Patrick Vieira has returned to the Premier League on a six-month contract with Manchester City. His name may still evoke respect from his opponents but one should bear in mind that the feisty midfielder is no longer the box-to-box field marshall we last saw of him in an Arsenal shirt.
For now, as with any arrival, there is a great sense of anticipation. Manchester City’s hero Mike Summerbee had welcomed Patrick Vieria at the training ground and spoke of how he played until age 40. Vieira, who is turning 34 in June, will have been encouraged to know that age is not a stigma at City.
To be sure, even in the fast paced Premier League today, it is possible to have a long career without any significant decline in performance. Evergreens Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes are good examples but the injury plagued Patrick Vieira is a risky bet.
Patrick Vieira’s trademark tenacity in keeping and fighting for possession has become harder to execute with age. In fact, two former Arsenal team-mates, Lee Dixon and Nigel Winterburn, believe his best days are over.
To which the Frenchman retorted: “I have nothing to prove to anybody. I just have to believe in myself. I know what I am capable of and I am back in England because I feel I still have something to offer. And City believe in me as well.”
How long the goodwill in Manchester City last is unclear. For now, Vieira is making all the right noises for the benefit of his new club. He emphasized that Manchester United have lost their aura of invincibility, especially with the departure of Carlos Tevez and Cristiano Ronaldo.
Indeed, Manchester United’s dearth of attacking options has been compounded by an increasingly challenging Premier League. Besides the traditional Big Four, Tottenham, Manchester City and Aston Villa are also gunning for glory. The humiliating 1-0 defeat by Leeds United and fortunate 1-1 draw with Birmingham reflected Manchester United’s struggle to battle on all fronts with limited resources.
Not that Alex Ferguson needs any reminder and there is always a price to pay for stoking his competitive nature. The two Manchester clubs will clash in the Carling Cup later this month and emotions are set to run wild. It will be a time to settle old scores too as Vieria’s last kick for Arsenal was a penalty which cost Manchester United the FA Cup in 2005.
Rekindling intense rivalry is one thing but it is quite another to reinforce Manchester City’s title pretensions. Patrick Vieira has echoed Roberto Mancini’s sentiment that City could achieve the top prize this season.
So far, Mancini’s immaculate win record in 4 games since replacing Mark Hughes has left City fourth in the Premier League table, 7 points behind leader, Chelsea. They are definitely in contention for the title if we considered that Arsenal came back “from 15 points behind in one season.”
The owner, Sheikh Mansour, will actually be contended with a top four finish to justify his spending and account for half a season of “no progress” under Mark Hughes. Thus, talking up title hopes is something which Mancini and Vieira should refrain, lest it backfires on them.
Can Patrick Vieira Fit Into Mancini’s Plans?
In the past, Manchester City have had little luck in signing aging stars who integrate into the team and excel. Past failures include George Weah, Steve McManaman, Robbie Fowler and David Seaman. It is thus baffling to note that Roberto Mancini, with Abu Dhabi’s rich war chest at his disposal, decided to gamble on the 33-year-old Patrick Vieira, who is no longer a hot property.
Arsene Wenger was never interested in making a firm offer and he has politely remarked that Viera and City make a perfect match. As for Harry Redknapp, who has a knack of getting over-the-hill talents to outperform, the timing wasn’t right or maybe he just didn’t try hard enough.
It is too early to say Mancini has made a mistake as a veteran can provide experience, stability and leadership to a young squad. In his prime, Vieira was known as a tough player who could tackle, makes quality passes and score crucial goals. His height, stamina, strength and perception were important assets which drove Wenger’s stylish attacking side.
Getting the youngsters to learn what makes Vieira tick during training will benefit them immensely, even if he finds it hard to muster his old magic on the battlefield. Alex Ferguson favors such an approach too when he signed Teddy Sheringham, Laurent Blanc and Edwin van der Sar.
Despite success in the Premier League and Serie A, Patrick Vieira’s hunger to win more titles remains unabated. Currently, there is no player in Manchester City with a better resume than Vieira. During his nine years with Arsenal, Vieira won the Premier League and FA Cup Double in 1998 and 2001, clinched FA Cups in 2003 and 2005 as well as helming the ‘Invincibles’ campaign when the Gunners broke Nottingham Forest’s record for unbeaten games in the Premiership.
Patrick Vieira was also part of France’s 1998 World Cup and Euro 2000 winning sides. The only honor to elude him is the Champions League which is a major reason for his departure from Arsenal. When Vieira moved to Juventus in 2005, he helped them win the Italian Championship but a groin injury affected his performances.
His appearance in the Champions League quarter-finals at Highbury was a sham as Arsenal won 2-0 on aggregate against Juventus. Robert Pires and the 19-year old Cesc Fabregas upstaged Vieira who had little to show except for a yellow card.
When Juventus were rocked by a match-fixing scandal and subsequently relegated to Serie B, Patrick Vieira transferred to Inter Milan and enjoyed another streak of Serie A titles but he was relegated to a fringe player due to injuries.
