Technically, Patrick Vieira arrived at Arsenal before Arsène Wenger did. Then a little-known 20-year-old reserve midfielder with AC Milan, Vieira joined the club in August of 1996 on a £3.5 million transfer. Two days prior to his move, the club had fired manager Bruce Rioch after one season. It was a peculiar move: Rioch had just signed a new contract. The summer before, the club had allowed him to sign Dutch star Dennis Bergkamp, who led the team to fifth place in the table after an ignominious 12th-place finish the year before.
Yet, despite his moderate success, Rioch was destined to be a stop gap. As Michael Cox writes in his book The Mixer, in 1995 Arsenal vice-chairman David Dein attempted to hire Wenger, then best-identified as “the former Monaco manager,” but the Frenchman instead opted to sign with Nagoya Grampus Eight in Japan, where the national federation had just launched a—I kid you not—100-year campaign aimed at winning the 2092 World Cup. A year later, Dein convinced Wenger to take the Arsenal job, except Wenger was under contract in Japan until November 1996. He was eventually able to engineer an early exit from Nagoya Grampus, but still served out his notice and didn’t officially become Arsenal manager until the beginning of October.
Although he was not yet officially employed by the club, Wenger, it was later revealed, had advised Arsenal to sign the leggy, box-to-box French midfielder—and he even later accidentally admitted that he advised the signing of Bergkamp the season prior, too. To The Guardian at the time, the signing of Vieira (and fellow French midfielder Rémi Garde) was proof that Wenger was on his way: “Arsenal would not have paid out without instructions from a new manager, and the fact that the pair are French and little known outside their own country confirms Wenger’s imminent arrival.”
As The Wenger Era somehow winds to a sudden close, no former player better represents the successes of the legacy-defining early days: the revolutionary fitness and nutritional regimes, the desire to look beyond British borders for talent. (As of 1992, five percent of the Premier League were foreigners. In 2005, Wenger fielded the league’s first all-foreign starting lineup.) It’s not that Vieira succeeded because he didn’t eat pre-match beans-on-toast or didn’t partake in the infamous “Tuesday Club” post-practice drinking session; to see Vieira effortlessly cover the length of the pitch in the 90th minute with just a handful of strides was to stare directly into the uncompromising future of the sport. After his first match with the club, against Sheffield Wednesday on September 16, 1996, the fansite Arseweb awarded him with an 8-out-of-10 match rating: “Perhaps a bit over the top, but my choice for man of the match, if only for the joy of watching a midfielder who can pass and is comfortable on the ball.” Vieira became club captain in 2002, and won three Premier League and four FA Cup titles with Arsenal before departing for Juventus in 2005.
“I feel like I was opening the door to the rest of the world,” Wenger said of his trailblazing years with Vieira and Co. His methods were eventually co-opted and improved upon by managers with more practical ideas and clubs with more money (or more willingness) to spare. He was the first successful foreign manager in a league now dominated by them. But he’s also destined to be the last Premier League manager whose reign can be measured in decades.
So, who to lead the club into its next era? Why not the defining figure from the previous one? The day before Wenger announced he’d be stepping down at season’s end, he singled out Vieira, saying he “has the potential” to one day be Arsenal manager. Currently in charge of New York City FC in MLS, Vieira only has two-plus seasons of solid-but-unspectacular managerial experience under his belt, but if the German Bundesliga is any indication, biding your time might be overrated.
The Ringer talked to Vieira in the summer of 2016 about Wenger, the Premier League, and his own managerial future for a piece about the Arsenal manager and England’s influx of coaching talent. Here’s the full conversation.
When you first got to Arsenal, what stood out to you about the way Arsène Wenger ran the team?
I think what was really interesting is that I arrived in a club where you had some players who had some really good experience and you had the same back four [Nigel Winterburn, Tony Adams, Steve Bould, and Lee Dixon] everyone was talking about. As a young player, to come up surround by those players, it was really important because they were the DNA of the football club. I had to look at them to understand what Arsenal was all about.
