Wednesday, April 17, 2024

He comes from Portugal- now how does he play for Arsenal?

Over the last few seasons, Arsenal have been able to create a strength in depth to their squad. The majority of players recruited since the summer of 2021 have been successful to some degree, save for a few younger punts like Nuno Tavares and Sambi Lokonga, though they haven’t played enough first team football to have had a distinctly negative impact.
 
Every big team has totem pole players who will pretty much play no matter what but, for example, Arsenal can justifiably start any one of Kiwior, Zinchenko or Tomiyasu at left-back without creating much discussion. Jorginho and Rice can team up in midfield with Havertz upfront, or else Havertz can play in midfield with Rice behind him and, again, neither call would merit much further discussion.
 
The inclusion of Leandro Trossard’s name on the teamsheet would barely register. Then I think there are a cluster of names in the first team squad who might well be sliding out of view. Reiss Nelson, Eddie Nketiah and Emile Smith Rowe rarely register significant minutes now. While Arteta was obviously firm about his choice of goalkeeper as soon as he signed David Raya I think we have moved to a stage now where everybody accepts that Aaron Ramsdale is not longed for N5.
 
I am certain that Thomas Partey will be moved on to any club with an acceptable medical facility if such a club can be found. Then there is Cedric Soares and Mohamed Elneny, who will absolutely certainly leave the club this summer. Sambi Lokonga’s form on loan at Luton is significant only in a transfer fee sense, while a more permanent solution will almost certainly be found for Kieran Tierney this summer too.
 
In essence, there is a strong sense of hierarchy within the squad. The core players, the important players, the fringe players and the ‘oh yeah, I forgot that he still played for us’ players. The only exception, in my view, is Fabio Vieira. The Portuguese doesn’t fit comfortably into any of these categories (which, to be fair, I have just made up).
 
Part of that is because the injury he suffered in the winter, and the subsequent layoff, has robbed us of a proper chance to assess him in what always felt like a ‘jury is out’ kind of season. The amount of money Arsenal spent on Vieira gives him a status that neither Tavares or Lokonga were ever likely to enjoy. When the Gunners signed him in the summer of 2022, it didn’t feel like Arteta was plugging a gap in the squad.
 
To me, it felt like an opportunistic signing. He was just starting to explode with FC Porto and cost around £35m. With the way fee inflation is nowadays, I am sure Arsenal’s thinking was along the lines of ‘if we wait another season he might cost us £100m.’ However, there is potential opportunity on the horizon for him.
 
Neither Partey nor Jorginho are going to be with Arsenal for the long-term- both might even leave this summer. That might necessitate that Arsenal funnel funds towards a deeper midfielder. The competition he has faced from Emile Smith Rowe in the ‘left eight’ role will surely not be an issue next season either. Kai Havertz has been very effective as a striker, which also potentially leaves that left midfield role more open for him.
 
Interestingly, during pre-season, Vieira played almost exclusively on the right of the pitch, either as a right-winger or as the right eight. It could be that Arsenal were just having a look at him there in a relatively consequence free environment. However, he started the league game at Goodison Park in September in the ‘left eight’ role.
 
Arteta has shown a proclivity for playing a more technical player in that position for certain types of game. Back in September, Vieira started at Goodison Park, Trossard started there at Brentford and Smith Rowe started there at Nottingham Forest. Against low blocks and very tall defences, Arteta has favoured a technician and that is in Vieira’s favour.
 
Because on the right side of the pitch, he can only ever aspire to be ‘useful back-up’ for Odegaard and Saka. And as we saw with Sambi Lokonga and we have probably seen with Nketiah and Nelson too, ‘useful back-up’ is a role that usually leads to stagnation for players in their developmental years. To fully develop, Vieira is going to have to play with some sense of regularity.
 
Clearly, he has needed time to physically adjust to the English game. Perhaps, in a strange way, the fact that his last meaningful contribution before his injury this winter was a studs up lunge on a Wolves player is portentous. Arsenal regularly field Jorginho, Rice, Havertz or Partey in midfield, while Xhaka was a mainstay prior to his departure.
 
Vieira can take inspiration from his captain Martin Odegaard in this respect. The Norwegian does not have the same build as Rice or Havertz but his physicality has never come into question. In Vieira’s favour is also his versatility. Upon signing him, Arteta said, ‘Fabio is a very creative player that will bring high quality and versatility to our attacking play.’
 
When he referenced Vieira’s versatility, I don’t think Arteta was only talking about how he can fill in for different players when needed. I think Arteta thinks of versatility as a player being able to interpret their role in a number of different ways. Ben White is a fantastic example of this and while at Porto, it is said that Vieira was very adaptable in how he played his creative role.
 
On occasion, it is said he would drop so far back that he was almost in the left-back position to receive the ball. While in other scenarios, he would often play more like a false 9, depending on the opponent and the game state. I think that’s the flexibility Arteta really prizes but it’s difficult to see how Vieira can do that without significant game time.
 
Havertz plays a flexible, positional role too and it took him some time to nail it. Crucially, he was given that time. Unless there are significant injuries, I don’t see how Vieira can achieve that and while Arsenal will need to shuffle the pack a little during this run-in, it is not exactly the time to roll the dice. Of course, things can change quickly in football.
 
A few weeks ago, I would have put Jakub Kiwior in the same ‘purgatory’ category as Vieira when it came to his position in the squad. Injuries to Zinchenko and Tomiyasu gave Kiwior his chance and he has taken it after Arteta tailored his role a little. In doing so, Kiwior has probably earned himself a promotion into the Trossard / Tomiyasu bracket of the squad.

It feels unfair to call the next eight weeks or so make or break for Vieira, it’s unlikely to be a long enough period for him to make that kind of impression. His status won’t be altered by ‘one big moment’ either. Reiss Nelson served one of those up just over a year ago but it hasn’t changed his Arsenal trajectory.

But Vieira, like most of the squad, is going to have to contribute positively during the run-in. In truth, players in their early 20s rarely make good squad players (generally you want rotational players to be older or younger), whether Vieira can carve out the kind of minutes he needs to develop at Arsenal will be fascinating to see.

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