Monday morning started much like any other. I’d been interviewed for this week’s Arsenal programme trying to wind up Sir Alex Ferguson with mind games. I was meant to be copying Jose Mourinho in 2004. But it seems my aim backfired, spectacularly.
The four comments shouted from car windows and posted on Twitter all said the same thing – I’d been transformed into none other than Patrick Vieira.
“All you need is to get rid of that ridiculous facial hair”, said Cesc Fabregas, with no hint of irony. “What’s happened to you: the bald head, the long legs, the disappointing goalscoring record?” shouted Pat Rice from the dugout. “Great Shatner’s Ghost!” Lassana Diarra wrote on my Facebook wall.
Wow indeed, if I have morphed into Vieira then at least I’m not the new Remi Garde. Patrick is a great athlete and Arsenal fans love him. At least he’s not a laughing stock like Jermaine Pennant, or ginger like Ray Parlour.
He is not too horsey like Martin Keown, nor is he impossibly, off-puttingly Dutch. He is hard-working, I can sniff his bald-headed ambition.
I hadn’t realised it before, but we are shockingly alike in our approach to football. We both want nice things. We want to escape our ordinary past (his, growing up in Senegal. Mine, having everyone on Soccer Saturday call me Abu Dhabi).
So yes, I might have Patrick’s baldness and hatred for Manchester United, but do we really look alike? Have I unwittingly aped his style of being lanky and black and playing for Arsenal?
I had thought I was much more attack-minded than Patrick Vieira. I play my best football in the final third, and haven’t made a clean, sliding tackle in my own area since 2008. I have repeatedly criticised him for not scoring enough goals. He is resolutely world-class, whereas I occupy the murky waters of reserve team games alongside Lukas Fabianski and Sebastien Squillaci.
But his ubiquity, the way that any black player of a similar build is called ‘The New Vieira’, means people like me and Steven Nzonzi are compared to him without even realising it. But there is a dangerous side to the fact that we want to play like Patrick Vieira. Being in the public eye means the need to commit stupid, mistimed fouls.
He’s better than I am, and knows how to tackle, but why is his enviable aggression so worrying? I’d never been sent off in my career before seeing him, but impressionable young men like me, those not protected by referees or footballing ability, say ‘I want to look like that’ and feel the need to go straight through Gretar Steinsson with their studs up.
The problem is that Patrick’s ability is so effortless that Arsene Wenger thinks it’s attainable. If even an intelligent French international like me can be seduced, what hope is there for Paul Pogba?
Yes, copy Patrick’s athleticism and leadership, his ability to sweat like a marathon runner after two minutes of light jogging. But please leave the mindless aggression and unrealistic targets to me. I still have an awful lot to learn.