Wednesday, February 28, 2024

New signing profile: Fabio Vieira

With eyes on Darwin Núñez completing his record move to Liverpool, Arsenal were working quietly in the background to conclude a surprise deal for Fábio Vieira from FC Porto.

But who is the midfielder, what will he bring to Arsenal and why is he costing €35 million?

Phil Costa takes a look (@_philcosta)

From The Big Three in Portuguese football, Benfica and Sporting are often associated with producing the best young talent while Porto are instead famed for their recruitment. Over the last decade, only rivals Benfica (€690m) have recorded a greater transfer profit across European football than Os Dragões (€565m) who bought and later sold the likes of Radamel Falcao, James Rodríguez and Eder Militão for major sums.

But their academy has also borne fruit with some notable sales, namely Rúben Neves and André Silva, however their 2000 generation has quickly risen to prominence. Goalkeeper Diogo Costa, right back João Mario and midfielder Vitinha all played major roles in Porto’s recent domestic double under Sergio Conceição, as did 22-year-old Fábio Vieira who enjoyed a breakthrough season for his boyhood club and now finds himself in the Premier League.

Last season could be considered one of two halves for Vieira. Despite being named Player of the Tournament at the U21 Euros, he was peripheral early on and simply put, the playmaker was an awkward fit for Conceição’s preferred 4-4-2 system – he is neither a natural wide man nor central midfielder – while their attacking play largely revolved around Luis Díaz. However, the Colombian’s January departure to Liverpool sparked some unexpected flexibility from the Porto manager which handed Vieira more opportunities as a traditional number ten, as the second striker and even wide right on occasion. He quickly paid his manager back and with interest, averaging a goal contribution every 66 minutes.

Versatility has been a common theme among Arsenal’s recent additions, but what stands out whilst watching Vieira is the quality of his passing. During the 2021/22 campaign, the 22-year-old ranked second for assists (14) and eighth for key passes per 90 (2.3) in Liga Portugal despite playing just 1,329 minutes [WhoScored].

He also led the league for open play assists per 90 (0.68) despite taking set pieces, with Lionel Messi the only player across Europe to better his 0.81 through balls per 90 last term. Like a golfer mastering his craft, he can chip, drive and punch, and hopefully ease the current creative burden on Martin Ødegaard and Bukayo Saka.

The signing also has a nostalgic Arsène Wenger-style feel to it. Vieira – in stark contrast with his previous namesake – is a small, technically gifted midfielder who loves to feel the ball and combine with teammates. Quick, one touch backheels and ‘croquetas’ (made famous by Andrés Iniesta) are regular fixtures in his game, while he excels in the right-half space like Ødegaard. Those who have watched the playmaker will have seen a recurring theme – perfectly weighted passes between the right back and centre back which usually ended with Luis Díaz wheeling away in celebration. The prospect of similar situations playing out with Gabriel Martinelli or Emile Smith Rowe are exciting, particularly with Arsenal needing to balance their right-sided bias.

In a welcome change to most lefties, the 22-year-old is also competent on his weaker foot with six goal contributions (3G, 3A) last season coming from his right side. Vieira is also an impressive ball carrier and it’s here where the Bernardo Silva comparisons ring true; much like the Manchester City midfielder he glides across the pitch and found himself in the 89th percentile for progressive carries among positional peers in Liga Portugal.

Unsurprisingly, standing at 5ft 7in tall, Vieira is not the most physically gifted player and his arrival will not ease concerns at how easily the Gunners’ can be bullied. But his appreciation for finding space, feathered first touch and movement are what afford him time on the ball. However, the playmaker is no stranger to hard work having recorded 1.7 tackles per 90 last term, behind only Thomas Partey in the current squad. Vieira does look light in duels – he will need to bulk up and better brace his body for contact – although his pressing is intelligent in how he cuts off passing lanes and arcs his body to force defenders into mistakes.

Another factor to consider is that having spent essentially his whole career with Porto, Vieira will need time to adapt to English football and his new environment. Below the big three in Portugal, quality dips significantly and you are rarely pressed, you have time to turn, look up and pick your passes – that will not happen in the Premier League. We saw with Albert Sambi Lokonga how difficult that transition can be, although writing him off seems premature having watched Santi Cazorla boss the best in those tight PUMA jerseys.

This transfer should not be about “Ødegaard plays there” or “what about Saka?”, but about how having better players makes you a better team. Despite improving their attacking play last season, how often did Arsenal lack finesse in their final ball or struggle to break teams down when key players weren’t firing. Vieira will not only be tasked with supporting existing options but aiming to displace them as well. More importantly, having greater technical quality within your ranks offers variety in breaking down deep blocks, sustaining pressure and taking the sting out of games, should you need it.

Some consider the fee expensive (€40m if add ons are met) for a player who is yet to truly establish himself at club level. But after spearheading Porto to UEFA Youth League glory in 2019, guiding Portugal to second place at the U21 Euros last summer and breaking through under Conceição – who often prefers experience ahead of youth – hints at clear ability despite those concerns being justified.

Arsenal and Mikel Arteta are banking on potential but reports in Portugal state the club have scouted Vieira closely for over a year. This is a player with technical quality, creativity and work ethic, whose wages and age profile all point towards him being a natural, exciting fit at Emirates Stadium.