“What I love is the game itself”Patrick Vieira
Patrick Vieira was the first signing under the Arsene Wenger regime, despite Wenger not actually being the Arsenal manager yet, as were the days in 1996.
An illustrious powering midfielder who could dominate a game or player by his sheer presence embodied Arsenal’s qualities in that era, style, athleticism, imagination, and determination. So many iconic moments were to await Vieira with the iconic no.4 on his back through his 9-year association at Highbury. Through those 406 appearances for the Gunners, Vieira would go on to become the lynchpin in Arsenal’s most successful period in recent history claiming three Premier Leagues and four FA Cups.
Early years – Late 90s
Following an unsuccessful spell at AC Milan 95-96, an unknown Viera joined Arsenal as a 20-year-old in August 1996. It wasn’t until his second season that he formed a formidable partnership with fellow Frenchmen Emmanuel Petit. The power and technique of Vieira was complemented with the astute Petit in the middle of the park. Vieira scored an important goal in the 3-2 victory over Manchester United in the league that season, but it was his destruction and powerful midfield runs that made others take notice of his performances.
Despite his tender years, Vieira had begun displaying the aggressive side to his game. Picking up two red cards in the 1997-98 campaign. Nevertheless, he would end the season as both a Premier League and FA Cup winner, his first double. Vieira stayed busy during the summer too, picking up a World Cup winners medal on home soil as France were crowned World Champions.
Millennium – Early 00s
“I do not honestly see Arsenal finishing in the top five in the league – and you can forget the Champions League.” Vieira in 2001, not long after claiming the Premier Player of the Season Award. Despite transfer rumours and personally declaring his intentions to leave the Gunners, Vieira remained at Highbury and was named vice-captain at the beginning of the 2001-2002 campaign as no move materialized.
Possibly to his surprise, Wenger and Vieira would go on to lead Arsenal to a second Premier League and FA Cup double in one of Vieira’s most impressive seasons. His tenaciousness in midfield alongside Ray Parlour this time around allowed Arsenal’s forwards to have one of their most productive seasons in front of goal as five players scored 13 or more goals. Thierry Henry was on full throttle as the French international went on to score 24 goals in the Premier League as they claimed the title 7 points ahead of Liverpool.
Following the retirement of Tony Adams in 2002, Vieira was named club captain. His leadership qualities were obvious very early on as he captained Cannes in France as a 19-year-old. Throughout 2002 to 2005 his leadership and authority on the pitch really began to speak for itself. Under his guidance Arsenal would go a whole season unbeaten, but that comes a bit later on.
Despite picking up an early season red card and suggesting he was fatigued after playing over 60 games the previous season, Vieira continued to display strong tackling, awareness and forward runs from deep. Vieira would go on to miss a large part of the season through injury however he joined in the celebrations of his first trophy as captain and third FA Cup victory in 2003.
The formidable rivalry between Arsenal and Manchester United had begun since the late 90s as both clubs had become the dominant forces in domestic football. Vieira and Keane would embody their respective clubs during this era, the heartbeats of both teams. Both were a strong match against each other with similar skill sets; tenacity, aggression, determination and above all winning mentalities.
The 1999/2000 match where United won 3-1 at Highbury was the beginning of the hatred between the two, with numerous clashes during the game. At “The Battle of Old Trafford” in 2003, Vieira was sent off for lashing a kick out at Ruud Van Nistelrooy, luckily though this didn’t dent their chances of finishing the season unbeaten. But what was clear, was the hate and anger between the two sides, and especially Vieira and Keane.
The 2005 classic at Highbury where Vieira supposedly bullied Gary Neville in the tunnel led to one last altercation between the two before a ball was even kicked. There has never been a rivalry quite like these two ever since.
The 2003/04 side created history by becoming the first side in Premier League history to go the whole season unbeaten. The side that Vieira famously captained has a strong claim as the best ever Premier League team, with 26 wins and 12 draws. Vieira partnered alongside the dominant Brazilian, Gilberto Silva. Silva, often referred to as “The invisible wall” would repeatedly play deeper breaking up play with Vieira, the all-action midfielder playing further forward but with a strong understanding of when to go and when to sit. This protection and dominance created a strong spine so the Arsenal front four, Henry, Dennis Bergkamp, Robert Pires, and Freddie Ljungberg could enjoy themselves. Vieira was not known for his goals but he did grab one on the day Arsenal were crowned champions away at White Hart Lane in a 2-2 draw in April 2004.
His resilience and ability to sacrifice himself for the betterment of the team at all times was crucial as he developed himself into a cult hero and legend at Highbury. With the emergence of teenager Cesc Fabregas, who Wenger felt worked better alongside Gilberto Silva, it was time for Vieira to face a new challenge and he departed for Juventus in 2005. His quality and consistency speak for itself, from 98-99 till 03-04 he was named in every PFA Team of the Year. In the same time, he became both a World and European Champion in 1998 and 2000 respectively. Arsenal lost both a player and a leader that they have struggled to replace ever since. At the peak of his powers, Vieira had the cojones to lead Arsenal into war whilst telling Roy Keane to f*** off along the way.