ASSESSED: Fábio Vieira
When Portuguese journalist Pedro Sepúlveda first broke the news that Fábio Vieira was going to Arsenal, I’m sure my response was similar to many.
✈️ Fábio Vieira viaja nas próximas horas para Londres. pic.twitter.com/Evj0eSdt3y
— Pedro Sepúlveda (@pedromsepulveda) June 16, 2022
But after soaking up as much material as I could over the last day or so, I feel I’m starting to get a picture of exactly who we’ve signed — and that picture is incredibly exciting. I’ve still got a long way to go in my own understanding; watching more 90 minute games, seeing more detail to his football, seeing how he responds to adversity and charting his development over a longer time period to see where he could go — but here’s my assessment so far.
There’s all the stuff you know already, but worth saying to contextualise – he’s just turned 22, 5’7”, born in the north of Portugal, and mostly left-footed though he can use his right. He’s won the Primeira Liga twice in 3 years for Porto, having come through their academy, joining at 8 years old.
But what you’re really here for is this: how good is he, and what could he be for us?
Let’s first talk about his position. In modern football, trying to pin a player down to one position is a bit like drawing a picture with your eyes closed. An outside viewer might see what you were going for and get a rough idea, but they’d miss crucial detail. It’s probably more helpful to look at a players’ skills, then consider where on the pitch those skills might be best utilised, in what games, in what states, at what times.
To help our eyes to adjust to him we can look at players who are similar to him. I would direct you to two players that spring to mind — perhaps predictably, they both play for Manchester City. Bernardo Silva for his similar close control, ability with the inside and outside of his feet, cleverness in tight spaces and left footed dominance. Then Phil Foden in his positional variability, small build, ball progression, lightness and technicality.
Let’s talk about expansion and contraction of the field.
The first thing you notice is Vieira is unbelievably good in tight spaces. Would you believe me if I told you he got out of this situation with the ball?
The reason that’s important, especially in the midfield, is the Premier League has come to a point where the tactical, technical and physical level is so high, that we’re asking players to operate defensively and offensively within inches, not metres. Here’s a comparison between Arsenal versus United away in 2004/05, and the same fixture in 2021/22. Both situations were where United had comfortable possession.
Look at the difference in space between the last line of the midfield and the defence. Players simply had more room, and could therefore take more time to receive and play.
This is because defensive lines have pushed up in possession on average at the top level, defensive recovery pace has increased on average and teams have done work on the training ground to compress and contract the pitch more so teams are forced into lower value positions. So in those small spaces where the most pressing is done, you have the least time on the ball and the most number of opponents are likely to be, a high level of technique is optimal to move the ball quickly and effectively.
But the tight control is not only helpful in retaining possession and keeping Arsenal squeezed up the pitch, it’s also useful to beat players. Take this example against Liverpool in the Champions League.
Robertson is running onto him, and Vieira simply times it perfectly — knocks it left, right, and he’s away – superb technique.
So he can operate on a contracted pitch, in small spaces. But how does he expand the pitch to feed runners and our forward players? Very well is the answer.
Statsbomb say Vieira had the highest Open Play Assists per 90 (at 0.68) in the Primeira Liga last season, and only Lionel Messi played more through-balls per 90 (at 0.81) in the Big 6 Leagues.
He has all types of balls in his locker, including the De Bruyne-esque lofted ball from the half space — this one ends up as a goal. Arsenal have missed this, and the potential arrival of Tielemans indicates it’s something Arteta would like to add to his team. Jesus’s movement in the box would… no I’m getting ahead of myself.
He can time his through-balls well, as mentioned above, perfectly executed here.
He makes use of low, hard drives into the box, space making wide progressions after turnovers and even improvised, outside of the boot passes. He has a lot of options.
His passing dashboard here shows him with a high level of passing efficiency and progressive balls… and here are his progressive numbers versus expected assists. For players under the age of 23, he is trending in the Trent Alexander-Arnold territory. He can see pictures and he can provide expansion with invention.
This all means his all around contribution to an attack is simply sensational – take a look at this.
