If I say “Nelson Vivas” most of you will probably think “failure”. His name is one which is always near the top of the list on those “top ten worst Wenger signings” articles which are stamped out with increasing regularity these days. The root cause of all the Vivas hate is a match against Leeds in 1999 where he left Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink unmarked at the far post, JFH scored, and Arsenal were knocked out of the 1999 title race.
Further killing Vivas’ Arsenal career, after the match Wenger publicly blamed him for the goal saying “We made a huge tactical error, which is unusual for us to make a mistake like that. Nelson Vivas was in a very bad position at the far post.” Wenger also blamed the Leeds physicality in that match, “it was a battle rather than a technical match. We were not fresh enough. It was very difficult. It’s unbelievable, we created so many chances and didn’t score.”
And that battle left some scars. Vivas was an 81st minute sub in that match, coming on for Nigel Winterburn who had been kneed in the face by the notorious Alfie Haaland. Haaland broke Winterburn’s nose as he was lying on the ground suffering the effects of another tackle.
And so to recap that match.. Arsenal roughed up? An Arsenal defender forced to mark multiple players and getting the blame? An unchallenged cross? Arsenal conceding a headed goal? Arsenal collapsing in an important game? Arsenal missing a number of close chances which would have gone a long way to sealing the point and possibly a second consecutive League title but the defense getting the blame? All sound familiar?
I’ve looked at the tape of the goal and from the angle I have (which is admittedly incomplete) it looks like Vivas is covering two players, Hasselbaink and Alan Smith. And no one likes to mention the fact that Harry Kewell was allowed to put in a cross at his whimsey because Lee Dixon had slipped and seemed afraid to get touch tight because Lee Dixon is an Arsenal legend and as we know, legends never err.
But I think it’s harsh to blame Vivas for that title loss. Arsenal were in the midst of a 19 match unbeaten run in which they conceded just 6 goals and gathered 52 points. That season, Arsenal would concede just 17 goals total, so surely that one goal shouldn’t have killed their title hopes!
No, Arsenal’s 6 wins and 26 points in the first 17 matches were what killed that season. Arsenal earned 26 points from the first 17 and 52 points from the last 21 matches. That’s a point per game increase which resulted in an unbelievable title charge from Arsenal. The Gunners went from 7th place after matchday 17 and finished one point behind the winners, Manchester United.
If Arsenal had beaten Southampton, who finished 17th that season, even once or if they had beaten Charlton instead of a 0-0 draw in matchday 3, the story would have been different. But as it stood, Arsenal had to be perfect to win the title after matchday 17 and they weren’t. And as always with football fans we point to the one bad moment, a moment which almost no one saw, a small moment in what was an extraordinary run, a moment which we can’t even definitively say that Vivas was wrong, as the scapegoat for the entire season.
Wenger did what he now seems to do regularly with defenders who make a mistake in a big game: he dropped Vivas, then sent him on loan, and then sold him. Eventually, Vivas went back to Argentina where he played a few more seasons before retiring. After that he apprenticed under Diego Simeone as an assistant manager and this season has been named Argentina’s manager of the year in his very first season as a head coach. Along the way, Vivas has battled his demons with the same strident attitude he once battled opposition midfielders.
Four Four Two has a great interview if you want to know more about Nelson Vivas than just the tired old Arsenal fan story line that he was one of Wenger’s worst ever signings.
7amkickoff’s Ten Worst Wenger Signings
- William Gallas
- Kim Kallstrom
- Lukas Podolski
- Andre Santos
- Thomas Vermaelen
- Lassana Diarra
Ten Best Wenger Signings
- Sol Campbell
- van Persie