As Patrick Vieira walked to the penalty spot inside the Millenium Stadium during the 2005 FA Cup final, little did Arsenal fans know they’d struggle to replace him for over a decade.
Vieira sent that penalty crashing home, and in the process, won his side the competition with what turned out to be his final kick of the ball in Arsenal colours.
It was a fantastic moment to wave goodbye on as the Frenchman sealed a £13.75m switch to Juventus.
That moment was pivotal and to coin a phrase often used by Ivan Gazidis, was a catalyst for change.
Arsene Wenger decided to bring through a new midfielder. He wasn’t tough tackling, nor could he bully opponents out the way. Instead, he was the polar opposite as Arsenal’s legendary manager turned to the shy and relatively unknown Cesc Fabregas.
Gone were the days of combative midfield players dominating the centre for Arsenal – they now had a more elegant and graceful footballer leading the charge.
Fabregas, of course, would go onto captain the club just as Vieira had, but despite his 304 appearances for the Gunners, failed to leave behind as much of a legacy as their former Invincible had.
That’s primarily because for 15 long arduous years, they’ve been fighting to find someone capable of replacing Vieira. Whether it was Wenger or Unai Emery, neither could find a remedy.
A playmaker was relied upon more and more with silky individuals like Santi Cazorla and Dani Ceballos becoming important to the club instead.
Is it any wonder they struggled to compete with the very best in Europe? Definitely not.
They did, of course, reach the Champions League final in 2006, but they haven’t come anywhere near to lifting the famous trophy since. It will be a number of years before they get the chance to compete for it again.
However, with Thomas Partey arriving from Atletico Madrid this week, they may just have their Vieira replacement. It’s been a long time coming with Arsenal signing 13 defensive midfielders since the Frenchman’s departure.
Here they are all in their glory…
13. Amaury Bischoff – £270k
Does anyone remember this chap? It’s unlikely. Now aged 33, Bischoff was signed in 2008 and made just one Arsenal appearance. Wenger admitted that signing him was a “gamble” considering the player’s injury record and he ultimately departed the Emirates Stadium just a year later.
This is one of the most pointless additions to an Arsenal side you will ever see. Bischoff is now playing for Bahlinger in the fourth tier of German football.
12. Kim Kallstrom – Loan
Kallstrom had plenty of pedigree, especially at international level, but this signing was absolutely baffling. The Swede arrived on transfer deadline day in the winter of 2014 but in walking through the door as injury cover for Arsenal’s midfielders, actually had an injury himself.
He struggled for game time but did, at least, score a penalty in the Gunners’ triumphant FA Cup run. Shades of Vieira.
11. Lassana Diarra – £2.6m
Another defensive midfielder who left shortly after signing his Arsenal contract was Diarra. The Frenchman walked through the door in 2007 for a bargain fee after leaving Chelsea but he managed just seven league outings.
Diarra later joined Portsmouth and then Real Madrid. What a bizarre career path.
10. Krystian Bielik – £2.4m
How does a former academy player usurp someone like Kallstrom and Diarra I hear you ask? Well, to put it simply, he made Arsenal a very tasty profit.
Bielik struggled to ever make it in north London and was rarely afforded an opportunity to play. The Pole featured only twice for the first-team before joining Derby for a fee of £10m.
9. Mohamed Elneny – £5m
The Egyptian’s time at Arsenal has been rather uneventful. A safe player who has done little wrong, he did score in the Nou Camp but beyond that, has contributed very little to the base of the team’s midfield.
Elneny has looked a rejuvenated figure under Mikel Arteta this season but don’t expect him to become a world beater. He’s about as much as you’d want from a player who cost just £5m.
8. Mathieu Flamini – Free transfer
Flamini’s first stint at Arsenal was when Vieira was still at the club but he joined for a second spell in 2013, departing again three years later. He became good friends with Mesut Ozil and will be fondly remembered for a brace against Tottenham in the League Cup.
He was never the battering ram that Wenger required and like Elneny, was a safe player, rather than someone who was going to take any risks. You can’t complain too much on a free but he doesn’t deserve to be too high up on this list.
7. Matteo Guendouzi – £8m
The very first signing of Emery’s tenure at the Emirates was Guendouzi. He arrived with little fanfare from Lorient but settled in immediately at the club. The Frenchman’s personality was infectious and he wasn’t afraid to put himself about and upset opponents.
Unfortunately, that has proven to be his Arsenal downfall. He hasn’t played since a verbal argument with Neal Maupay when the Gunners lost to Brighton in June and as a result, has been shipped on loan to Hertha Berlin. He will return next summer with just a year left on his contract.
6. Lucas Torreira – £26m
The little Uruguayan had so much potential and still does, but sadly, it doesn’t look as though it’ll be unlocked in London. He began his Arsenal career in brilliant fashion, winning several man of the match awards for his robust and tough tackling style of football. He looked like a player the Londoners had craved for years but after Emery started playing him further forward, his influence was lost.
Torreira suffered an injury early in Arteta’s reign and hasn’t been able to earn a regular place since. He is now loan at Atletico Madrid and is likely to leave permanently next summer. Not great business in the end for £26m.
5. Abou Diaby – £2m
The towering midfield is the closest thing Arsenal have found to Vieira since he left. Unfortunately, his career was ravaged by injuries and was never able to fulfil the enormous promise he showed on an infrequent basis.
Diaby played 180 times for the club in a nine-year period but spent over three years on the sidelines, missing 250 matches in the process. That is an absurd amount of time to spend on the treatment table but Arsenal fans hold him fondly in their hearts. All you need to do is remember his display at Anfield in 2012 and it’ll bring happy thoughts.
4. Alex Song – £1m
The Cameroon international was more intent on surging forward and playing diagonal passes than staying back but he was a loyal servant and a particularly important player for the Gunners.
His understanding with Robin van Persie was first-class as Song played 205 times in a six-year stay at Arsenal. He scored ten strikes and also amassed an impressive 32 assists before moving to Barcelona. The midfielder was a capable player but never the long-term answer from a defensive point of view.
3. Francis Coquelin – Free transfer
Arsenal fans tend to forget just how good Coquelin was for a few years. He signed in 2008 but didn’t get a consistent chance to show his qualities until 2014. The French holding player had spent five games on loan at Charlton but was then re-called to the Emirates. From that moment, he never looked back.
Coquelin became absolutely pivotal to the Gunners midfield and developed a serious parternship with Cazorla. They were both mightily important during a rare away win at the Etihad, a performance that summed up exactly what Coquelin was about. Via WhoScored he made three tackles, six interceptions and 11 interceptions in that clash. Phenomenal.
2. Granit Xhaka – £35m
Xhaka isn’t the archetypal defensive midfielder but that’s the role he’s more or less been asked to play during his stint at the club. He hasn’t been worth anywhere near £35m but there is a reason that he virtually became undroppable under Wenger, Emery and Arteta.
Despite his mishap last season when he was stripped of the captaincy, Xhaka has managed to eradicate the diabolical errors from his game to come a real leader in the Arsenal side. What the future holds for him with Partey coming in remains to be seen.
1. Thomas Partey – £45m
This is the signing Arsenal have been craving ever since Vieira left. He may not have played a single minute for the club but the box to box midfielder is a swashbuckling force ready to take the Premier League by storm.
He is destructive defensively, but also has an exciting burst into the final third and an eye for a goal – just like Vieira. It doesn’t take a genius to work out why we’ve put him at number one on this list.
Here’s hoping he’s the answer to Arsenal’s prayers.
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