When you still forge part of the dialogue surrounding your club’s transfer business in 2015, you know Patrick Vieira was one of those players who can truly be considered an all-time Arsenal great.
It’s remarkable to think that 10 years have now passed since Arsenal said an emotional goodbye to their powerhouse of a French midfielder, who was the epitome of the most successful Wenger years.
While Wenger has remained ever since, the Gunners have suffered a series of cruel psychological blows in Vieira’s absence, often branded as being too easy to play against, too soft and too predictable – especially in the middle of the park.
Unforgiving words associated with any professional sports team, Vieira was always going to be hard to replace but why have the Gunners found it so hard to replace their former captain?
Think back to the kind of performances Arsenal fans came to expect from Vieira and you’ll remember the purposeful strides out of midfield, the crunching sliding challenges and the sheer brute force of the man.
Ever since he left the Premier League for Juventus back in 2005, the closest player there has been to Vieira is probably Manchester City’s Yaya Toure and when you consider he could’ve been an Arsenal player – like pretty much anyone Wenger has ever laid eyes on – this makes it all the more difficult for Arsenal fans to swallow.
In the eyes of an entire generation of Arsenal fans, Vieira is everything the modern-day midfielder should be – tough, uncompromising and ultimately a leader. While Gilberto Silva effectively carried on Vieira’s legacy in his own way prior to departing in 2008, one man who was wowing the crowds was Cesc Fabregas.
In that same year Fabregas was installed as Arsenal captain and while he was idolised in the same way that Vieira was for different reasons – namely his passing ability and finesse – this marked the moment in which Wenger ultimately lost his midfield bite.
Denilson came and went, deemed too lightweight to perform the role while Alex Song achieved a sustained spell in Arsenal’s first team but in truth, the Cameroonian was another who often forgot his defensive duties on too many occasions.
With Arsenal having achieved so much success in terms of their playing style, which was lauded seemingly in every quarter despite their lack of silverware, it was in these seasons that Wenger ultimately lost sight of the importance of squad balance. Lapping up the plaudits while playing a sexy brand of football, Wenger was hopelessly in love with the style at the expense of remembering and enforcing defensive discipline.
Branded one of the most stubborn characters in the game, it appears Wenger had almost too much faith in his players, most infamously coming back to haunt him in the 2011 League Cup Final in which Birmingham City inflicted what at the time seemed like irreparable damage.
With both Jack Wilshere and Alex Song representing the deep-lying starting midfielders on that fateful day at Wembley, neither of them can truly be considered defensive midfielders.
Arsenal needed someone like Patrick Vieira on that day in February 2011 – someone who would gee their team-mates up instead of infighting, someone to use their physical dominance to command the midfield while putting an elbow into the face of Lee Bowyer while the referee wasn’t looking.
Effectively, Arsenal were trying too hard to emulate the glory years under Wenger with a micro-lite version of the very thing that brought them so much success – an all-conquering giant of a central midfielder.
So fast forward to 2015 and are Arsenal still crying out for a Patrick Vieira?
The easy answer is to say yes, because at the peak of his powers, Vieira would improve any football team in their prospects of attaining silverware while telling Roy Keane to f*** off along the way.
The harder answer is to say Arsene Wenger is slowly starting to learn what it takes to rebuild a successful team, albeit at a pace which many seem to think borders on incompetent when you’re the fourth highest paid manager in world football.
With Francis Coquelin having been recalled from a loan spell at Charlton Athletic last term, the young Frenchman was brought back into the fold on one condition – that he’d sit in front of the defence to break up the play and that alone.
Ever since his recall, he hasn’t looked back and has resembled something of a world beater in the role, giving even the most sceptical of Arsenal fans reason to believe that the Gunners’ defensive discipline is now locked down.
While Coquelin doesn’t boast the frame and strength of Vieira, what he is doing is completing the same job Vieira did – breaking up the play while allowing those in front of him to weave their magic.
The understandable consensus among the majority of Arsenal fans is that they could do with another strong built defensive midfielder to call upon if Coquelin succumbs to injury, but with Mikel Arteta having signed a new one-year deal, that prospect now looks incredibly unlikely.
In many ways, it appears Arsenal fans’ hopes for the 2015/16 season rest on Coquelin staying fit and injury free. Good luck with that.
They may not be crying out for Vieira right now but if it comes down to March with Arsenal in touching distance of first place, they may be weeping for their former captain to see them over the line while finally giving Wenger a reason to retire with the job complete.