Speaking exclusively to L’Équipe, former French international midfielder Patrick Vieira is taking on his third season at the head of New York City FC in the MLS. Linked to the Premier League and Ligue 1, he touched upon his future, his new career, and the end of Arsène Wenger’s era at Arsenal.
Many people are surprised to see you as a coach.
I’ve also surprised myself. I didn’t know I would get into it. But, at the end of my career (in 2011), I told myself I didn’t want to, which was ultimately a question I didn’t actually have the question to. At Manchester City, Brian Marwood, who was the sporting director, and who I had known at Arsenal, offered to show me around the club for two years. I spent time with him, with the guys in marketing, finance, or who were apart of the foundation.
But where I really felt comfortable, was when I spent time with the kids from the academy. I then decided to pass my coaching licences and started to think about what I had never thought about before… As a player, I would arrive to the training ground, train, shower, and then go home…
You never asked yourself questions about the training sessions?
I swear that I didn’t. Luckily, I passed my coaching licences with the Welsh football federation, and everything I learned fascinated me there. It was then that I was offered the position to coach Manchester City’s reserve team (in 2013) where I had the chance to work with coaches who were more experienced than me. I spent two amazing years there and was in a great school because I learned a lot from Manuel Pellegrini (between 2013 and 2016) as well, who is an amazing person. People always think that when you play at a certain level, that you have the answer to everything.
There are certain things that I may be able to anticipate, but weekly planning, preparing training sessions or physical training… If I had done that all by myself in the beginning, I would have crashed and burned. But I have no regrets… I had Mourinho at Inter, his training sessions were amazing. I was happy to get up, because even if I didn’t know if I would play or not, I knew the training session would be great. But I was dumb to not take note of any of it, because it would have surely helped me out!
In training, you come across as an extrovert, and as someone who is vocal. As a player, you were not at all like that?
No, not at all. I was more about actions, rather than speaking. I wanted to be followed without having to say anything. (Smiling) My tackles were my form of communication! So yes, it even surprises.
Did you take public speaking classes?
No, but two years as a City ambassador were critical. I was sent to represent the club at Champions league dinners, meetings with sponsors, I went to places where I was the only player, so they ended up giving me a chance to speak. Those two years forced me to speak more and gave me experience before speaking to a group. But when I think back to my first team talk with the Man City reserves and I compare it to today, it’s two completely different things! That’s as a result of the learning and repetition.
When giving team talks, were you able to speak for a long time in the beginning?
No, it was hard. Even today, during pre-season, I film my talks to re-watch and analyse them to see what I would think if I were in the players’ shoes. Do I repeat the same idea three or four times? These are essential ideas to continue learning about yourself. When you get your coaching license and you see coaches speaking to their team or the press, you always feel like you’re an actor putting on a costume. When you’re a player, you don’t realise it, but on the other side, you start to understand that you have to be an actor to manage these situations.
If we look at the World Cup Champions from 1998, Zidane currently coaches Real Madrid, Deschamps is the French national team manager, and Blanc was the national team manager and PSG manager. Are you next on that list?
(smiling) Just to be clear, it’s like when you’re a player – you want to make it as far as possible. My objective is to someday coach a big European club.
Their first experiences were Monaco, Bordeaux, and Real for Deschamps, Blanc and Zidane respectively. The importance of not making any mistakes is very present. To put in bluntly, will a lot be expected from you from your first European job?
Yes, that’s normal. I’m under contract till December 2018, and am happy here, but yes, my next choice will be very important. It’s always the same though and always come back to the same question: what are the club’s intentions? That’s what needs to be made clear before joining a new club.
We know that you were in contact with Rennes and Saint-Étienne. For Saint-Étienne, last summer, you were tempted, but some close members of your entourage convinced you that it was not a good idea…
It wasn’t a matter of it being a good or bad idea. Honestly, I met the Saint-Étienne owners because I respect them. When they contacted me, City Group was aware seeing as I told them, and we spoke about it. It’s normal, seeing as Saint-Étienne remains a big club which had the same coach for a long period of time (Christophe Galtier for seven years, which, for me, is a sign that one can work there. If it were a club that changed managers every three months, it wouldn’t have been worth it to work there. But when the project was put on the table, I didn’t really feel it, that’s it.
Were the Saint-Étienne owners not ready to recruit like they did in January?
Maybe they didn’t think that they would need to recruit like that. (Smiling) But I felt that the owners wanted to things right.
