Fabio Vieira’s emergence as an assist machine is perfect for Arsenal while Kai Havertz is struggling. It strengthens the case for Vieira to start in midfield, especially because he can become the next Santi Cazorla in north London.
Replacing Cazorla was never going to be easy, but it’s been seven years since the little Spanish magician last took to the pitch for Arsenal, and the Gunners are still missing his craft and influence despite Martin Odegaard’s rise.
Fortunately, Mikel Arteta has a Cazorla-esque midfielder in the present-day squad. Fabio Vieira fits the bill and he’s showing encouraging signs of improvement after a difficult first season in north London.
Vieira couldn’t make his mark last term after arriving from Porto in a deal worth £34.5m. Physical frailty and scant end product plagued Vieira, but he’s solved at least one of those problems at a time when Kai Havertz is struggling to make his mark.
Fabio Vieira can be Arsenal’s Santi Cazorla 2.0
Teeing up fellow substitute Gabriel Jesus to score Arsenal’s third goal against Manchester United maintained Vieira’s prolific run as a provider. He’s now among the most frequent creators in Arteta’s squad, per numbers from Orbinho.
Sharing the wealth is vital when it comes to goals and assists. While Bukayo Saka and Odegaard are special players, Arsenal run the risk of becoming overly reliant on the pair without somebody else chipping in consistently.
Vieira is solving the problem, but most of his contributions have been made as a substitute. As Art de Roche of The Athletic pointed out, no other sub in the Premier League has been as super as Vieira.
Arteta is limiting his team’s efficiency in the final third by keeping somebody with Vieira’s eye for a key pass out of the starting XI. Not only does it waste Vieira’s talent, but it also leaves Odegaard to shoulder too much of the creative burden.
No playmaker is an island, and it takes a village to consistently play between the lines and manufacture chances. That’s how things worked when Cazorla dropped into a deeper role during the 2014/15 campaign.
Cazorla-like transformation perfect for Vieira and Arsenal
Arteta witnessed Cazorla’s transformation firsthand. Cazorla was initially the No. 10 ahead of Arteta in the holding role back in 2012, but Mesut Ozil’s arrival a year later prompted the need for a change.
A season spent on the left flank followed, but when Arsene Wenger signed Alexis Sanchez, Cazorla was the odd man out. Fortunately, Wenger was too smart to relegate Cazorla, his imagination and two-footed flair, to the bench.
Instead, the solution was dropping Cazorla to the base of midfield. He played alongside Francis Coquelin, a natural destroyer who provided the defensive qualities lacking in Cazorla’s game.
It’s easy to see a Rice and Vieira partnership offering the same balance, but the duo would only function properly if the latter followed Cazorla’s example. He helped Arsenal get on the ball and recycle possession more often while being more progressive moving between the lines.
All those things were summed up by Cazorla’s distribution stats once he shifted deeper, per Squawka.
Using Vieira the same way would also solve the Odegaard isolation problem. Stopping Arsenal is easier if Odegaard is kept quiet, a problem nearest rivals Manchester City don’t encounter. Stop Kevin De Bruyne and Bernardo Silva takes over. Stop Silva and Phil Foden bosses the game. Somehow keep Foden under wraps and Jack Grealish will unlock your defence.
Vieira can take attention away from Odegaard, provided the Portugal international passes the strength test.
Vieira must pass the strength test
Even with Rice as his enforcer, Vieira would still need to prove he can handle the hurly-burly of life in the middle of the park. Coping with the rough and tumble of the Premier League has been a problem, but Vieira has shown hints he’ll get used to mixing it in the middle.
Take his performance during Arsenal’s 3-0 win over Oxford United in last season’s FA Cup. Vieira started in midfield but often took up a place at the tip of the attack in Arteta’s fluid, but typically over-elaborate tactical design.
Being up top left Vieira subject to a battering from Oxford defenders, and while he took his lumps, he never shied away from the scrap. Vieira kept coming back for more until he’d assisted goals by Mohamed Elneny and Eddie Nketiah.
That kind of resiliency will be key to Vieira surviving in the midfield boiling pot. The 23-year-old may also need to bulk up, but Vieira already has the low centre of gravity and comfort with two feet so reminiscent of Cazorla.
Those same attributes also make Emile Smith Rowe an intriguing candidate to play deeper, but Vieira has produced enough to get the first chance to make the switch.