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

Related articles

Ashley Cole remains under-appreciated despite pioneering trophy-packed career
Despite 107 England caps and plenty of silverware, the unfairly maligned left-back has never been able to shake off his “Cashley” tag 13 February...
Unnecessary use of change shirts is becoming increasingly absurd
Embed from Getty Imageswindow.gie=window.gie||function(c){(gie.q=gie.q||[]).push(c)};gie(function(){gie.widgets.load({id:'5KkpNEzvScRUj_fJXGr0PQ',sig...
State Of Play: Under the skin of the modern game by Michael Calvin
Century, £16.99Reviewed by Neil AndrewsFrom WSC 380, November 2018Buy the book Two years after England won the World Cup, journalist Arthur...

Sign up to the WSC Weekly Howl - a small portion of despair and enlightenment delivered to your inbox every Friday