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Who understands Arsenal's need better than Patrick Vieira?

Sunday 17th November 2019
Arguably, the Gunners decline began when they severed ties with their former captain. Can their ascendance only begin with his return?
Arguably, the Gunners decline began when they severed ties with their former captain. Can their ascendance only begin with his return?

Background photo: Pisut Rakwong

If, sorry, when Arsenal sack Unai Emery, Patrick Vieira’s appointment offers a promise no other candidate can make. When the former Gunners captain and midfield destroyer departed for Juventus, the last remaining vestige of defensive commitment at the club went with him.

 Among the other names circulating, Jose Mourinho is known for fortifying the backline wherever he goes but the Special One holds no bond to any club. Not unless it’s Chelsea and how will that play in the Emirates terraces?. Meanwhile, despite hanging up his boots to develop his executive and managerial chops at Manchester City, Vieira is forever a Gunner in the collective football mind.

Moreover, the fact Arsene Wenger never replaced him and paid only cursory attention to the rearguard following his departure gives Vieira's potential hiring special meaning. Wenger tarnished his managerial legacy by ignoring problems at the back. His reputation and influence within the boardroom kept him in place overly long and led to defensive erosion, weakening the team until the only realistic hopes for silverware were the EFL and FA Cups.

In the end, even those were taken away. Pep Guardiola publicly praised Wenger’s adherence to an attacking philosophy but privately celebrated his rival’s failure to balance his priorities, embarrassing him with successive 3-0 victories, four days apart, first in the 2018 EFL Cup final, then in the Premier League.

The injury pandemic at Manchester City this season found Kevin de Bruyne, Leroy Sane and Ederson but concentrates on the defence. Some observers believe it lends license to criticise Guardiola’s emphasis on attacking but those observers talk out of their arse. One need only look at the money Pep spends on defenders to understand his commitment to all aspects of the game.

When the fullback signings from his first transfer window didn’t pan out, he promptly reinvested. You can wager he’ll do so again this summer, now that he’s reached his limit with Benjamin Mendy’s fitness and cavalier attitude. He also knows it was a mistake to rely on Fernandinho and Kyle Walker’s versatility rather than recruit another centre-half to replace Vincent Kompany. John Stones is his only out and out centre-back after losing Aymeric Laporte and Nicolas Otamendi. You can’t cheat depth.

While Guardiola prefers the relentless high press he calls “defending far away” to building compact low blocks, his awareness that a resolute, well-protected rearguard underpins any great manager's legacy sets him apart from Arsene Wenger. Pep brought in Rodri, anticipating the 34-year-old Fernandinho’s impending retirement. Wenger let Vieira go and never looked back. The French midfielder’s return wouldn’t just be personal redemption; it could restore the club as a whole.

Although hired to reform Arsenal, Unai Emery’s squad bears a likeness to Wenger’s as convincing as a teenager sneaking into a strip club using his older brother’s ID. All belief that the Spaniard can turn the Gunners around is lost. Were Vieira to return to the Emirates, taking the reins in the dugout, Gooners’ faith in an imminent sea change would revive.  

Forget Arsenal faithful, however. The entire Premier League watched as Mourinho poisoned what remained of Manchester United’s attacking verve. Bringing Jose in would sway the Emirates’ balance to the opposite extreme. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Alexandre Lacazette and Nicolas Pepe would be coached into tracking back so thoroughly that defenders would be left without an out pass upon recovering possession. A coach who prefers size and strength to speed and guile, Mou would almost certainly marginalise the diminutive Lucas Torreira and waifish Matteo Guendouzi. And the young generation coming through the Gunners academy? Please. He will pay it the necessary lip service and no more.

Luis Enrique began well at Barcelona but couldn’t maintain the defensive discipline that continues to dissipate at the Camp Nou under Ernesto Valverde.

Mikel Arteta might be able to restore the balance given his tutelage under Pep but his complete inexperience as the man in charge makes him a far greater gamble than Vieira. The OGC Nice boss has four years running point on his CV.

At first glance, you might think Vieira has issues at Nice, sitting 13th in the table after finishing seventh in his first term. A closer examination of the Ligue 1 table reveals the Eaglets flying low but only two points off Lille LOSC’s pace in fifth. In his first job, the 43-year-old lifted New York City FC from Major League Soccer’s midtable to post the fourth and second-best regular-season records in his two campaigns in America. He can organise and motivate a squad.

Speak of the devil, Arsenal is so out of balance that its apathetic defence now infects the attack. In their 12 Premier League games, the Gunners conceded more goals [17] than they scored [16], languishing mid-table in the latter category. Their offensive output is barely more than half that of Chelsea, Liverpool and Leicester who produced 27, 28 and 29 respectively. It’s less than 50% of Manchester City’s 35. The rot is fully embedded in the squad.

For club and potential manager, philosophy and need align. No other candidate brings sufficient experience or respect for the Gunners' ethos than the OGC Nice boss. The critical link between attack and defence during Arsenal’s Invincibles era, Patrick Vieira’s return would galvanise support and could forge a new Arsenal dynasty.

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Image: Martin Palazzotto

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Martin Palazzotto

The former editor of World Football Columns, Martin authored the short story collection strange bOUnce. He appeared in several other blogs which no longer exist. Old, he likes to bring out defunct. If outdated sport and pop-cultural references intrude on his meanderings for It's Round and It's White, don't be alarmed. He's harmless.

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