Nice to meet you: Assessing Patrick Vieira’s early years in management

By Joe Davies

This summer, Patrick Vieira was tipped for the Arsenal job by none other than Arsène Wenger. His history with the club, success in relative obscurity with New York City, and knowledge of the inner workings of a modern Premier League giant in Manchester City, gained while working for their Elite Development Squad, meant for many fans he represented a worthy candidate. As it transpired, the gig went to Unai Emery, who has hit the ground running at The Emirates, and Vieira ended up at Ligue 1 club Nice, who finished eighth last year.

On the 6th December, Vieira will face an old teammate and fellow summer candidate for the Arsenal vacancy in Thierry Henry, the new coach at AS Monaco.  In his first European managerial position, many fans in England and elsewhere will be eagerly awaiting a clash between two new managers famed for their exploits in the Premier League and on the international stage. But how has Vieira fared in the French first division up to this point? What has the big Frenchman been up to since he hung up his boots in 2011?

A New Beginning at Manchester City

Vieira finished his playing career at a club who were, at the time, the new kids on the block – Manchester City. In the summer of 2009, after a stint in Serie A with Juventus and then Internazionale, the man from Senegal was linked with a return to his old club Arsenal, and not for the last time in his career. Arsène Wenger said at the time: “I am aware he wants to come here. There is a football decision and there is a psychological impact of a player of that stature coming in. We are nowhere near to making that decision, but it’s a possibility.”

The move didn’t pan out, and Vieira instead transferred to Manchester United’s ‘noisy neighbours’ in the 2010 winter window on a six month contract, before signing an extension taking him on to the end of the 2010-11 season. Despite not being a regular starter, Vieira had a noticeable impact in the changing room of a club who were in transition and searching for a new identity as title contenders. He took on the role of ‘football development executive’ in 2011, focusing on the business side of the game and City’s youth structure, in a season where the Blue’s would go on to win their first Premier League crown.

Following the departure of head coach Roberto Mancini in 2013, Vieira survived a staff purge at the club, becoming the coach of City’s Elite Development Squad. He oversaw the transition of the club’s youth teams towards a Barcelona-style 4-3-3 possession template, no doubt with a view to a future with Pep Guardiola as first team coach envisioned by Director of Football Txiki Begiristain. His success in the youth setup saw Vieira linked with the vacant Newcastle top job in 2015, but the job eventually fell to Steve McLaren.

The Big Apple

In January 2016, Vieira became the second ever head coach of MLS franchise New York City FC. Tasked with turning the up-starters into an American version of City Football Group’s Manchester venture, he largely succeeded in boosting the profile of the club at a much faster rate than Manchester City had achieved in the English Premier League.

Vieira inherited a team boasting the likes of Frank Lampard, Andrea Pirlo and David Villa in their ranks, but the team had finished only 17th in the MLS overall standings in 2015. In his first two seasons, Vieira’s NYC side twice finished second in the Eastern Conference, and rose to fourth in 2016 and second in 2017 in the overall MLS standings.

The Frenchman employed a possession-based 4-3-3, befitting of a team under the Sheikh Mansour empire, but also emphasised the physical aspects of the game, in a league less technical than that seen across the pond. Andrea Pirlo dictated play from deep, while the industrious Alexander Ring shuttled box-to-box just ahead of him, providing protection in a similar way to how Genera Gatusso did in the Italian’s Milan days. Ahead, Vieira oversaw the development of young, English-born winger Jack Harrison, who was nominated for the MLS Rookie of the Year Award in 2016 and 2017, and is now on loan from Manchester City at Leeds United.

His team would build up play from deep, inviting the opposition on to them, before springing forward via the channels and exploiting the one-on-one scenario’s left at the back. New York City player Rodney Wallace spoke of the players’ trust in their manager in 2017.

“The players buy into what he says. Even if sometimes it goes wrong, it doesn’t matter because at some point it’s going to work out,” he said.

While it was difficult to pull off a high pressing, modern, European-style of playing with a new team, plagued by constant new recruitment and a small and narrow pitch, Vieira demonstrated his managerial pedigree, earning links to St Etienne in 2017. He left the club in June 2018, mid-way through their MLS season.