Among all the managers you played for, what makes Wenger different?
I think the freedom he gives to the young players and the confidence and the trust he gives to those young players. He knows that when you are young, you will make mistakes—and he accepts the mistakes. He lets you play with freedom, and he believes in those young players.
Was that a rare quality at the time?
I don’t know that it was a rare one, but what was important is that he did it to the young players of my generation.
Are there any managerial lessons that you take from playing under him?
Yeah, to have a relationship with the players and to trust the players, to try to have the door always open, to talk to them. I think that is something that I take from Arsène.
Arsène famously came to the league and found success by doing things differently. But there are so many great managers in the league now. Is it harder so stand out than it used to be?
I think the league is of course more competitive because of the foreign managers who come in with the idea of how to play. It became more and more difficult in the Premier League because of the number of top managers you have. When Arsène arrived, he changed things. You weren’t allowed to eat chips with brunch. You weren’t allowed the butter. You were doing all the stretching. He’d bring a nutritionist to make us understand how important it is to eat properly.
Is the level of managerial talent in the league right now higher than it ever has been?
Oh yeah–some believe that now, to win the Premier League, or to finish in the top five, the top four, will be even harder because of the quality of the Premier League coaching. When you look at the top teams, they have some fantastic managers.
Have you studied any of them?
I’ve been lucky to work with [Manchester United’s] José Mourinho, who I believe is a fantastic coach. I had a chance to work and to talk with [Belgium manager] Roberto Martínez, and he’s a fantastic coach, as well. [Current Dutch national team manager, Ronald] Koeman has been doing a fantastic job at Southampton. [Liverpool’s Jürgen] Klopp, I love the way his team, especially the ones at Dortmund used to play with a dynamic, always lively style.
What makes Mourinho unique?
Just look at how he’s won everywhere he’s went. Then you look at Pep Guardiola at City, as well. That should be really exciting.
How has the game changed since you stopped playing?
The teams are better organized, the teams are better prepared—physically, tactically, mentally. I think it is more difficult now than it was ten years ago, and it will be even more difficult over the next ten years.
What’s been the hardest part of transitioning from playing to managing?
What was difficult is to understand that you’re not a player anymore. When you were playing, you only think about yourself, how to prepare, how to be ready. Then when you’re coaching, you became last. You have to think about other people and you have to manage the players. You have to think about other people before thinking about yourself, and that’s tough.
Have you gained a new respect for what managers do that you might not have had as a player?
Yes, of course. You better understand the decisions managers are making now that you’re on the other side. I was talking about it with Roberto Mancini when Inter [Milan] was in New York. He says, “You understand coaches morethan before?” And I said, “Yes -- when you’re on the other side, you understand things in a different way.”
What are you most proud of about what you’ve done with NYCFC so far?
I’ve done nothing yet, so it’s difficult for me to be satisfied. I always want more. I’m really happy with the attitude that we tried to put in place, and I’m proud about the way the team is playing, but that is just the beginning. We need to improve.
What do you want to achieve?
I think with the team, you want to win something. But for me the first step is to try to make the maximum of every single player. If I manage to do that, I’m sure that we can achieve something interesting. What I really want to do is to maximize the quality of the players and make the maximum of them so that they can give 100 percent tactically, physically, mentally, and then we will see. If I make the best of every single player, I would be satisfied with that.
Is maximizing player performance the most important part of your job?
Of course. It’s important as a coach to put players in really good positions to express themselves. It’s about “How I can explain to them what I want, what I need, and the way we want to play?” I think if I manage to do that in a simple way, in a clear way, then the players will express themselves. And if the players don’t express themselves, then I need to ask myself “why” and try to find the solution to do it.
So do you have any personal ambitions as a manager? Places you want to end up?
No. I just take it step by step. I’m in a really fortunate place at the moment. I really want to do well and see what’s going to happen. At the moment, I’m really happy where I am.