Arsenal’s Fabio Vieira: A creative midfielder with the intelligence of ‘wise old men’

The surname is familiar, the talent — for now at least — an enigma. That will surely not remain the case for long. In Fabio Vieira, Arsenal have landed a young footballer of the highest pedigree.

Mikel Arteta has been a key influence in this signing. Although Vieira’s progress had been tracked by Arsenal’s wider recruitment team, it was ultimately the manager’s conviction about the player that pushed this deal through.

The speed of the club’s move to complete the transfer took even some Arsenal staff by surprise. It did not prove a difficult negotiation: a fee of €35 million plus €5 million in add-ons was ultimately considered reasonable, especially as it fell some way below the player’s buy-out clause. Privately, some close to Porto insist that Arsenal have got themselves a bargain.

Vieira undoubtedly fits the recent profile of Arsenal signing, though. Although only just 22, he has an old head on young shoulders. In some respects, he was regarded as one of the leaders of a brave new generation at Porto. After he scored a brace in a 3-0 win over Santa Clara, Porto assistant coach Vitor Bruno said simply: “Fabio Vieira has the intelligence of wise old men.”

For many English scouts, Vieira first appeared on the radar at the 2019 UEFA Youth League. The final saw an impressive Porto side come up against Chelsea. The Londoners’ line-up included Tariq Lamptey, Marc Guehi and Conor Gallagher — it was their second final in succession, having faced Barcelona the year before. Porto’s team included goalkeeper Diogo Costa, now a full Portugal international, and Fabio Silva, currently of Wolves.

But it was the slight 18-year-old in the center of the midfield, Vieira, who most caught the eye. He ghosted into the box to open the scoring after 17 minutes, and his intelligent play helped Porto secure a 3-1 victory.

“It is a victory of a squad, of a structure, of a club,” said Porto’s proud coach Mario Silva. “We were the first club in Portugal to achieve it.” Silva added that the names of Vieira and his team-mates would be “recorded in the history of Portuguese football”.

And they were added to the notebooks of Europe’s top talent-spotters, too. Some of Europe’s biggest clubs sat up to take an interest in Vieira. He continued to impress for Porto’s B team, and a breakthrough into the first team wasn’t too far behind. He made his senior debut shortly after turning 20, racking up a few cameo appearances as Porto completed a domestic double. In 2020-21, he became a regular member of the match-day squad, even starting high-profile Champions League games against Manchester City and Olympiakos.

Arsenal’s interest intensified after last summer’s European Under-21 Championship. A talent-laden Portugal side reached the final, narrowly losing to Germany. Moments after the final whistle, Vieira was granted the consolation of being named player of the tournament. Previous winners include Juan Mata, Thiago and Andrea Pirlo. The award anointed Vieira as a potential star of the future.

Last season, 2021-22, was his breakout. He began as he meant to go on, collecting three assists in his first start of the season against Moreirense. When Luis Diaz left for Liverpool in January, he took over as Porto’s main creative force. In his final 17 league matches of the season, he made 16 goal contributions. He ended the season with seven goals and 16 assists in 39 appearances across all competitions.

Arsenal, and manager Mikel Arteta, were watching. When the opportunity came to sign Vieira this summer, they did not hesitate.

It is not a risk-free signing. As is the case when buying any young player, Arsenal are effectively gambling that Vieira will fulfill his potential — and €35 ​​million is a substantial stake. Although his braces might suggest otherwise, his progress has not been entirely linear to this point. He has been in the Porto academy since the age of eight, but it was not always apparent that he was destined for stardom. Through the different age groups, he occasionally found himself out of favor as he waited for his body to catch up with his talent.

He only gained international recognition once he reached the under-18s — before that, he was not on Portugal’s radar. Last season was the first in which Vieira played regular senior football. He is not one of those select prodigies who makes the breakthrough in his teens. Arsenal have made a call on a player with limited exposure to top-flight football. Fabio Silva’s works at Wolves provide a salutary warning. Vieira has great pedigree but is a single season enough to determine a player’s quality?

Perhaps that rapid judgment was crucial to the completion of this deal. Wait another year, and Vieira might well have appeared on the radar of clubs competing for European football’s biggest prizes — and with a substantially higher price tag. Arsenal, still outside of the Champions League, have had to move early.

So what is it that has so convinced Arsenal about Vieira?

He has played in a variety of roles for Porto this season. He has efficiently appeared in the attacking third, either as a central attacking midfielder, second striker or false nine.

The variety of positions he has operated in is partly a consequence of his versatility and positional intelligence — he provides a coach with options — but also Porto’s willingness to change formations.

Porto largely played a 4-4-2 last season, although they did mix it up by fielding a 4-2-3-1 and 4-3-3.

Although Vieira can play as part of a front two or off the right flank, Arsenal view him primarily as a No 8 or No 10. His tendency to drift into the right half-space makes him a valuable alternative to Martin Odegaard, but it may be that Arteta envisions a way for them to play together.

Vieira is also capable of operating in the left-hand channel, and it could be that Arteta believes the former Porto man can dovetail with Odegaard as twin playmakers ahead of Thomas Partey.

His tendency to operate in different positions means that getting a suitable sample size of data with Vieira operating in one role is challenging. His smarterscout pizza chart while playing as a central attacking midfielder does however make for interesting viewing.

