When Arsenal paid £34m for Fabio Vieira last summer, it was, by modern standards, a shock signing (in that, we only knew it was happening three days before it was announced). It wasn’t just the lack of information or build-up to the signing being completed that made it a shock but few would have considered a creative, attacking midfielder to be a priority for Arsenal’s transfer kitty.
Vieira looked every inch a ‘project signing’, a player Arteta and the club liked and wanted to bag before he produced another big season for Porto and his price tag doubled or trebled. In a world where half a good season in the Ukrainian top flight can make you a £90m player we will see more of this type of signing. Yet, in a sense, it felt like a throwback too, there was something very Wenger-esque about it, signing a waifish young playmaker when few considered it a priority.
Upon signing, Arteta pointed to the player’s versatility. “Fabio is a very creative player that will bring high quality and versatility to our attacking play.” Versatility is a key component of an ‘Arteta player.’ One of the things that made Vieira’s role at Porto remarkable was that his versatility was often expressed across individual games, with the player adopting base camps in completely different areas of the field depending on game state.
Spent ages watching Fabio Vieira to work out if he’s good and what sort of player he is. He’s very fun to watch pic.twitter.com/C5pVfORNxf
— JJ Bull (@jj_bull) August 12, 2022
On paper, I felt this would prove to be a smart signing because Vieira was able to simultaneously provide cover for Granit Xhaka, Bukayo Saka and Martin Odegaard. These are three players who are almost never rotated, so being a back up to any one of them greatly restricts your minutes unless the player you are understudying gets an injury.
Covering for three totem pole players seemed to make sense, you want to strike a balance whereby your squad players are reasonably involved so they can remain sharp and in tune. The chances of that happening for your squad players are enhanced when you can play a range of roles. This season, Arsenal are just beginning to build that base layer- Tomiyasu, for instance, is no longer strictly a starting eleven player but he is the first reserve in both full-back positions and can play centre-half.
I view Leandro Trossard as a kind of Tomiyasu for the attack, he probably isn’t ahead of Martinelli, Saka or Jesus in a do or die game but he could, and has, played in all of their positions and to a good level. He is another who is in the ‘trusted to rotate into the team and first off the bench’ territory. Emile Smith Rowe will, I think, bid for a similar role next season.
That’s another reason why the signing of Vieira caused me to cock an eyebrow, on the face of it, he seems to be a threat to the function Smith Rowe could operate in. Maybe except for the left-wing berth but with Trossard on board, I think ESR might have fallen further down the queue for that particular role. Ultimately, I don’t see a situation where both Vieira and Smith Rowe thrive at Arsenal.
Vieira was clearly somebody that Arsenal had earmarked to develop in the second layer of the team, with Europa League appearances, league cameos and cup games. The problem with the Europa League group games as a development tool for the squad players, is that you are playing with your peers and not your seniors in terms of hierarchy and it is not always easy to show your best form in these low key, mix and match occasions. (Vieira averages 49 touches per 90 in the Europa League compared to 63 per 90 in the Premier League).
Vieira started a league game away at Brentford when Odegaard was injured back in September and he looked far better in that game than he did in most of the Europa League group stage. This is a point Arteta acknowledged before Arsenal played away at Wolves in November- a game in which Vieira came on for Xhaka in the first half and had a tangible impact from the bench.
“Every player needs time to adapt and to play against Brentford away from home, he was surrounded by players he’s more familiar with, and it was a little bit easier. We have asked him to play in different positions as well because of the needs that we have in the squad. I’m not worried at all.” Therein was a tacit admission from Arteta that his versatility may have counted against him in terms of settling into the team.
Trossard’s versatility has been a huge asset and he has settled into the team very quickly but he is 28-years-old with four years of Premier League experience with Brighton behind him and Arsenal were carrying an injury in their forward line when he arrived. Versatility can make a player and sometimes it can break a player. Arteta hinted at finding Vieira a more settled role prior to the Oxford United FA Cup game in January.
“Now it is my role to give him the right minutes in the right position, in the right environment, to fulfil his potential. But I am really happy with him.” He played in Odegaard’s right eight role that evening and in his second Premier League start of the season at home to Bournemouth, he played Xhaka’s left eight role. Arteta was effusive about the player’s performance in Lisbon last month, a game in which he played as a right eight and then as a false nine.
“You saw tonight he was one of our dangerous players, making things happen and he’s a player that I absolutely love.” I think there is a very strong argument that his versatility and exposure to different positions will provide him with a good crash course of the Arteta system, giving him the opportunity to experience the team from different angles and perspectives, which is especially important for a creative player.
I think he has improved physically from, it must be said, a low bar. He still has a tendency to be absent during games at times. Like a lot of young creative players, he is still developing his sense of ‘pausa’, of when to speed the game up and when to slow it down, when to look for the killer pass and when to keep the ball moving with a simple wall pass.
This is where elite playmakers like Odegaard and a prime Mesut Ozil really came into their own. The assists are the most tangible part of their job, clearly. However, both have / had an innate understanding of when to bump a simple pass to a teammate, move, make an angle to get it back, receive it and carry on. That intangible meter takes time to develop.
This was always likely to be a developmental season for Vieira and Arsenal’s squad is such that they could afford to blood him slowly and quietly. The coach has talked him up consistently during the season, just before the victory at Leicester in February, he gushed, “He is starting to give me big headaches because I see every single day what he is capable of doing. A tremendous player.
“He now understands exactly what we want and physically he is a condition to compete at the right level in this league. He brings qualities that we don’t have in the squad. I am very eager to give him more (minutes).” I am sure there was an element of ‘gassing him up’ as someone younger than me might say but Arteta is a hard taskmaster and not in the business of dishing out flowers to his younger players willy nilly.
If Vieira wants to develop from being a versatile squad option to being a bona fide member of the team next season, Granit Xhaka’s role seems to be the place most likely up for grabs. You would imagine Bukayo Saka and Martin Odegaard’s shirts are cast in stone. The question then becomes whether Vieira can develop the penalty box facets of the game to play that role, to arrive late off the ball into the area.
I don’t know yet what Fabio Vieira is but that’s ok. I didn’t think Ben White was an elite right-back. I didn’t think Zinchenko would transform Arsenal’s midfield. I didn’t think Trossard would fix Arsenal’s sans Jesus attacking problems as a false nine. I wasn’t entirely sure Bukayo Saka would be a right winger.
If Vieira can be another Trossard / Tomiyasu versatility option and operate at that level, he will have been worth the money. If the player wants more than that, he is probably going to have to settle into a position and make it his own. It is very unlikely that he will be able to do that in Odegaard or Saka’s positions.
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