Arsenal’s Invincibles were simply the best footballing team I can remember watching. There were many defining characteristics of the team that won the 2003-2004 Premier League season without losing a game. The steel of Kolo Toure and Sol Campbell at centre back, the flair of Freddie Ljungberg, Robert Pires and Dennis Bergkamp, the goal threat of Thierry Henry but arguably the most key component was captain supreme Patrick Vieira.
From the centre of midfield Vieira led the Arsenal team to one of their greatest ever achievements and his honours list is one few players can match. A World Cup and European Championships winner with France, Vieira also won seven domestic titles and five FA Cups. It is a record that is fitting to one of the Premier League’s greatest ever players.
Despite ending his career with Manchester City after retiring this summer at 35-years-old, Vieira will always be remembered most fondly for his time at Arsenal. Vieira was a combative box-to-box midfielder who could tackle and then break forward with grace and technique in Arsenal’s blistering attacks, he was the perfect leader and player for Arsene Wenger’s successful regime.
His last act in an Arsenal shirt was to score the winning penalty kick in the 2005 FA Cup, it was the perfect ending for Vieira as he moved on to Italy but was it an exit too soon for Arsenal?
The £13.75million deal to Juventus ended Vieira’s nine-year stay at Arsenal and now with transfer fees being splashed out with so much ease, £13.75million sounds like a bargain for a player of Vieira’s influence and success. But the midfielder was sold at the age of 29, an age where Arsenal had got the best out of their captain and this was deemed the right time to cash in while they could still get a reasonable fee.
But I don’t believe Vieira left too soon. Wenger was right to look to freshen up his team in 2005 after they lost their Premier League title to Chelsea. Yes Vieira could have lasted another year or two with Wenger but the real problem wasn’t the departure of Vieira but the fact Arsenal never properly replaced him. Cesc Fabregas was on the fringes of Arsenal’s squad when Vieira was still around and whilst Fabregas has developed into one of the finest midfielders in the world, he lacks the presence that Vieira oozed every time he stepped onto a football pitch.
Alongside Fabregas in the centre of midfield Wenger has looked to replace the tough-tackling of Vieira. Alex Song and Denilson are the most defensive minded midfielders but they lack the commitment of Vieira. Arsenal’s current star Jack Wilshere has the potential to emulate his predecessors as Arsenal’s midfield general and finally fill the gap left behind by Vieira. Wilshere also possess the bite that gave Vieira the edge in those tight midfield areas.
But you can’t solely blame the departure of Vieira and Arsenal’s lack of replacement for their decline from the top of the Premier League pyramid. Arsenal’s Invincibles were led and skippered by Vieira but it was very much a team effort, something Wenger needs to find again this summer.
The last trophy that Arsenal won was the 2005 FA Cup, another achievement inspired by Vieira. The midfielder left 55 days later after lifting the trophy and Arsenal have missed the influential midfielder’s presence ever since.
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