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The light in which football’s icons are revered is easily blurred by nostalgia. History has a way of illuminating the defining moments, the ones that can be cut down and revisited in captivating snippets, of being impassioned and irrepressible, the leader and the beloved. They are the traits that form legacies, and few players in the Premier League era can claim to have wielded them quite like Patrick Vieira. He was Arsenal’s beating heart and the “umbilical cord” to supporters, as Arsene Wenger once put it, the embodying captain of one of English football’s greatest teams.
And so when remembering the giddy heights of Vieira’s playing career, ahead of his return as Crystal Palace head coach on Monday evening, it’s easy to become lost in the haze of trophies, from the three Premier League titles and records broken to his final touch in an Arsenal shirt, scoring the winning penalty against Manchester United in the 2005 FA Cup final. They are, of course, the glorious evidence that solidifies greatness, but achievements alone are far from what made Vieira so great.
Instead, it was not only the more subtle brilliance that belied Vieira’s stature and the tired tropes of power and athleticism, but the sheer depth of his influence. The notion of being a “complete midfielder” can be a bit of a throwaway tag nowadays. That is partly a consequence of modern football’s frenetic pace and the influence of pressing systems, with players forced to adapt to wider responsibilities and fewer luxuries. But when Vieira joined Arsenal in 1996, handpicked as a teenager from AC Milan by Wenger, his quality was transformative and, perhaps, even era-defining. “I had never seen a midfield player like that,” Ian Wright said of Vieira’s first training sessions. “He was almost feline in his movements, so tall and elegant… We couldn’t get near him. We knew we had someone world class on our hands.”
It’s not to say everything came naturally. In his first year in London, Vieira struggled to adapt to the culture and rumours frequently circulated of a departure. But his talent was undeniable: the way a trailing leg snuck the ball from underneath an unwitting opponent’s feet, the gallivanting runs forward from deep, the mocking flick of the ball over an opponent’s head and penetrative passing. He wasn’t always perfect but he injected purpose into so many areas of the pitch, with a sense of grace underlining those high standards, even when his limbs betrayed him or his temper boiled over. In nine years at Arsenal, that marriage of intelligence and heart was fundamental to their every success.
There are plenty of outstanding metrics that can be used to corroborate Vieira’s genius, from his tackling prowess to his efficiency at progressing the ball into the final third. But what those could never illustrate are the emotional intangibles that Vieira radiated throughout a team, the aura and demeanour that inspired and demanded. Thierry Henry might have been the star, but Vieira was Arsenal’s soul, the force of gravity around which everything revolved. “There are statues of [Dennis Bergkamp and Thierry Henry] outside the Emirates Stadium, but without Patrick winning the ball and giving it to them they would almost be redundant,” Martin Keown said.
It’s in large part why Vieira’s rivalry with Keane felt so natural. They were two seminal players who peaked as arch-rivals and wrestled for supremacy not only as individuals but with the weight of their entire clubs. “Out of everybody I ever faced as a player, he drove me to become better,” Keane said. “On his day, when he was driving Arsenal on with the sheer force of his personality, he was unplayable.”
Perhaps, the greatest testament to Vieira’s Arsenal career has been the fateful and enduring task of replacing him. His departure in 2005 can be seen as a significant starting point in the irrevocable decline under Wenger. Cesc Fabregas inherited his shirt number but developed into an entirely different player, and such has been the length of supposed successors that the current incumbent of the No 4 shirt, Ben White, claimed this week to have never even seen Vieira play. Marcel Desailly, who was part of the same all-conquering France squad, hailed Vieira as “two players in one”. That Arsenal have played with a double-pivot in midfield for much of the time since is further proof of that.
But, perhaps, it was Mikel Arteta, who himself once attempted to fill that void, who put it most plainly last week. “Patrick was Patrick,” he said at his pre-match press conference. “There is not going to be another one like him.” Because for Arsenal, Vieira didn’t just represent a player of rare skill, he was a totem: of authority and ambition, of urgency and frustration. When alluding to Wenger’s much-vaunted “Arsenal DNA”, it was Vieira who epitomised the blood in its veins. And when he emerges from the tunnel on Monday evening, he will represent a bygone era that Arsenal cherish dearly and miss desperately. For Crystal Palace, the hope is that his passion and pragmatism can be the bedrock of a bright era of their own.