On his day there was very little that could get in the way of Patrick Vieira. At 6’4″ and weighing just over 13 stone it is easy to understand why. He was, quite simply, a man mountain.
Growing up I can remember watching the midfielder almost in awe. He seemed to be able to just brush past players, leaving them in his wake as though he were an adult joining in with a kids’ kickabout.
The Frenchman arrived at Arsenal in 1996 after what had been a miserable season in Milan, which saw him appear just twice in Serie A. But Arsène Wenger, aware of Vieira’s promise from his time at Cannes, took the hit and £3.5m later he was an Arsenal player.
The rest as they often say is history – but what a history.
Nine years at Arsenal brought trophies and triumphs that even Vieira wouldn’t have predicted, culminating in him captaining the Gunners to an unbeaten season. Within that side of 2003/04 he was the heartbeat. Even watching him in the tunnel you gained a sense of his presence and power – the respect he commanded.
In terms of playing style, there were few that came close to Vieira. Deployed in a 4-4-2 formation he was the engine, driving the team forward from back to front. There were no calls for a holding midfielder or a creative playmaker – Vieira did both.
An everlasting memory that sticks with me is the Frenchman’s goal v Chelsea:
It is from the 2003/04 season, the year Arsenal were Invincible, and it just sums up Vieira so perfectly. Receiving the ball from deep and laying it off before powering forward and finishing with aplomb. Perfection.
Watching Match of the Day this weekend, it dawned on me the absence of any such midfielder – not just at Arsenal but throughout the Premier League. Perhaps throughout Europe.
It cannot be due to a lack of talent as the production line of superstars seems never-ending. Just look at the fact that people see Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo as the best ever. Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona are similarly dubbed the greatest club side of all time.
So if a lack of talent isn’t to blame then why the absence of the all-powerful, all-conquering midfielder?
The answer, most likely, lies in tactics.
Tactics, tactics, tactics. It has become almost an obsession for fans now. More blogs than ever are devoted to them and – sorry to disappoint – but this one is heading that way.
For those of you who haven’t closed your web browser, firstly thank you, and secondly bear with me as I expand my point.
In Vieira’s day the bread and butter of tactics, certainly for England, was the 4-4-2. You can’t go wrong, eh? Four at the back, four lads in front and two strikers to stick the ball in the net. Happy days.
Within that midfield four the two central players have got some work to do. They’ve got to link the attack, but they’ll also get it in the ear from the defence if they let runners break through. Yes, that has been very simply put but that’s essentially how it works.
It all meant, if you are playing central midfield at the top level, then you’ve got to have certain qualities:
1. You need to be fitter than a butcher’s dog. And not just any butcher, the king of all butchers. You need to be so fit you’re dreaming about running in your sleep. But don’t actually run, or else you’ll be shattered in the morning.
2. You need to be able to tackle. Sounds obvious but it helps and it saves the lads behind you doing it. None of this arguing that you are ball-playing midfielder who likes to dictate the tempo. Sod that, foot in and win the ball back.
3. You could also do with being good at the point I just criticised – dictating the tempo. Handy really as it saves you doing point two (tackling). Basic maths, you’ve got the ball and you do less running.
4. You need to be able to stick the ball in the net and create chances. Again, sounds obvious, but the two lads in front of you will have off days. Strikers are temperamental, they miss chances, you need to score when they don’t. You also need to create chances for them…so they can celebrate and be lauded. Annoying, I know.
5. You will probably play 90 minutes. Forgot to mention it’s the ‘90s. We only have five subs and the strikers will need changing, probably because they are having an off-day – something I alluded to in point 4.
Now, as you can see, there’s a fair amount going on there. Somehow the likes of Vieira and Roy Keane managed to do it, simply because they had to. Coming through the academies, midfielders were drilled to play like that. They had to or tactically the classic 4-4-2 didn’t work.
However, now that has gone. Instead we have the 4-2-3-1, the 4-5-1 or even the 3-5-2. Why the change?
Well, bizarrely, it’s economics. Again, please don’t shut the web browser just yet.
It’s the division of labour. Why have two poor lads running around when you can stick another one in there and make it easier? It’s like running a factory – many hands make light work.
So instead of having the two players being box-to-box, goalscoring, ball-winning machines, you have the trio doing it.
Sir Alex Ferguson mastered it with his 2008 Champions League winning team. They also made the final a year later only to be beaten by someone else who had mastered the midfield trio – Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona.
Here’s how it works.
United had the creator (Paul Scholes), the destroyer (Darren Fletcher) and the passer (Owen Hargreaves or Michael Carrick). The idea being the destroyer wins the ball, the passer keeps things ticking over and the creator, well, creates.
Look at it from the points I made earlier..
All three are doing point 1 and 5 – they are fit. The destroyer does point 2 (tackles). The passer does point 3 (dictates the tempo). The creator does point 4 (creates and scores). Division of labour.
Barcelona did it just as well with their trio: Sergio Busquets – the destroyer, Xavi – the passer and Andrés Iniesta – the creator.
And that is why we will most likely never see a Vieira again. There’s just no call for that type of player. In today’s modern game, tactics have made sure of that. It’s a shame, as no one more than me would like to see Arsenal splash the cash on a midfielder like the great Frenchman.
In fact, there is just one man who almost fits the Vieira mould, a certain Paul Pogba. But that’s for another day, another blog. Until then I will keep dreaming of Patrick.
Simon Collings is a Regular Columnist here at #ABW – check him out on Twitter at @sr_collings. He is also part of a Premier League Podcast called All About the 3 Points which we definitely think you should check out.