James Lawton: What has happened to Patrick Vieira?

Click to follow

While Eric Cantona was reminding us so distastefully of what happens down the years when too little real achievement is carried by too big an ego, there also had to be worries about what was going on in the head of another Frenchman: Patrick Vieira.

While Eric Cantona was reminding us so distastefully of what happens down the years when too little real achievement is carried by too big an ego, there also had to be worries about what was going on in the head of another Frenchman: Patrick Vieira.

Not so long ago Vieira's meaning in English football was of course immense, far deeper and more intrinsically valuable to his Arsenal than any of the flourishes - admittedly, often spectacular - that so absurdly persuaded some Manchester United fans that Cantona occupied a higher ranking in Old Trafford's roll call of glory than men like Bobby Charlton, Denis Law, George Best and Duncan Edwards.

The English view of Cantona was always a matter of vast disbelief in France. "But what has he ever achieved on the big stage - has he ever played a decent game in Europe or for France?" one recalls a mustachioed waiter asking on the terrace of the Café Deux Maggots.

Now if that question ever comes to haunt Vieira - and the possibility is certainly growing - it may have to be transferred to the gravestone of his mentor and, in many respects, his creator, Arsène Wenger.

If Wenger's expression seems to be permanently haunted at the moment, it, no doubt, has much to do with the decline of Vieira's influence. At Portsmouth on Sunday it was noted that the big man's level of effort had markedly increased from some recent performances, but where was the all-enveloping influence which a few years ago convinced many that, not only had he overtaken United's Roy Keane as the prevailing midfield factor in English football, but that he was arguably the most commanding play-maker and destroyer since the high-water mark of European Cup-winning Graeme Souness?

It just wasn't there. For a period in the second half, immediately before Sol Campbell's solemnly greeted long-shot winner, Pompey stretched Arsenal to their very seams. Vieira covered the ground well enough, but to no truly biting point. Indeed, it was impossible not to compare his performance with the one of Roy Keane 24 hours earlier when his United rolled over a game Crystal Palace.

Keane, remember, is supposed to be shot, reduced by the years and the injuries and the sheer toll of being both the sinew and the spirit of United down their most dominant years. You wouldn't have guessed any of that on Saturday. Keane, in the company of another magnificently committed pro, Paul Scholes, gave yet another working guide to how you take hold of a game and bend it to your will.

Maybe Keane has only a few more such performances left in his locker, but it was one which reminded you of the levels he set when he was in his prime ... and those which Vieira is now regularly missing.

This surely was the season for Vieira to take hold of the game and make his reputation for all time. Arsenal were playing beautifully last season, and they have shown flashes of it this time, but if it happens that Chelsea stride on to enjoy the fruits of their wealth, and United eventually concede they have given themselves too much to do, what do we do with those overheated arguments that Arsenal have made a serious case for themselves as the best English club team of all time? There is no question that they have to be buried with some embarrassment, leaving only the question of where it went wrong.

Maybe it was in Madrid in the summer when, according to one strong argument, Vieira was required to confront a truth which his rival Keane had always accepted. It was that he would never be seen as a galactico, a star of stars, but a man for the trenches, a winner in the entrails of the game. Vieira was told by Real Madrid that he would be paid as a foot soldier, more a Makalele than a Ronaldo or - and this must have hurt given relative levels of form - a Beckham. So, the argument goes on, Vieira returned to London in a mood of disillusionment.

Wenger, having reminded him of certain loyalties due to the club that had so powerfully shaped his career and his life, may have hoped for some reinstatement of Vieira's power. But it hasn't come and what we see in its place is someone who is ill at ease with himself, perhaps never more so than when he threw himself to the ground in a parody of sharp practice at Anfield a few weeks ago. Yes, it is true there have been some good games from Vieira, but just as many have been indifferent.

In the process we are reminded of that early Vieira who was as physically aggressive, and as undisciplined as Keane ever was in his formative years, but who, when tackled by officials, threatened to pack his bags and return to Europe.

This was an ultimatum Wenger saw fit to make public. He would have been far better off doing what Sir Alex Ferguson did to Keane, which was remind him of certain professional standards required while performing for one of the great clubs. Ferguson did this for entirely practical reasons; he saw, more clearly than Wenger has ever done, that ultimately discipline waskey to the development of any great talent or team.

From Keane that truth drew out the supreme achievement of his career, the extraordinary performance which dragged Manchester United back into the Champions' League running in their winning year of 1999 - after losing two goals to Juventus in the opening minutes of their semi-final in Turin. That was the essence of Keane. He became Manchester United - or a version of Lester Piggott in the year when it was said that, if necessary, he would have carried Roberto on his back over the Derby finishing line.

In this season of all seasons such a level of commitment - the kind which Ronaldinho is giving to Barcelona and yesterday deservedly won him the world footballer of the year award - is required from Vieira. The Brazilian has given it to the Barça coach Frank Rijkaard. Keane continues to give it to Ferguson and perhaps no one in England is currently matching the spirit of John Terry for Chelsea.

Wenger, surely, is entitled to demand similar service from the player in whom he has invested so much. In the real world he would pick the request out of the pay-back file.