Vieira bears the burden of hope

Exit Manu, enter Man U: Arsenal dynamo faces up to life without Petit with a little help from his friend Pires
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The Independent Online

The alarm bells are not quite reverberating around the marbled halls of Highbury but there is a distinct sense of unease at the lack of transfer activity at Arsenal. The fans and media may be scratching their heads, but Arsÿne Wenger, that most frugal of spenders, is unlikely to be rushed into any rash spending sprees following the shrewd recruitment of his fellow Frenchman Robert Pires.

The alarm bells are not quite reverberating around the marbled halls of Highbury but there is a distinct sense of unease at the lack of transfer activity at Arsenal. The fans and media may be scratching their heads, but Arsÿne Wenger, that most frugal of spenders, is unlikely to be rushed into any rash spending sprees following the shrewd recruitment of his fellow Frenchman Robert Pires.

Instead, Wenger looks likely to do a Ferguson and trust the players he has. The tactic worked for the Manchester United manager, who decided to stick with the young talents rather than buy for the sake of buying. Should Wenger adopt the policy (despite his continued wooing of Bordeaux's Sylvain Wiltord), he will be brave. If a trawl through his squad, packed as it is with internationals, hardly warrants pity, the loss of the two Spanish mutineers, Emmanuel Petit and Marc Overmars, is a blow.

The spine of the team is still strong, though, and at its centre is the man on whom much will rest. During Euro 2000, when his usual midfield partner in crime, Petit, was out injured for a number of matches, Patrick Vieira suddenly had to assume a vital role with France. In the space of a couple of weeks, the former Cannes and Milan player went from international substitute to midfield linchpin. "It's been an interesting time," he admitted with a hint of a smile. "I'm more comfortable at that level now. I know I can rise to the challenge."

If anything, the next few months promise to be even more testing for the 24-year-old. Now that Petit has left Arsenal for Barcelona, and that Wenger has failed to replace the influential Frenchman, Vieira is likely to shoulder much of the midfield responsibility. "Manu's departure was a shock," Vieira said. "I came back from holiday to read that he and Marc had signed for Barça. I had no idea. Manu is a good friend so I'll miss him. But he's made his choice. That's football."

Vieira added: "Having said that, I think it's a good move for Manu. Barcelona is a step up. They're a bigger club than us. It's a big stage and a tough job, but he'll do well."

Does he plan to follow them out of the Premier League into the Primera Liga? "No, no, no," Vieira said, laughing nervously. "They left because they wanted to, but I'm still learning so much. I'm a long way from being ready to move. I think Arsenal will be one of the main clubs in Europe over the next few years, and my ambition is to stay and be successful. I want to grow up here."

Vieira's frankness is commendable, as is his support of Petit, but the fact remains that Arsenal will miss their entente in the centre of midfield. "It's the team as a whole that will suffer," he said. "Manu always gave his best for the club and was a massive presence on and off the pitch. I guess people will be looking to me as the main force now, but I'm not going to put any pressure on myself because it's not worth it."

Vieira may not want to heap too much responsibility on his ample frame, but he knows much is expected of him next season. He is, for example, determined to curb his temper and avoid conflicts with the FA. He can afford to lose the money, Arsenal cannot afford to lose him. "My discipline is something which I plan to watch. I'm not saying I can change overnight, but I'll be more careful. I think I've evolved since I've been at Arsenal. The more you play, the more you adapt to a club and realise your responsibilities. I know what I have to do and I'm determined to get it right."

Vieira was less forthright about the prospect of being named Arsenal captain once Tony Adams retires. Though he would relish the opportunity, he does not believe he is ready. "You have to give a lot to a club before you can be captain," he said. "It's not a right. I've been here five years, but others are in their ninth or 10th. I'm not there yet."

Following the collapse of the Edu transfer from Brazil, Arsenal are having to continue their search for another central midfielder to play alongside Vieira. Fredrik Ljungberg has been deputising in preseason matches, but the Sweden international is most comfortable in the hole or as an attacking midfielder. Say it quietly, but mighty Arsenal are becoming something of a selling club. "I don't think that's strictly true," Vieira said. "We've let two great players go, but we've brought two great players in too."

Those two players are Pires for £6m from Marseille and the Cameroon international Lauren from Real Mallorca for £7.2m. Though Pires was the "cheaper" buy, securing the services of the World and European Cup winner is a major coup for Wenger. Not only is he a ready-made replacement for Overmars, he is also an experienced and versatile campaigner. "He's a great buy," Vieira said, "and he'll be successful. He only arrived two weeks ago [he is living with Thierry Henry until he finds a home] so he'll need time to settle in and adapt to English football, but I'm not worried. Robert's a winner."

The two have known each other for a long time, having played together at Under-21 and senior national levels. And Vieira, who admits he found his new English life difficult at first, insists that any doubts surrounding the mental strength of the former Metz and Marseille player are ill-founded. "Robert had a tough time last season with Marseille [when he was man-handled by disgruntled fans and had to resign the captaincy after the winter break] but he proved his worth by staying with the club when many others jumped ship [Christophe Dugarry was the most high-profile deserter when he re-joined Bordeaux at Christmas]. He's quality."

The capture of Pires is all the more impressive because he had the chance to go to Real Madrid, but opted for Arsenal instead. At a time when many are questioning the so-called brilliance of the Premier League, the arrival of a top-class international in his prime is genuinely exciting. "I can't wait to get going," said the 26-year-old. "I was approached by Real but, to be perfectly honest, after what happened last year at Marseille, I was keen to go to a quieter club; somewhere I could regain a sense of normality."

Whether or not Arsenal, and their notoriously demanding supporters, provide the setting he craves remains to be seen, but Pires is not afraid of the challenge. "Thierry [Henry] and Nico [Anelka] told me how incredible the club and its culture were. It made the lure of Arsenal irresistible. I'm here to play football and do well; not for fun."

Pires added: "Early on, I'm sure people will compare me to Marc [Overmars] but I believe I'm a very different player. Not only is he a left-footed player on the left, whereas I'm a right-footed one on the left, but I'm also much more versatile. I can play anywhere in the midfield or up front." True enough, although he has sometimes struggled when asked to fill Zinedine Zidane's boots in the withdrawn attacker role for France.

His most effective performances at Euro 2000 were when he was in his more favoured left-wing position (the role Wenger has in mind for him), most notably in the final against Italy when his extra-time skip and run down the left channel split the Azzurri defence and allowed him to tee up David Trézéguet for the winner. "Great memories," he said, "but that is in the past. Arsenal is the future."

Frenchmen, team-mates, friends. Vieira and Pires hold many of the keys to Arsenal's season. Petit and Overmars will be missed, but perhaps not for as long as some feared.

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