Did you really hesitate to come back to Ligue 1?
Hesitated no. But of course, I gave it thought because coaching in Ligue 1 is obviously an interesting project. But to get into it, you have to find a project which suits you. And there are very interesting projects in France.
The other club was Rennes. Olivier Létang, the new head of the club, admitted that he was in contact with you.
We spoke over the phone. He called me saying he was going to call Rennes and that I had an interesting profile. We spoke, I explained to him how I saw the coach’s role, how I wanted to work, and he told me about his project. I think there were interesting elements, but… (hesitating)
Was it not the right time?
It’s not that it wasn’t the right time. Firstly, I was under contract, secondly, I told myself that a coach who goes into his first European job needs a stable context. I don’t think that Rennes would have been the right choice, there were too many changes. I can understand those who tell me that I’m dreaming, and that I should go in regardless of the context. But that’s how I see things.
Were there other people who pushed you to take the leap?
Of course. But then again, I did take the leap, seeing as I find myself here. In regards to Europe, I want to do things right. I’ve always had the same way of going about things. As a player, when I left Tours for Cannes (in 1993) because Richard Bettoni (former scout) came to my place in les Yvelines (Parisian suburb) to meet my mother and he was the only one to have made this trip. When I left Cannes for Milan (in 1995), it was also because Ariedo Braida (former general director of Milan) who really took me under his wing. Even today, I still speak to both of these people.
Likewise with my departure from Arsenal. There was Arsène Wenger but also David Dein (former VP) who treated me like his third son. (smiling) That’s how he addresses me in his emails. “How are you my son?” I often make choices depending on the people I want to work with. I need someone who I can forge links with. I may never end up leaving! (laughing) Maybe I’m dreaming, but it’s my way of life and working. I want to manage something great with the people I’ve forged links with.
But coaching at a high level still means you’ve created links with someone who will end up firing you…
All coaches require results, that doesn’t change. What can change, is the way you live the story before it ends.
We ran into you in December in Arsène Wenger’s office in the Emirates. Do you go back often?
No, no. Maybe once a year, if even that often. I don’t come back that often to Europe.
How do you perceive the hardships Arsenal and Arsène Wenger are undergoing?
I find it very hard for him. I don’t want to say he’s suffering because I’m not in his shoes, but I can understand what he is going through, after having spent time with him for nine years. If there’s anyone out there who loves the club and wants to see them succeed, it’s Arsène. Of course, we can talk about the way the team is playing or whatever, but I find that the criticism towards Arsène is hard to accept. Maybe it’s because I’ve become a coach that I feel things differently.
I remember very well all the times where he turned down bigger clubs to stay at Arsenal. I know what I’m talking about because those same clubs contacted me and told me that their number one priority was to bring in Arsène. He said no to everyone to stay at Arsenal and today, people are forgetting that. I know that our profession requires it but that’s how it is…
It seems like we’re all witnessing the end of his story [with the club]…
Maybe. I don’t know if it’s the end of his story but it were, he would be the first to recognise it. And I would like to add that with respect for everything he has done for the club, built and won, he is legitimate enough to decide when to step away. He has the right to take that decision.
In England, you’re amongst the five or six names being talked about to replace him. Is it difficult to position yourself like the others are doing?
Honestly, it’s very difficult for me. It’s very difficult because of my personal relation with Arsène and because it’s rude to do so. The way that people are acting is uncalled for. But when the question is asked, I understand that people are required to answer.
We’ll ask you then: does the Arsenal manager position interest you?
(Thinking) Let’s say that one day, it may interest me. Someday. I can’t say more than that because there’s nothing more to say and more importantly, I don’t want to offend Arsène who I love and respect immensely. Because I know how much he is suffering due to the current results, more so than hearing what former players are saying about him.
They’re not holding back on him…
I read a lot of things. I read what Ian Wright, Martin Keown, Paul Merson or Ray Parlour have said, but I tell myself those guys are doing their thing. They’re pundits and are forced to say that for their media. When you’re in that line of work, you are forced to do so.
But do you feel ready to coach a club of that level?
If I have the chance someday to coach a big team, then yes, I think I’ll be realy. I feel ready.
The French national team had Laurent Blanc and Didier Deschamps, and we believe that one day, Zinedine Zidane will be manager. Maybe you too someday?
Honestly, a national team doesn’t really interest me. National team manager, no, not really… I’m a young coach and I need to be in training every day.