Behind the scenes at Manchester City, they saw in one of the small details that Patrick Vieira was different. Relatively few of the big-name players the club has signed during their accelerated rise to the top have bought their own houses, preferring to hedge their bets on a rented property whilst passing through. Vieira was only signed on an 18-month deal by Roberto Mancini but his mind was set. He bought a place.
The commitment has borne fruit in a way that he could not have imagined. Having left an executive role at the club to begin coaching City’s elite development squad three years ago, Vieira was appointed manager of the club’s MLS affiliate side New York City FC (NYCFC) last November and, in the face of some scepticism, has just delivered them to the league’s play-offs. The accomplishment has been barely noticed either in the UK or France, yet it has told us plenty about a nascent management style.
As Vieira’s old mentor Arsene Wenger marks 20 years at the Arsenal helm, it marks him out as an individual well on the way to being a legitimate successor. He’d have been back at the club long before now if he’d had it his way. He recently told L’Equipe that he was disappointed Wenger didn’t call him when he was considering a return to Britain in 2010.
When Vieira met NYCFC supporters and media in an extraordinary 11-hour introductory session at a pub in Midtown Manhattan around the turn of the year, his caution was palpable. Witnesses to it remember him wanting some of those in attendance to tell him why the team had fallen short in a poor 2015 maiden MLS season, which had seen his predecessor Jason Kreis dismissed.
NYCFC were an outlier in the conversation about this season’s play-offs, because Vieira’s inheritance was a top-heavy squad, in which the three big names of the European game – Frank Lampard, Andreas Pirlo and forward David Villa - received most of the capped payroll and limited the manger’s room for manoeuvre.
Granted, having those three in the ranks is a gift. You imagine Pirlo could manage a team single-handed. But the team had conceded 58 goals the previous season – no MLS side leaked more – and as the New York Times has observed, dozens of foreign managers had failed to find success amid the “quirks” of MLS: salary caps, roster limits and cross country travel. There were no significant close-season additions to the ranks.
His was an inauspicious start. That porous defence was evident again in a 4-3 opening game win at Chicago Fire. There was a capacity to concede late goals and, on May 21, a nadir - a humbling 7-0 defeat to the Red Bulls at Yankee Stadium. Vieira accused the team of “cowardice.” Villa admitted the match had been “a disaster.”
On hindsight, the low point was a turning point. Vieira’s incandescence seemed to touch a nerve in the dressing room, Lampard – who made his first appearance of the season in the game’s latter stages – was subsequently available – and the side won four and lost only one of their next six games. They have lost five since, with an attack minded side in which 19-goal Villa has been the stellar performer. (Defending and a propensity to concede possession with their customary style of playing out from the back are weaknesses.)
Observers put the turn-around down to that ruthlessness in Vieira for which he will always retain affection in North London and for which, it should be said, Wenger is certainly not known. Not just in the clear-out of experienced MLS professionals he instigated in the close season, but in a tougher training regime, too. Double sessions became common.
Those who have observed him at close quarters down the years do discern a distinct temperamental shift between Vieira the player and Vieira the manager. As a player, his aggression was always transparent. Few who spoke to him in the hours after the Champions League defeat at Valencia in 2001, a year when the tournament was wide open, will forget his burning fury as he described the appalling ‘averageness’ of Arsenal’s season. “Hot-headed, single-minded and determined,” is how the Arsenal specialist John Cross describes this vivid encounter in his book on Arsenal under Wenger.
On the MLS touchline, Vieira seems to have taken a little of that exterior aggression out, however. He seems a changed individual – calmer – and the suspicion is that he is channelling his aggression and mental energy into the players. “It peeled the paint from the walls,” says one witness to his words after the Red Bulls defeat. By all available evidence, Wenger has never damaged the interior decor.
Vieira is also displaying evidence of an acute ambition to get on quickly in management. It is understood that one of his reasons for seeking a move away from City’s under -21s’ role was the frequent loss of the team’s best talents on loan. It meant that the work he could do to improve the side could never be genuinely reflected on the pitch, where results in the under-19s in the UEFA Youth League included a 6-0 win over Bayern Munich.
Vieira’s presence in Manchester created occasional chances to meet him and scheduled 20 minute interviews usually evolved into something longer, during which his critique of the British game demonstrated his level of absorption with it.
He has strong views, for example, on the failure to develop more English players who can challenge the foreign component for Premier League starting positions. “I think England has to change the way they are teaching football because football is changing and the method isn’t changing as much,” he told The Independent 18 months ago. The quintessential English quality of ‘passion’ is commendable and essential, Vieira said, but “now it’s more about the creativity. How do you move around the pitch to be in the right places? How do you control and pass? It sounds really simple but at the end it’s complex and really difficult.” He synchronised his academy squad’s training sessions with the first team, so that some of the elite class might rub off.
City will certainly not want to lose Vieira, whose side have two games in which to win the Eastern Conference and secure a top play-off seeding, and the prospect of him returning to work alongside Pep Guardiola does not seem inconceivable. But the club’s executive board want the Catalan to stay and create a dynasty, so he may need to look elsewhere for a challenge which fits. Taking Arsenal on post-Wenger is about as big as they get.
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