Patrick Vieira's elevation to captain of Arsenal produced similar raised eyebrows to the ones which accompanied David Beckham's appointment as captain of his country. Two men less redolent of those fist-curling, garrulous characters Tony Adams or Bryan Robson you would not expect to confront.
Though both Beckham and Vieira bowed to no one as individuals of the greatest presence in their own specific midfield arts, neither ostensibly appeared to possess the personalities required to register their own self-discipline, let alone inspire it in others. Which says much for the perception of the England coach Sven Goran Eriksson (and before him, Peter Taylor, who first appointed Beckham as his England leader) and Arsène Wenger.
Arsenal manifestly felt the absence of Adams – both in a ragged rearguard and in their less than convincing organisation overall – against Schalke in Wednesday's Champions' League contest, but there was sufficient evidence to suggest that Vieira is gradually rising to the responsibility. Indeed, Wenger murmured, as he discussed his compatriot on Friday after training: "I think one day he will be French captain."
Though Adams may be fit enough to regain the armband by Wednesday when the Gunners face their next European game, away to Panathinaikos, runners-up in last season's Greek league. Wenger is confident that Vieira would be equipped to deputise once more in what could be a frenetic encounter, no doubt containing much malevolent aforethought.
Asked whether Vieira was growing into the role, in the absence of Tony Adams, Wenger replied: "I believe so, yes. He behaved like a real captain against Schalke on Wednesday night. Of course, Tony is a formidable organiser, and he's also 10 years older, but I think on Wednesday night Patrick did very well at analysing the game. There were difficult moments in the last 20 minutes when we had problems keeping possession witha lot of crosses coming in, but he was always on the end of an important ball. He is like Beckham in that they both become natural leaders, not so much through their talking, but through their playing. They set an example on the pitch."
The Arsenal manager added: "We need that kind of contribution again against Panathinaikos, because they will play that game like a final of the European Cup. For them it could be the qualifying game."
The more cynical may still surmise that Arsenal's vice-captaincy was a kind of "reward" to Vieira for maintaining the Highbury faith despite the words attributed to him in the summer suggesting that he was inclined to jump ship. However, Wenger maintained: "Before that whole story came out, I had already made my decision. I thought, 'If I don't have Adams as captain, I have [David] Seaman, or [Martin] Keown or [Lee] Dixon'. But sometimes you have to look forward and give the leadership to someone in the younger generation of the team."
Nevertheless, it was put to the manager, would he really have confidence in a man at the helm whose temperament was unable to withstand a contretemps with Leicester's Dennis Wise. It was only three weeks ago that both were dismissed at Highbury. Did not the Greeks have the potential to be even more provocative? "Maybe, but I am not worried at all," responded Wenger. "When he was sent off against Leicester it was early in the season and Patrick always makes a slow start. When his game is not right, he is not right. I think he has overcome that now by producing better performances. His mental state means he is much better able to cope with these important occasions."
Wednesday's occasion will take place in a stadium with a capacity of just 16,000, but it will be none the less uninviting for that. "Very hostile," nodded Wenger, who insists that, despite appearances, Arsenal's "is a very difficult group". Panathinaikos are currently top with maximum points, having defeated Schalke away and Real Majorca at home.
How far the Champions' League progresses before the strike threatened by the players' union over distribution of TV contract money is enacted and brings the competition to an unwelcome hiatus remains to be seen. Though such action is apparently intended to improve the lot of lower-paid professionals, Wenger was still firmly opposed to any action. "I think it could be amazing to a lot of people to see our world go on strike," declared the manager, who admitted he had already had initial discussions about the issue with Martin Keown, the club's PFA representative. "I don't think it will happen. There are two reasons. First of all, we are in a privileged profession. We are in a world of wealth, and people would have problems understanding that. I think it would be a very bad advert for the game."
Meanwhile, the manager continues to stall on the confirmation of his own future. He still has to sign a new contract and while he prevaricates, some of his players, including Wednesday's two-goal scorer, Thierry Henry, maintain they will be reluctant to do so, too, because of lack of certainty about their manager's plans. "They shouldn't," said Wenger. "Because there is no basic problem. There is a small problem that exists at the moment, but it will be solved."Reuse content