Roberto Mancini, then manager at Inter Milan, recruited Vieira but ended up using Oliver Dacourt as his first choice. With the club signing Sulley Muntari and Thiago Motta, Vieira found it even harder to get into the first team.
Mancini duly delivered three Serie A titles but was surprisingly replaced by Jose Mourinho. The change of manager did not bring better luck for Vieira though. In last year’s Champions League game against Manchester United, Vieira looked like a passenger and was substituted at half-time. For this season, he featured just 16 times in all competitions – with most of those coming from the bench.
Despite adding more championships on his resume, it has become clear that the team is carrying Vieira to glory instead of him playing an instrumental role. You can’t blame Jose Mourinho for being happy to offload Vieira whose contract will be due in June 2010, after which he becomes a free agent.
Mancini’s Juggling Act In Midfield
Notwithstanding the risks, Roberto Mancini has huge plans for Patrick Viera. He said: “Patrick is a world-class midfielder with a winner’s mentality and will fit into this group very well. He knows me and my staff well and he also knows what the Premier League is all about. He will not need much time to settle in. Patrick is one of the great players of his era with almost every honor in the game to his name.”
We can expect Patrick Vieira to be a regular presence, though he won’t featuring any time soon due to a calf injury picked up in his last Inter Milan match. As for the captaincy, it stays with Kolo Toure for the time being.
It will be nice to see Patrick Vieira as the same resilient midfielder who break up opposing attacks, hoard possession and launch counter attacks intelligently, as well as score crucial headers.
Manchester City has no shortage of quality strikers so if Vieira marshals the midfield well and provides the aerial threat which Mancini relishes, he could easily resurrect a flagging professional career and his influence in the French national team.
Against Blackburn recently, Manchester City were dominant but after conceding the first goal, the team became unsettled and it took the fourth goal to put the game beyond doubt. It is likely that Vieira, had he been fit, will serve as a calming influence for the jittery back line.
However, there are huge risks for Roberto Mancini if the Frenchman is no longer the same player. If he wants a trusted deputy in the dressing room to lead and motivate the troops, it may backfire when Vieira struggles to justify his selection.
So far, Mancini has enjoyed success at City by letting everyone start on a clean slate. Reputation counts for little – whoever is on form and has a good attitude gets into the first XI. That explains why Robinho is benched while Bellamy who did not let his unhappiness about Mark Hughes’s dismissal get in the way of his performance, is now an integral part of Mancini’s plans.
However, the arrival of Vieira may result in Mancini getting a reputation of favoring certain players which was how Sven Goran Eriksson found himself. We have to remember that Vieira is not here for the money. Even if he meets all the performance targets in his contract, he gets about £70,000-a-week, hardly an eye-catching amount.
His main intention in signing for Manchester City is to win back a place in the French World Cup squad. Currently, his impact on the national team has been minimal. He played four international games since September 2007. For France’s friendly against Spain in February 2008, Le Parisien newspaper awarded him 2 out of 10 for his performance.
It is evident that Patrick Vieira has to start playing regularly to get back his sharpness and match fitness. This is a year when Vieira will not tolerate sitting on the bench. Thus, if he doesn’t get enough matches under his belt, Mancini will have one more disgruntled player in the dressing room.
I believe Nigel de Jong or Gareth Barry may have to make way for Vieira but that means disrupting the midfield equilibrium. Nigel de Jong has been one of City’s impressive performers this season. His physical strength in tackling and holding the ball makes it unlikely for Mancini to replace him.
In City’s 4-4-2 formation, the other half of the central midfield is Gareth Barry whose composure and reading of the game make him an invaluable asset. Barry may have underperformed for Mark Hughes but since Roberto Mancini’s arrival, he is beginning to regain the sort of sparkling form that attracted Liverpool.
Even if Mancini adjusts his formation to accommodate Vieira, Stephen Ireland may be a better choice with his attacking thrust. At the moment, City have no European commitments, except for domestic league and cups competition, thus, it is difficult to see Vieira breaking into the first team unless Barry or de Jong suffer serious injuries.
Persisting with Patrick Vieira and also handing him the captain’s armband could result in a dressing room revolt. There are enough opinionated characters in the dressing room for that to happen, like Adebayor, Craig Bellamy and Vieira himself.
I believe Mancini realizes his precarious position in Manchester City. Though Mark Hughes did himself no favors when he struggled to win matches and splashed out £50m on three defenders who cannot protect the goal properly, the callous manner in which he was dismissed will be a good reminder for Mancini.
Success has to be immediate to please his Abu Dhabi boss but even then it does not guarantee Mancini will stay on the job, like what happened in Italy, after winning three Serie A titles. Mancini’s position becomes even more untenable if he misses out on the top four finish while players lose confidence in his management. He could be whisked out of the the door faster than you can say Mark Hughes.
Mancini’s midfield juggling act has just begun and it will be interesting to see how it pans out. At his age, Patrick Vieira is winding down his career as a football legend and he cannot match his younger contemporaries for pace and has to be used sparingly.
If Vieira accepts his role as a substitute, especially in the later stage of the competition where experience can make or break a team, all is fine. If not, Mancini may regret signing a former legend who he has little use for.