These pizza charts are broadly illustrative of playing style — and they suggest a midfielder with a propensity to play progressive passes, and who works hard off the ball. He scores extremely well for both defending impact and ball recovering and interceptions. This was once considered a weak part of Vieira’s game, but Porto coach Sergio Conceicao paid special attention to honing the midfielder’s defensive instincts.

“I improved a lot in defensive positioning,” Vieira admitted last season. “It was something that needed to be adjusted. I am much more committed at the defensive level and a much more complete player.”

“Today he has other attributes that he didn’t have in the past,” agreed assistant Vitor Bruno. “We are proud of the way he throws himself into the game.”

It is his ability to create goals that makes Vieira so valuable, though. That comes with some risk: his tendency to look for the killer ball can lead to turnovers. He is still a player more defined by self-expression than economy. Arteta has shown that he expects his flair players to be team players first. Vieira may have something to learn in that regard.

Asked about his knack for racking up assists, Vieira said: “It’s something that is part of my characteristics, of what I am as a player. I really like making the last pass, spotting my team-mates and putting them in front of goal.”

That much was clear in the Moreirense game in which Vieira registered three assists. First, he showed good awareness and defensive work rate to intercept a long pass from the opposition goalkeeper that dropped into midfield.

He carried the ball forward, then played a perfectly timed through ball to Diaz, who ran through to score.

The second assist was somewhat similar. Again, Vieira showed good anticipation to pounce on a loose ball — this time, when team-mate Mehdi Taremi was dispossessed in his own half. He has demonstrated the ability to be effective in transition.

Vieira strode into opposition territory, delaying his pass before dissecting the retreating Moreirense defenders with a pass off the outside of his left foot. Once again, Diaz was the beneficiary. Arsenal’s left-sided forward Gabriel Martinelli may be one of the major beneficiaries of Vieira’s arrival.

For the final assist, Vieira made a smart run in behind between the full-back and centre-half. This is something Emile Smith Rowe already does effectively for Arsenal — another direct runner makes for a welcome addition.

Picked out inside the box, Vieira let the pass run beyond him before playing a square ball across goal with his weaker right foot.

That willingness to pass and shoot with both feet is one of Vieira’s most attractive qualities. Arteta has shown a preference for recruiting two-footed players, such as Takehiro Tomiyasu and Nuno Tavares, and Vieira would appear to be another.

In last season’s Champions League, he created a goal against Liverpool with his right foot. Once again, it came from collecting a loose ball — this time a nod down from defender Joe Gomez, which dropped into a dangerous pocket of space on the edge of the area.

Vieira held the ball up and glanced out to the right to look for a run from the overlapping wing-back. When it did not arrive in time, he turned back infield.

He dribbled out to the corner of the area and then clipped a well-weighted cross into the box for Taremi to head home. It was a delicate display of technique, especially with his weaker foot.

It is his left foot, though, that is particularly eye-catching. With that, he is able to play penetrating balls down the line. This example, from another Champions League tie against Lyon, showed him sending the defense into retreat with a slide-rule pass to the overlapping wide man.

What will be fascinating to see is whether Arteta is comfortable fielding Vieira as one of his midfield three. As a teenager, Vieira regularly played in deeper midfield roles, and during his Porto B days, it was not uncommon to see him dropping deep to pick the ball up from the goalkeeper. Many have assumed that Vieira has arrived as an alternative to Odegaard, but his ability to play penetrative passes from deep means he could also be a potential replacement for Granit Xhaka as the team’s “left eight” — the left-sided central midfielder.

In the attacking half, however, he will bring those precious goal contributions. Vieira is a strong finisher off either foot. His instincts around the penalty box are good, too. In this match against Boavista, he hung back to create space on the edge of the area.

When the pull-back arrived, Vieira produced an emphatic finish into the far corner. It was an intuitive run and finish.

He can also provide a threat from set-pieces — as evidenced by this extraordinary strike for Portugal Under-21s against Cyprus.

There are significant challenges ahead for Vieira: the Premier League is considerably more intense than the Primeira Liga. He has been playing for one of his league’s most dominant sides — the competitive landscape for Arsenal is more demanding. Vieira is also a small, slight player. Will he cope with the physicality? Will he adapt to life away from his homeland? Will he find a regular place in Arteta’s XI? It took some time for him to make an impact at Porto. Even last season, he grew in stature as the campaign wore on. The likelihood is the same will be true in England.

But this is also a signing that allows Arsenal fans to dream a little. Vieira, like Odegaard and Bukayo Saka, plays a particularly beautiful brand of football. He makes goals, for himself and his team-mates. He is capable of moments of great imagination. That has been evident all through his football development.

There’s perhaps no greater example of that than this goal for Portugal Under-21s against Iceland. With a bouncing ball dropping just behind him, he stretched out his heel and flicked the ball over his head.

Watching it drop, he puts the ball with a volley that rolled under the goalkeeper and into the net.

It was the sign of a player too good for that level, who would shortly go on to better things. Watching back his final few performances in Portugal last season, there was occasionally the same feeling. In one so young, that is worthy of note.

Now he has taken another step, to Arsenal. The Premier League awaits the arrival of a bright young star.

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