Just another Arsene Wenger defensive failure? Or misunderstood man? Damian Hall tries to get to the bottom of a player who has impressed some influential coaches
Though much lauded for his astute transfer acquisitions and alchemist’s touch, there’s a theory that Arsène Wenger is actually a pretty poor judge of defenders. Gilles Grimandi, Pascal Cygan, Oleg Luzhny and Igor “fawn on ice” Stepanovs collectively conspire to let Frank Sinclair sleep easy at night, while Silvinho, Lauren and Ashley Cole all play like wannabe wingers. It seems the Professor shops for stoppers like most of us shop for Christmas presents for the in-laws – search around reluctantly for a bit, wearily realise whatever you buy probably won’t be deemed good enough and plump for the nearest bargain. And then there’s Nelson Vivas. It’s difficult to decide whether or not the Argentina right-back fits the thesis.
Vivas was the first in a long line of intended replacements for Lee Dixon, arriving in 1998 from Swiss club Lugano. Dixon started the season as first choice, but, when injured, Arsenal fans saw in Vivas a courageous and wholehearted player. However, the diminutive defender was unnerved by the sheer pace of Premiership football and coped by committing copious fouls, collecting seven yellows and one red in 18 starts (in all competitions) – almost a caution every other game.
The sending off was for elbowing Nicky Butt in the FA Cup semi-final, an activity generally applauded all round, but it showed Vivas to be reckless and a risk. He also liked to try to dribble round opposition wingers when he was last man back, not always successfully.
By the season’s penultimate game at Elland Road, Arsenal were neck-and-neck with Manchester United. But Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink crushed title hopes with a late winner and many blamed Vivas, on less than five minutes and out of position at left-back, for not marking tighter. Wenger was reputedly among the critics.
Injuries interrupted his second season, but, when fit, the first-team door was blocked by a new signing, Luzhny. Needing regular football to retain his international place, Vivas was loaned to Celta Vigo and most assumed the curtains were about to be drawn. But for the start of the 2000-01 season, he was back for another go. “I am disappointed I haven’t played more for Arsenal,” said Vivas, “because every time I’ve played, I have done well. I am now up to speed with the game here and believe that if playing regularly, I would not get booked so much.”
Fans admired his perseverance and on a soggy January Saturday he also showed he had what football parlance calls character. One-nil down at Charlton, Arsenal were struggling desperately to trim Manchester United’s runaway lead and late in the second half they won a penalty. But the first- and second-choice takers were off the pitch. The rest of the team, World Cup winners and an African player of the year among them, looked around sheepishly and prayed someone else had the guts to take it. That someone else was Nelson Vivas. Several much-celebrated stars should have held their heads in shame as the little Argentine strode bravely forward through the mud and rain. He missed, of course, and Arsenal lost 1-0, but that’s beside the point.
Around this time a rather lavish chant was coined for him, longer than ten seconds – a rarity at Highbury – and with lots of “laahs” in it. Sadly, Wenger stubbornly refuses to pick players according to how melodious their chants are and nothing had really changed. The Argentine remained a last-resort utility man, at just 5ft 6in even playing dutifully at centre-back, starting only three league games. If you’re Gilles Grimandi’s understudy then it’s time to seriously rethink your situation, if not your choice of career.
Surprisingly, none other than Internazionale wanted Vivas and when his contract expired in 2001 he went to defenders’ Valhalla, Italy. And that’s what doesn’t quite add up about Vivas. Throughout his time at Highbury he was a regular for Argentina, a side that lost only one of 18 World Cup qualifiers (an untimely injury prevented his second finals appearance). He’s played for Boca Juniors, too. If Wenger has a defensive blind-spot, in the case of Vivas, so too do Hector Cuper, Marcelo Bielsa and several other reputable coaches. They all, initially, saw something that ultimately most of us couldn’t.
From WSC 200 October 2003. What was happening this month