Tuesday 14 July 2015 17:17, UK
This week marks 10 years since Patrick Vieira left Arsenal for Juventus. Here we look at the central midfielders who have come and gone in Arsene Wenger’s search to replace his iconic former captain.
During his nine years in north London, the talismanic Frenchman helped Arsenal to three league titles and four FA Cups.
However, in the decade since Vieira’s move the Gunners have won just two FA Cups – and struggled to replace his towering presence in the centre of the park. Here are the men Wenger has used to try to fill the Vieira-shaped hole in the centre of his midfield…
Mathieu Flamini (July 2004)
Flamini’s first stint at Arsenal began in July 2004, when he arrived on a free transfer from Marseille a year before Vieira’s departure. He initially failed to convince in a bit-part role, but he impressed in the 2007/08 campaign, keeping Gilberto Silva and Lassana Diarra out of the team and forming an effective central midfield partnership with Cesc Fabregas as the Gunners fell just four points short of champions Manchester United.
Flamini had proved a revelation in the defensive midfield role and Arsenal were bitterly disappointed when he rejected a new contract at the Emirates Stadium to move to AC Milan on a Bosman transfer in 2008. The Frenchman returned to north London in 2013 after five seasons in Italy, but he has been little more than a squad player in his second spell at the club.
Abou Diaby (January 2006)
Diaby’s demise is a sad tale. The gangly and gifted Frenchman had all the attributes to fill the Vieira void when he joined the Gunners from Auxerre in 2006, but his career has been wrecked by injuries and he was recently released by the club having made just 16 Premier League appearances in the last four years.
It is a cruel fate for a player who showed real promise. A man-of-the-match performance in a 2-0 win over Liverpool at Anfield at the start of the 2012/13 season suggested he could finally be ready to make his mark, but he has suffered setback after setback since then. To add to Arsenal’s frustration, Vieira feels Diaby could have been even better than him.
“I am frustrated and disappointed for Abou Diaby with all the injuries he suffered,” Vieira said in 2012. “If he could have improved constantly, he would have reached an exceptional level. About his potential, he is better than me, better on a technical level, better dribbler, and better scorer too.”
Alex Song (June 2006)
Like Flamini, Song was written off in many quarters after an inauspicious start to his Arsenal career. The Cameroonian, a £1million signing from Bastia, was booed and substituted at half-time during a 2-1 defeat to Fulham in 2006, but he was much-improved after returning from a loan spell at Charlton in 2007.
He eventually became Wenger’s first-choice defensive midfielder, albeit not in a conventional sense. In the 2011/12 season, Song was more of a deep-lying playmaker as he topped Arsenal’s assist charts with 14. He came second in an Arsenal fans player of the season poll, but he moved to Barcelona for £15million that summer. He failed to make the grade at the Nou Camp and is now being linked with a permanent Premier League return after his loan spell with West Ham.
Denilson (August 2006)
Wenger’s unwavering faith in his players paid off with the likes of Song and Robin van Persie, but Denilson is an example of how the Frenchman’s loyalty can be a pitfall. The Brazilian rather epitomises Arsenal’s barren run after moving to the Emirates Stadium in 2006 (coincidentally the year Denilson arrived at the club from Sao Paulo).
Put simply, he was never the answer to Arsenal’s post-Vieira conundrum, but transfer funds were limited after Arsenal’s stadium move and the he somehow made over 150 appearances in an Arsenal shirt before returning to his boyhood club in 2011. Denilson is still only 27, but it appears his career peaked in north London. He recently signed a three-year contract with Al-Wahda in the United Arab Emirates.
Lassana Diarra (August 2007)
Wenger’s next central midfield addition came in the form of 22-year-old France international Diarra from London rivals Chelsea. The highly-rated youngster had found first team opportunities limited at Stamford Bridge and Flamini’s emergence as Wenger’s first-choice defensive midfielder meant it was more of the same in north London.
Diarra moved to Portsmouth just six months later after becoming frustrated with his bit-part role. “He was impatient,” said Wenger. “He put himself under a lot of pressure and that increased his impatience.” Diarra won the FA Cup with Pompey, however, and joined Real Madrid in January 2009 before ending up in Russia. He was close to returning to England with West Ham last season, but FIFA blocked the move due to a contract dispute with Lokomotiv Moscow.
Emmanuel Frimpong (August 2011 debut)
Arsenal youth product Frimpong showed promise as a rugged, combative defensive midfielder when he broke into the first team in 2011, but while his Twitter following sky-rocketed, his playing career headed in the opposite direction. The flamboyant youngster became a cult figure online, but he might have been better off letting his football do the talking.
After loan spells at Wolves, Charlton and Fulham, Frimpong signed permanently for Barnsley in January 2014. He was sent off after 31 minutes of his debut for the Tykes, and his contract at the club was cancelled following their relegation to League One. A few months later, Frimpong resurfaced at FC Ufa in the Russian Premier League.
Mikel Arteta (August 2011)
Arteta was remoulded as a deep-lying midfielder after his transfer deadline day arrival from Everton in August 2011. The Spaniard could not match the creative talents of departed duo Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri, but he found a home in front of Arsenal’s back four.
Arteta lacks the physicality and box-to-box dynamism of Vieira, but he has experience, his distribution is accurate and his reading of the game has helped him adapt to the defensive and positional aspects of his new role. Now 33, however, Arteta could find him on the fringes of Arsenal’s first team this season after the emergence of Francis Coquelin in 2015.
Francis Coquelin (August 2011 debut)
Coquelin is the closest thing Arsenal currently have to Vieira. The Frenchman has been on their books since 2008, but his emergence as a key player last season came as a surprise to everyone – including Wenger. Coquelin’s days at the club looked numbered when he was sent on loan to Charlton last November, but his spell at The Valley was cut short by an injury crisis at his parent club.
Coquelin grabbed his opportunity with both hands, and the 24-year-old suddenly looks undroppable in Arsenal’s holding role. He is free of any attacking responsibilities – unlike the rampaging Vieira in his pomp – but keeping it simple has allowed him to accentuate his strengths. Coquelin is unadventurous in possession, but he tackles and intercepts with vigour and his broken nose last season shows he embraces the physical battle.