Nice to Meet You

By succeeding current Dortmund manager Lucien Favre as head coach of Nice this summer, Vieira cut ties with City Football Group entirely. In coming over to a more competitive European league, where his team do not have the financial resources to sit comfortably near the top of the national standings, one could argue that Vieira is has finally made the transition from a managerial learning phase into one where he can finally be judged on his tactical expertise and man-management skills.

Vieira’s start to life on the South-Easterly shores of France was rocky to say the least. After an underwhelming loss and draw to Reims and Caen respectively – two games Nice would have been predicted to win comfortably – the Frenchman’s side were hammered 4-0 by Dijon, who currently sit in the relegation zone of Ligue 1. After the game, Wylan Cyprien said: “The coach hasn’t yet found the formula to get the best performance possible. It hurts, especially at home, but I’m staying positive.”

Indeed, Nice’s home record this season has been a real concern, winning just two of the six league games they’ve played there, and losing the other four. One reason for this poor form could be the loss of several key players from last season’s relatively successful eighth-placed run. Nice have lost last season’s club second top goal scorer, Alassane Pléa, to Borussia Mochengladbach, and dependable pair Maxime Le Marchand and Jean Michaël Seri to Fulham, the latter of which was in the Ligue 1 2017 team of the year and linked with a move to Barcelona due to his outstanding performances.

A bigger issue may be the performances of (why always?) Mario Balotelli. Having scored 18 goals in 28 league appearances last year, Balotelli looked set to join the mass exodus at the club, and jump ship to bigger and better things with Marseille in the summer. However, Marseille failed to meet the asking price required for the Italian, and he has not registered a single goal or assist for Nice since. After a tepid victory against Nimes in November, Vieira described Balotelli’s performance as “less than average”. Prior to that, Balotelli was dropped in October against Toulouse, and has only started six games this season, missing the first three games due to suspension.

However, if we are to assess Vieira’s performances as a manager, it may be worth looking away from individual players for a moment. Vieira started the season with the same 4-3-3 possession-oriented approach he had developed in Manchester and honed in the States. However, the formation failed to yield strong results, despite being the same as that deployed by Favre the season before, earning a win, a draw, and a loss in games when it has been used this season. Instead, Vieira has had to be more pragmatic, accepting that without a solid and dependable Balotelli upfront two strikers are needed to share the burden, seeing the team adopt a 3-5-2 in six league games this season. When deployed in this shape, Nice have fared far stronger, seeing four wins in the games it has been used.

Over the course of the 13 league games Vieira has been in charge of, Nice have churned out much stronger performances away from home, winning four out of their seven matches on the road. Nice are also on a three-game winning streak, beating Bordeaux, Amiens and Nimes in the last month. Vieira’s Nice, then, seem to be gaining form, having found a way to adapt to a much weaker squad then they had last season. If the team keep up their current trajectory, Vieira may very well be in the talking for one of the best managerial performances in French football this season.

What next?

Arsenal fans pining for the days of the Invincibles may have to accept Vieira will likely never return to the club that made him famous. Despite declaring his interest in the job in April, Vieira revealed he felt upset at the “token gesture” the club made by interviewing him this summer, without ever seriously considering him for the role.

Vieira has also previously declared that succeeding Pep Guardiola at City would be a “fairytale story”. Having been part of the development of the club, both on the executive and youth-coaching sides, a return to Manchester may very well seem plausible, though Citizens will likely want to see the current manager stay on indefinitely.

Or perhaps a return to the very tactical Italian Serie A? Vieira visited current Chelsea manager Mauricio Sarri’s Napoli side in 2017 to learn from the man famed for his own possession-brand of football. Vieira said at the time: “I’d love to coach an Italian team because it’s a pleasure when you work in a country with passion, and in Italy there is a lot of passion for football.”

For now, though, Vieira will surely be focused on getting his Nice team onto a consistent run of form. They are currently placed seventh, one ahead of where they finished last year, and will be focused on remaining there at the very least, with an eye, perhaps, on European places. If Patrick Vieira achieves that, he will be universally considered to have fared well in his first season of European management.

Joe Davies is a founder of 5WFootball, edits copy and writes regularly for the site. You can see his work for 5WF here and follow him on Twitter here.

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