If Arsène Wenger was looking to recast his Invincibles for a tilt at the title next year, the Arsenal manager may have already found his Patrick Vieira. Blackburn Rovers' Steven Nzonzi has long been compared to the French midfielder, who accumulated lots of silverware with the Gunners, so Wenger may face stiff competition for the former France Under-21 international with both Chelsea and Aston Villa showing an interest.
While Nzonzi, who will feature against Sunderland tonight as Blackburn try to pull further away from the relegation zone, is flattered by the comparison to Vieira, though, he maintains it is a superficial one. "It's true many people have said that I remind them of Vieira," he says when we meet up. "He was a very good player – remember, he played with Claude Makélelé, so at that time France had a really, really good midfield. Everyone was looking to be like Vieira. I think people said it more of me because of my face, and I'm tall and quite skinny like him. He was a big, big player. I'm just beginning. I'm a little player compared to him."
Nzonzi was born in the northern suburbs of Paris in December 1988, so he was six months shy of his 10th birthday when France won the World Cup on home soil. They did it with a multi-ethnic side which symbolised modern France. To Nzonzi it proved an inspiration. "When you are young you need a team to make you dream. Everyone in France remembers that period and for any young French players it makes you want to do the same, even if it is really hard. That team gave us that dream."
Blackburn snapped up Nzonzi for just £500,000 from the Ligue 2 club Amiens in 2009 and he impressed so much in his first year that he was offered an extension to keep him at Rovers until 2015. Times have changed at the club, however, with the departures of senior staff both on and off the pitch. Roque Santa Cruz, Brett Emerton and Ryan Nelsen have all left as the owners, Venky's, look to cut costs.
Even someone with the European pedigree of the former Real Madrid galactico Michel Salgado found that reputation is no currency to the new Indian owners. He has found himself cast aside due to an extended contract clause which would be triggered should he play one more game for the club.
It was the protracted departure of Chris Samba to Anzhi Makhachkala which had the greatest effect on Nzonzi, as he credits the former captain with helping him settle in to life in a new country. Indeed, Samba was seen as more than a leader for the large French- speaking contingent at the club.
"We will miss him for sure. He was a key player, but he's gone and we have to deal with it. Of course, when you first arrive it helps when someone is there to explain things to you in your own language. It's the same for the Spanish- speaking players too, but we all speak English when it comes to football. We have some other players, good players, at his position. Everyone is aware that we need each other right now. We are going to work together, talk to each other, and try to help each other. We'll need to do this is if we are going to survive in this league."
Does Nzonzi understand why Samba left? "He had his own reasons and to be honest I didn't try to know too much about that. Everyone makes their own decisions. If he thought it was the best decision for him, then good for him. We'll stay friends, no problem."
The loss of so many senior players has meant that manager Steve Kean now has one of the youngest teams in the league. That is a fact not lost on Nzonzi, who was singled out by his manager as the player they most missed when they lost to Manchester City in February.
"I don't feel any pressure from that," says the 23-year-old. "I just try to do my best like any other player. It is true that I like to pass the ball as much as I can. If that's good for the team then I'm happy. Even if I am still a young player, and have some experiences to learn, I think that year after year you learn more, grow in confidence, and it becomes easier to play."Reuse content