By Glenn Crooks
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Patrick Vieira is a soccer icon. He was the captain at Arsenal in a period when the Gunners won three Premier League titles (one season unbeaten) and four FA Cups. Vieira won four Serie A titles with Juventus and Inter Milan. He became a World Cup champion when France defeated Brazil in the 1998 final.
Vieira finished his playing career with Manchester City and, upon his retirement, was retained to work both in the front office and on the field for City. He was elevated to the head coach of City’s Elite Development Program in 2013 and Wednesday at Yankee Stadium, Vieira was officially welcomed as the second head coach in two years at New York City FC.
At the end of a lengthy day of interviews and photo opportunities, I was able to sit down with Vieira at the Legends Club in Yankee Stadium.
Glenn Crooks: You revolutionized the holding midfield role, the box-to-box No. 8, combining power and finesse. How important is it for you to have a top player in that role on your team?
Patrick Vieira: (After thoughtful pause.) It is a really important role. But I would like to take every single position as important as a No. 8 role. Every single position has a massive part to play on a team.
GC: You’ve been coached by three legends – Jose Mourinho, Arsene Wenger and Fabio Capello. Can you specify the things you absorbed from each of them and plan to incorporate into the NYCFC program?
PV: What I liked of Mourinho is his work ethic and the way he organizes his team against the opponent. He knows the strength and weakness of the opponent, and he will give the details for what he wants. And for me, that was impressive. When we talk about Arsene Wenger, I like the fact that he focuses 80 percent about the style of play he wants for his team and not taking so much consideration into the other team. That was interesting to me. Capello is about team spirit and togetherness. That collective is more important than the individual. Those are the main messages I want to take from those managers. (Later, in an interview with Joe Tolleson of the YES Network and SiriusXM FC, Vieira admitted that Mourinho was the manager that had the most influence on him – not Wenger).
GC: You talk about style with Wenger – Renee Muelensteen worked with Sir Alex Ferguson for seven seasons at Manchester United. He told me just last week that Sir Alex was more effective than Wenger blending style and results.
PV: It shows that the balance was not right when compared to Alex Ferguson. It’s all about the philosophies you want to put in place. In my time at Arsenal (1996-2005), we had a really good balance. We had players who were fast, players who were really strong physically and players who were really creative. When you look at the generation of Arsenal at the moment, they may be playing better football than we used to, but they win less than we used to – so, where’s the balance?
GC: Since your retirement from football, you have moved into coaching with the Manchester City Academy program. Did anyone from Arsenal, including Wenger, ever contact you about a coaching position with the Gunners? And if not, is that disappointing?
PV: I’ve never been contacted by anyone from the Arsenal Football Club to manage or get involved with the club. Was I disappointed? (Big exhale.) I was expecting something from them, but it didn’t come. It didn’t kill me. When I stopped playing at Manchester City, I had people around me who believed I could bring something to the club.
GC: Are you familiar with the sports landscape in this city? You are coming to the biggest sports town in America, where they don’t hope for champions – they expect it.
PV: In Baltimore for the draft, we took Jack Harrison first, and the way the travelling supporters reacted was unbelievable for me. It showed me that to be second is not good enough.
GC: Obviously, the club really wanted Harrison. You tried to acquire him as a Homegrown Player, but the MLS denied that claim. Then you worked a deal with Chicago to ensure his selection in the MLS Super Draft. Now, it seems like an overcrowded midfield. Do you see it that way? You are shaking your head no.
PV: No, not at all. He brings something we didn’t have last year. He is a proper winger who is really good in the 1 v. 1. He will create chances for his partners. He will score goals. He will be a really exciting player to watch. Our fans will be delighted.
GC: With the acquisition of 5-9 Ronald Matarrita, your back line now consists of four players under 6 feet tall and three who are exactly 6 foot. Considering the air game was an issue at the back last year, are you comfortable with that group going into preseason?
PV: Yes, of course I am comfortable with them because I don’t think the problems were based on the back four. The problem is based on the collective. We need the midfield to do their job better, and we need the front line to do their job better. Then we will concede less chances and less goals. That’s why I’m a big believer in team spirit.
GC: Jason Kreis was dismissed in part because he did not connect effectively with the Designated Players – David Villa, Frank Lampard and Andrea Pirlo. When you walk into the room, you command immediate respect based on your playing background. How do you think the DPs need to be coached? What will your approach be?
PV: Listen, I have a massive respect for all three players, and I look forward to work with them. I am a person who likes to communicate. I like to sit down and interact with players. I will communicate with David (Villa) the same way I will communicate with Jack (Harrison), the same way I will communicate with Patrick (Mullins). I love these three DPs, not just because of their careers but who they are as people.
Vieira has played against the three DPs on the foremost stages of soccer. In 2006, Vieira was named to the FIFA World Cup All-Star team, but France lost to Pirlo and Italy in the final; Villa scored the lone goal in a 3-1 defeat to Vieira and France in the 2006 World Cup quarterfinals; in 2004, the Lampard-led Chelsea FC eliminated Vieira and Arsenal in the Champions League quarterfinals, preventing the Gunners from earning their first-ever berth in the final four of that event.
• While never referring to Kreis specifically, it was not difficult to read between the lines when NYCFC sporting director Claudio Reyna expressed the qualities that will enable Vieira to have success guiding the DPs – the prominent issue that led to Kreis’ demise. “It is important to have a great leader and someone who commands respect,” said Reyna at Wednesday’s press gathering. “And the ability to communicate with big players who play at the highest level.”
• On Sept. 12 of last season at FC Dallas, perhaps making his own statement while also contributing to his deteriorating relationships, Kreis used his three substitutions on the Big Three – an eventual 2-1 defeat. One source suggested that Villa phoned Ferran Soriano, chairman of the City Football Group, after the match to voice his displeasure with Kreis.
• Vieira has owned an apartment in NYC for several years, so he is not naive to the energy of the city. He spoke to over 100 reporters at his inaugural press conference. “New York has its own identity that is not Manchester City,” said Vieira, addressing the “farm team” status that has been met by objections from supporters. “New York is really lively and full of energy. I would like my team to reflect what New York is all about. I want my team to be full of energy.”
• After the day of interviews, Vieira then met with supporter groups Cityzens at Tir na Nog and The Third Rail at the Playwright Bar. The best question of the night for Vieira came from the evening’s youngest supporter: “What’s your biggest accomplishment, winning the World Cup in ’98 or the MLS Cup in 2016?” The answer was not posted.
• The MLS preseason officially begins Friday. NYCFC heads to Bonita Springs, Florida, until Feb. 1, followed by a stint at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, where scrimmages have been arranged against the Montreal Impact (Feb. 17), HB Koge (Feb. 20) and FC Cincinnati (Feb. 24), a first-year USL side under head coach and former MLS champion and USMNT captain John Harkes.