Another relative unknown arrived at Highbury in late 1996 alongside Arsène Wenger. His name was Patrick Vieira and, together with his new manager, the midfielder went on to reshape the complexion of the Club, embarking on a journey to two domestic Doubles and an historic unbeaten Premier League campaign.
The rigours of England’s top flight were never going to be an issue for the 6ft 4ins Vieira and his physical stature was as imposing as his powerhouse performances in the heart of Gunners midfield. Under the tutelage of his compatriot Wenger, Vieira blossomed into one of the world’s finest in his position, a remarkable athlete who could both win the ball and distribute it effectively.
Foreign players often plead for time to settle and, in the Wenger era alone, the likes of Thierry Henry, Marc Overmars, Robert Pires, Alex Hleb, Tomas Rosicky and Emmanuel Adebayor all needed the luxury of weeks or months before finding somewhere near top gear. Vieira broke the mould. Almost instantly the towering Frenchman stamped his authority on the Premier League and, alongside Emmanuel Petit, swept the Gunners to Double glory in his first full season.
But what made Vieira special was that his graft came hand in hand with craft. The composure and quality of his passing meant that, as well as quelling the threat of the opposition, Patrick became a vital cog in Wenger's forward-thrusting machine. There were few more graceful sights in football than Vieira holding off an opponent in a congested midfield before flicking the ball over his head and racing away downfield to spark another Arsenal attack. He was simply a class act.
Goals weren’t frequent but when they did arrive they were invariably spectacular or crucial. There are the long-range net-busters against Newcastle and Manchester United which showcased Vieira’s power, but then the dinked finish to conclude a sweeping move against Liverpool which illustrated an astute football mind. Later in his Arsenal career the Frenchman slipped home a third-minute opener as Wenger’s side clinched the title at White Hart Lane, and he netted the decisive goal to conclude the ‘Invincible’ season, against Leicester City at Highbury.
As the years progressed Vieira’s influence grew and, after Tony Adams bought the curtain down on his own fabulous career, Patrick was named Club captain in summer 2002. And with authority came maturity. The ill-discipline that had sometimes marred the Frenchman’s performance was phased out. Needless to say his bite and enthusiasm remained and those infamous battles with Manchester United captain Roy Keane raged as fiercely as ever.
Vieira’s absence through injury in the closing months of the 2002/03 campaign was partly responsible for Arsenal’s failure to secure back-to-back. But he bounced back and was a formidable force in the following season’s success, and again as the Gunners clinched their third FA Cup of the decade with defeat of Manchester United on penalties. Few imagined his decisive spot-kick would be Vieira’s final act in an Arsenal shirt but it was fitting to end on a high note.