This only considers the Primeira Liga and it’s ranked against midfielders, not attacking midfielders; but that is likely the zone he will be operating in as Arsenal don’t play a no.10 very often. Progression, key passes, xG buildup… anyway, you can read. For Porto, he got a goal or assist 1.15 times per 90 this season. In Bruno Fernandes’ best season at Sporting, he got 1.01 per 90. At one point in February, he was assisting once every 63 minutes – no player was doing it faster in Europe.
But stats can get taken out of context, as exciting as they are. Sample sizes vary, soft factors have their impact, injuries, team-mates, all sorts. But like Shakira said, your eyes don’t lie. No that’s not right…
Sometimes, you get told who players are by their teammates. Look at this situation in Porto’s game against Manchester City last season. 4 players around him, but the centre back still elects to pass to him, knowing he has the awareness and technical ability to receive it.
Other things. He’s short so his centre of gravity is low, meaning he has an excellent turning circle and he can strike through the ball well – picture Ronaldo shooting, then Ødegaard shooting and you’ll see what I mean about good versus less good ball-striking from quality players, simple as it sounds — and Vieira can also do it on both feet. Like all top technical players he receives well on the half turn, and he’s comfortable in a number of areas, as seen in this seasonal heat map from 2021/22.
He looks great. But an easy way of putting this player down (likely without ever watching him) would be to say “Well he’s in the Portuguese league, it’s a farmers league” etc. Not only is that disrespectful in my opinion, but the Portuguese League is one of the Top 6 leagues in the world with a great many examples of players who have come over here and made an immediate impact. Ederson, Ruben Neves, Bruno Fernandes, Bernardo Silva, Luis Diaz, Ruben Dias. Cristiano Ronaldo — he did alright.
So we have the picture of what he’s good at. But what can’t he do?
His defensive impact is less impressive on the statistical side, and his size means he can be bullied off it when the ball isn’t under his feet. He can, but he doesn’t shoot from distance much, and as a young player, some Portuguese football experts say he occasionally drifts in and out of games. As much as he’s exciting, he’s still a work in progress.
Let’s go back to our original thought about his position – where are those qualities best served at Arsenal?
He can be a wide playmaker who cuts inside deputising for Saka on the right, maybe where he’ll start off. He could deputise for Ødegaard in the right 8, play left 8, go on the left hand side as a wide playmaker, and he could even possibly sit deeper as he grows in maturity. The question is always where are the qualities he has best served. If they have a technically suspect full back, why not stick him on that side? If they press you in the midfield, stick him in there to add resistance. If we need to switch to a double pivot in certain game states, he can play 10. Deep block? Put him in the half spaces and whip quality balls in.
The point is, Mikel Arteta will want a stable of players who give him as wide a variety of options as possible at the highest attainable level. We don’t have a player like Fábio Vieira currently, and in a way that’s all we need to care about — adding that quality to the squad. We worry too much about first XIs, there’s a lot of minutes to be played. I love being surprised, and I can’t wait to see what Arteta does with him.
Vieira captains the Portugal U21s team and has captained Porto at times. With Albert Sambi Lokonga captaining Anderlecht and Martin Ødegaard made captain of the Norwegian national team, it’s clear Mikel Arteta’s recruitment is angling towards assembling a team of leaders. He’s even taken some penalties, showing courage, and videos are circulating of him providing advice and encouragement to those around him on the pitch. Porto fans online speak about Vieira’s top professionalism, and a willingness to learn. The background checks on his mentality will have been done, I’m sure.
Jorge Mendes’ involvement in this deal is certainly an interesting element. If we’re not being played, he could be a very important contact to have to get deals done – would Arsenal have had to pay his release clause if it weren’t for Mendes? With the unfortunate passing of Mino Raiola, Mendes’ influence may increase further.
We wait and see on all of this — one thing’s for sure. Vieira looks incredibly exciting, and it’s a credit to the club for doing their proper scouting. As Arteta says, for a long time Arsenal have lacked an abundance of players with real verve and creativity in the midfield, and they are a big part of what a squad needs.
For me, that picture looks better the longer I stare at it.