The Legacy Patrick Vieira Has Left On The Premier League
In 1996, a little known French midfielder aged 20 arrived on English shores, for a fee of £3.5 million. While this may seem like a pitiful amount, just one tenth of Andy Carroll, back then it was a decent amount of money.
In 1996, a little known French midfielder aged 20 arrived on English shores, for a fee of £3.5 million. While this may seem like a pitiful amount, just one tenth of Andy Carroll, back then it was a decent amount of money. Although Alan Shearer also moved that summer for a world record £15 million, the likes of Roberto Di Matteo, Karel Poborský and Patrick Berger all arrived on English shores for similar amounts of money. All are midfielders; all were proven players who had regularly appeared for their countries. The fee for Vieira was not an insignificant sum.
Yet, Vieira was undoubtedly the success story of those foreigners joining the Premier League in the aftermath of Euro ’96. By the time he left, nine years later, his 406 Arsenal appearances had seen him win three Premier League titles and five FA Cups, alongside the World Cup and European Championship medals he had in his pocket. Indeed, many Arsenal fans claim that Vieira is the one player missed the most by the current team; the last trophy Arsenal won was secured by Vieira’s last kick in Arsenal colours; the 2005 FA Cup.
Yet, while Vieira is undoubtedly a legend of the Premier League (he and Roy Keane would arguably form the central midfield of an all time Premier League XI), his legacy is something rather different. Vieira in his pomp was a wonderful player; big and strong, but also with a delightful touch. His dynamism allowed him to be one of the few midfielders who could break up play on the edge of his own box, before powering forward 80 yards to finish off a free-flowing move. He was a marvellous player to watch.
But this success led him to become the archetypal midfielder of the last decade. Every club was after the new Patrick Vieira. In the same way that Barcelona of recent years has shunned this type of midfielder, all English clubs were enamoured by the idea of a box-to-box midfielder of Vieira’s quality. And this has happened in a time where the English game is quicker than ever, and so the box-to-box midfielder is dying out (Jonathan Wilson, among others has written extensively on the subject: http://www.guardian.co.uk/sport/blog/2009/apr/22/where-have-box-to-box-midfielders-gone). And so, these clubs seeking the ‘new Vieira’ have ended up sacrificing quality for power and physicality.
A quick glance at transfers in the years after 2001/02 (probably Vieira’s finest season) sees a number of strong, physical midfielders being brought into the Premier League. The likes of Salif Diao, Eric Djemba-Djemba, Amdy Faye, Papa Boupa Diop, Michael Essien, Mohammed Sissoko, Paul Scharner and Abou Diaby were all signed to add strength and power to midfields, with varying levels of success. Small midfielders were signed, but restricted to wide midfield roles, where they would not be involved in midfield scraps. Even Arsenal, the current purveyors of the smaller midfielder turned down the opportunity to sign Luka Modric on the basis that he was too lightweight.
As mentioned earlier, Barcelona’s recent success has slowly started to buck the trend, but ask yourself this; would Xavi or Andrés Iniesta be given a chance in the Premier League as a youngster, or would they be slipped out the way in favour of a stronger player? Even nowadays, the likes of David Silva are not trusted to play through the middle, forced to play out wide while Yaya Touré is given the attacking role centrally. In Spain, Silva would be the focal point of a midfield, given the freedom to use his creativity from a central position. Instead, it is the powerhouse Touré who has these responsibilities. The FA Cup semi-final showed how effective Touré can be in this position, but it is surely noticeable that in Spain he was used as a primarily defensive player.
This trend towards dynamic midfielders has even affected the England team. Paul Scholes, shunted wide left in Euro 2004 in favour of the more powerful Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard. While Gerrard and Lampard have their strengths, surely not many would argue of their superior technical ability when compared to Scholes? While recently, Fabio Capello has apparently not taken power into consideration, he has an apparent preference for work-rate over technique; the last International v Switzerland saw James Milner preferred to former teammates Ashley Young and Stewart Downing. Ironically, the one shining light for England is Arsenal’s Jack Wilshire, a player who ten years ago would probably not have got anywhere near the first team.
This is not attempting to do Patrick Vieira down. He was a quite wonderful player; if anything he was actually probably too good in that for a long time afterwards, teams attempted to recreate his unique ability. Instead of concentrating on his playing ability, the focus was on his physical prowess. Perhaps now, with the likes of Modric and Wilshire imposing themselves on the Premier League, the focus will return to technique, and this can only be good for the English game.
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