Just twenty years old at the time, Vieira had spent two seasons at Cannes at one at AC Milan before moving to Arsenal on 14 August 1996 for a transfer fee of £3.5 million. Arsenal had sacked manager Bruce Rioch two days earlier and were in the process of lining up Arsène Wenger to replace him, starting in October. In the meantime, they used a pair of caretaker managers in Stewart Houston and Pat Rice.
The latter was in charge when Sheffield Wednesday visited Highbury in the sixth week of the season. After the opening kick was delayed by 25 minutes due to a power failure in part of the stadium, Wednesday took another 25 minutes to jump in front with a goal from striker Andy Booth. Three minutes later, Vieira made his entrance, coming on in the 28th minute for the injured Ray Parlour.
He made an immediate impact, as Arsenal controlled the final 15 minutes of the first half, then dominated the second half, getting an equalizer from David Platt (57') and a hat-trick from Ian Wright (61' (pen.), 78', 89') to win 4-1. (Wednesday did get some consolation that day, as a shot from David Hirst set the Premier League for fastest shot on goal, reaching the speed of 183 km/h (114 mph) before hitting the crossbar).
Vieira became a regular starter shortly afterward, then took over as captain for the 2002-03 season. The following year, with Vieira still wearing the armband, Arsenal won the league with an undefeated record. By the time he left for Juventus in July 2005, he had won three league titles and four FA Cups with the Gunners.