-half there as player adding another FA Cup title to his trophy-room. One of the best defensive midfielders of all times left the stage as a winner in July 2011. After retirement Vieira has since been a Football Development Executive for Manchester City. According to Samir Nasri, it was Vieira who persuaded him to leave Arsenal for Manchester City who Vieira apparently described as “club of the future”. Given it’s Samir Nasri with his desire to wash a bit of the shame off him for being a mercenary, we should take that story with pinch of salt.
Ever since Vieira left Arsenal, we have struggled to win any trophies. Our midfield lost a key member and our team lost both a leader that would strike fear into any opponent and a world-class defensive midfielder who would help the creative department with both his physical and technical abilities. Flamini had a wonderful 2007-08 season only to leave Arsenal for Milan on a Bosman rule while Gilberto Silva was not able to persuade Wenger to stick with him. Alex Song in 2011-12 and several matches in 2010-11 was the closest thing to Vieira in an Arsenal shirt but he left for Barcelona. Our team has cried for a defensive midfielder that would be a beast when it comes to defending and someone who can pass the ball properly. Unless Aaron Ramsey suffers the same kind of accident like Bruce Banner and turn into the Incredible Aaron this summer, Wenger will need to sign a proper defensive midfielder.
It wouldn’t be fair to Wenger to say: “Go find a new Vieira!” because it’s most likely impossible – world-class players like Campbell, Vieira, Pires, Bergkamp and Henry can be assembled in the same place only in superhero-crossovers or once in a century. The closest thing to Vieira in the Premiership is Marouane Fellaini but his price tag and probable wage demands would make him out of our reach, especially if we miss out on a Champions’ League spot. One thing for creative players like Wilshere, Cazorla, Arteta, Ramsey and Rosicky is there would be more space to carve the opponents’ defence open if their back was covered by a dominating presence such as a Patrick Vieira. Had we had a Vieira in his last season in 2010-11, I believe we would have won at least one trophy that season.
Nobody can predict whether Wenger will or won’t sign a defensive midfielder next summer but even if that long-awaited signing arrives, one thing is sure: that defensive midfielder – whoever he might be – will never reach the heights of Patrick Vieira, a true Arsenal and football legend.