He has played under Fabio Capello, Jose Mourinho and Arsene Wenger. He has won the World Cup (1998), the European Championship (2000), the Premier League (three times), Serie A (four times) and the FA Cup (five times). It’s fair to say that Patrick Vieira, confirmed Monday as coach of New York City FC on a three-year deal, knows what it takes to be a champion.
The fascinating element to Vieira’s appointment is not just that he takes over a team that contains some of the players with whom he enjoyed some serious scraps in his playing days–Frank Lampard and Andrea Pirlo among them–it’s that the Frenchman has chosen to continue his education under the auspices of the City Football group, which owns Manchester City and New York City FC.
Vieira has had offers before, and had speculated that his first job as a senior coach would be at a mid-table club in England or Germany (France was less likely, given his status there and the fate of his former teammate Claude Makelele, who lasted under six months as Bastia coach).
The numbers, though, were never in his favor: according to Mike Calvin, author of the excellent book on the pressures of modern-day coaching, Living on the Volcano, there were 62 managerial changes in England last season, with the average tenure of a manager lasting just 15 months. Crucially, 56% of first-time managers fail to secure another job.
Vieira might have considered the fate of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, cautious when he rejected approaches from Aston Villa and Portsmouth before jumping in as Cardiff City boss midway through its 2013-14 relegation season from the Premier League. Solskjaer said Sir Alex Ferguson’s one piece of advice was: “Don’t choose the club, choose the owner.” Solskjaer made the wrong choice. Cardiff owner Vincent Tan sacked him nine months later and now he is back at Molde (at least he is in work).
Vieira was also clearly conscious of Ferguson’s advice.
“For a first club, I will not do just anything,” said Vieira in a fascinating interview with L’Equipe magazine published last April. “We need a club where there is a structure in place, with the necessary support a young coach needs. With a beginner, you need to be patient, there may be ups and downs.”
From this point of view, his decision makes sense. Vieira understands the club and its philosophy. He spent time with his predecessor Jason Kreis, who visited Manchester and watched Vieira coach the club's reserve side in the MLS off-season. He will also likely incorporate on loan some City Under-21 players with whom he is familiar. Familiarizing himself with the minutiae of MLS roster rules, regulations and idiosyncrasies and the quirks that come with playing home games at Yankee Stadium will be among his chief new challenges.
For two years between his retirement as a player in 2011 and 2013, he spent time across City’s different departments: in management, communication, financial, and commercial. He was an ambassador abroad, active in the community and he visited schools. “I was able to grasp the overall size of the club,” is how he put it.
Vieira currently has Manchester City's Elite Development Squad atop its UEFA Youth League group and has won a Premier League International Cup with the youth side.
Vieira understood why City gave him that opportunity: just like signing Yaya Toure after he had won six trophies as a Barcelona player in one season strengthened City on the pitch, having a former player like Vieira around the club–even if his best playing days weren’t spent at the Etihad–enhanced the club's credibility.
It also makes it all the more astonishing why Arsene Wenger has hardly tapped into his "Invincibles" network (Thierry Henry, who has recently been involved in coaching Arsenal’s youngsters, aside).
“I had an offer from City and I did not receive a phone call from Arsene,” said Vieira, who is not the only ex-Arsenal great disappointed never to get that call from Wenger. City is the beneficiary.
When he was initially offered the job as reserve team coach in 2013, he said, “It reinforced my affection for City and its bosses.” It has crucially allowed him to learn away from the spotlight, make mistakes without paying the price for them, and develop his own philosophy.
Just what that is remains to be seen, although he admits to taking the best bits from his previous bosses. From Wenger (whom he played under at Arsenal from 1996-2005), his good relations with players, the confidence to express themselves freely and not be afraid to make mistakes; from Capello (AC Milan 1995-96 and Juventus 2005-06), his tactics and positions of each player within the bigger picture; and from Mourinho (Inter Milan 2008-09), the organization and intensity of his training sessions.
“But if I just copy them, it will not work for long,” he added. “I must first be sure of the type of football that I want played in the long term. It’s up to me to build this identity.”
This appointment feels like Vieira repaying City’s owners for supporting and educating him over the last five years. After all, where else would he start his managerial career? Down in the lower leagues, like Teddy Sheringham or Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink? In the Championship, where both Fulham and QPR are looking for a coach? Or in the Premier League, where Swansea might soon be after a new coach?
That figure of 56% of first-time managers failing to work again must loom for any new coach. Vieira has not taken the Solskjaer route: he knows the club owners and they know him. This will be the start of a coaching career that might even end up with him at the Manchester City helm. There’s more chance of that happening than Vieira going back to Arsenal. And if the worst comes to the very worst, at least at New York City FC, he can’t be relegated.