Patrick Vieira: The Elegant Enforcer That Arsenal Will Never Replace

Ross Kennerley
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Prodigy or not, when you're playing for AC Milan in the mid-90s, you've clearly got something about you. A prestigious football club with success sewn into the very fabric of its institution, any player, young or old, who's been in and around that environment has the platform to forge a fine career for themselves.

Patrick Vieira did just that, but he'd do so 600 miles away in north London.

Gone are the days when you'd only know your club had signed a player when they sat down alongside the manager in their first press conference. It didn't matter whether they were a big name or not, transfers flew by very much under the radar.

Arsene Wenger loved doing this. Signing unknown entities became his vice. Seeing them blossom into world class players having arrived for such a nominal fee was the success story from which his legacy was built on. That all began with Vieira.

He was, by all accounts, known to very few. Sure, he played for Milan, but he didn't actually play. In fact, he made just two senior appearances during his short spell in Italy.

When the English press first laid eyes on the 20-year-old, his gangly frame indicated that Arsenal were bringing in another central defender. While Wenger hadn't officially been unveiled as the new manager yet, he had a different plan in mind.

Vieira was one of Wenger's greatest success stories
Vieira was one of Wenger's greatest success stories / MAX NASH/Getty Images

His debut season was an eye-catching one. Expecting the Senegalese-born player to struggle with the rigours of English football, his ferocious style and intimidating demeanour where balanced with remarkable technical ability.

A side that had missed a player of his ilk since Paul Davis performed a similar role in the club's most recent title win, Arsenal improved upon their most recent campaign with a third-place finish - narrowly missing out on Champions League qualification on goal difference.

The league, just as with the Gunners' squad, were rightly taken aback by the elegant enforcer. From one minute to the next, Vieira could stick his studs in on a challenge then stick the ball through an opponent's leg.

Kicking off the 1997/98 season in fine form, Arsenal went unbeaten for the first 12 matches of the season, during which time Vieira laid on four assists for his teammates. Alongside Emmanuel Petit in the heart of midfield, Wenger had found the perfect balance in his 4-4-2 setup. Petit would operate in tandem with his fellow countryman, Ray Parlour able to tuck into midfield alongside Petit on the occasions that Vieira would maraud forward.

Dancing through challenges he could foresee the runs of Ian Wright in behind, or make the deep runs forward himself when Dennis Bergkamp would drop into the hole.

Even at such a young age, Vieira demonstrated his leadership qualities too. Oftentimes players are categorised as either leaders by action or leaders by voice. The Frenchman was character who would stay silent in the dressing and only speak up when the occasion called for it.

"Sometimes, Patrick would come in and he wouldn’t even talk to you as a captain," Wright said of his former teammate. "He would blank you."

This season was well before Vieira would assume captaincy, but his talking was done on the pitch, where his unquestionable leadership qualities came to the fore.

Arsenal's perfectly balanced side in 1998 secured them their first Premier League title
Arsenal's perfectly balanced side in 1998 secured them their first Premier League title / Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

After a bright start, Arsenal endured a wobble in the league. Four defeats in six matches saw Manchester United move in front, and despite finding their bearings, a crucial clash at Old Trafford would have a major say in deciding the title.

A famous victory, courtesy of Marc Overmars' goal, paved the way for a memorable final push, where Vieira's belligerent best would see Arsenal lift the title. An incredible eight-game winning run saw the Premier League title be secured by only the third different side since the competition's inception. That final spell saw the Gunners go eight matches without conceding, and letting in just two goals in total during a 14-game run.

Two defeats in the final two matches came from Wenger's desire to rest players ahead of an FA Cup final with Newcastle United, one Arsenal would win 2-0 to secure a maiden Premier League and FA Cup double.

Patrick Vieira perfectly balances skill with strength in midfield
Patrick Vieira perfectly balances skill with strength in midfield / Chris Lobina/Getty Images

By this point Vieira had truly announced himself in English football, but while he continued to dazzle for the following two seasons, Arsenal were starved of silverware with two second place league finishes.

The greatest captain in Arsenal's history, Tony Adams, was always going to be an impossible man to follow. In 2002, Vieira would not only shoulder that responsibility admirably, but build his own legacy in north London.

Good players have come and gone at the club since Vieira's time, but none managed to balance skill with strength and intelligence as the midfielder could.

To be irreplaceable is to be held in high regard. If you ever needed evidence of how highly regarded Vieira is at Arsenal, the fact the club still haven't found his successor 15 years on tells its own story.


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