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Tactical Philosophy: Patrick Vieira

While this website has made its name focusing on the lesser known youth of this beautiful sport, and combined it with a tinge of tactical flavour meant for the football enthusiast, we found a large gap to be exploited in terms of combining the two. This mini-series thus focuses on young managers (below the age of 45) and their tactical philosophies, deriving what got them here and where they could go. Patrick Mills has a look at Patrick Vieira’s rise in recent seasons.


Born in the Senegalese capital of Dakar, Patrick Vieira moved to France at the age of eight. His talent for football was quickly noticed and following development years at FC Drouais and Tours, Vieira began his professional career with Cannes in 1994. He captained Les Dragons Rouges at just 19 before being snapped up by Italian giants AC Milan. The young midfielder failed to break into the first team during his first spell at San Siro and opted to link up with fellow Frenchman Arsene Wenger at Arsenal a year later. Vieira went on to win three Premier League titles in North London, even going unbeaten in the 03/04 season. He also won three FA cups with the Gunners before departing in 2005 to join Juventus as Wenger put his faith in youngster Cesc Fabregas. Juve won the title in the campaign that followed but were stripped of the honour and relegated to the second tier for match fixing. Vieira moved back to Milan, this time with Inter, and spent four consecutive title-winning years with the Nerazzurri. He then chose Manchester City as a suitable club with which to wind down his career, under the management of his former Inter coach Roberto Mancini. Vieira’s international career was equally successful, earning 107 caps for France and lifting both the World Cup and the European Championship.

After retiring from playing in 2011, Vieira was given the role of ‘Football Development Executive’ at Manchester City. After impressing in this position, City executive Brian Marwood decided to offer him the job as manager of the Elite Development Squad at the Etihad. Up until this point, Vieira hadn’t foreseen a future in management but at the time had this to say:
“He (Brian Marwood) put me in a situation I’d never been in before. I was surprised that I quite enjoyed it”.

After two years with the EDS, Vieira began attracting interest from senior teams, most notably Newcastle United. Following brief talks with the Magpies, both parties opted not to take things further with Vieira citing a difference in policies as the reason for not taking over at St. James’ Park. Just a few months later, Manchester City’s sister club New York City came calling and he was appointed head coach for the forthcoming 2016 season. In his first term in charge of NYC, Vieira lead his team to second place in the Eastern Conference, eventually losing in the play-off semi-finals to Toronto FC. This season, City lie second again, nine points behind Toronto.

Tactical Philosophy

New York City FC usually line up in a standard 4-3-3 formation. However, at times this season, they have chosen to play a double pivot in a 4-2-3-1 to provide better protection against counter-attacks and to aid in build-up play. Here you can see Vieira’s most commonly used line-up so far this year: Johnson; White, Chanot, Callens, Sweat; Moralez, Pirlo, Ring; Harrison, Villa, Wallace

As a player, Vieira generally played for teams that succeeded by combining physical and technical prowess. His own game, in fact, was based on this juxtaposition. To a certain extent, Vieira’s philosophy as a coach has grown to resemble his playing days. He appreciates the need for the marriage of players with valuable technical attributes and players who offer beneficial physical traits.

Under Vieira, New York City FC’s primary focus is to build attacks from deep, drawing their opponents out in the process. Shifting the ball around the back, they attempt to create an opening in the opposition’s first line of defence before breaking the line with a penetrative pass into one of the midfielders. From here, City tend to play quick, direct passes, either to the feet of the wingers or in behind the opponent’s last line of defence to find a run from David Villa. It’s a clever, effective and often neglected strategy of attacking and it has served Vieira and his team well over the last two seasons. By inviting the opposition high up the pitch, they create a positional lay-out akin to that of a counter-attack. The wingers have the luxury of taking on their fullback 1v1 now that the opposing winger is up the other end, while the striker can take advantage of the open space in behind the central defenders. The GIF below provides an example of their build up play:

The physical and technical profiles of the players in Vieira’s squad are what allows him to successfully implement this approach. In the pivot role, Andrea Pirlo’s talents are ideally suited. The veteran Italian is adept at scanning the space around him, making last second movements to receive the ball in space and at the right angle, before utilising his world-class passing range to find a teammate in the attack. Additionally, both wingers, Jack Harrison and Rodney Wallace, have the dribbling ability and the pace to take advantage of 1v1’s while Villa, despite being 35, still has enough pace to get beyond defences, as well as the finishing ability to complete the move. Even when opponents drop off and allow City to carry the play out of their half, Vieira’s side remain heavily wing-orientated with Pirlo playing a quarter-back role in finding them. When Pirlo is absent from the starting XI, Yangel Herrera sits in front of the defenders, who will often bypass the Venezuelan and pick out Maxi Moralez further forward in midfield. From here, Moralez can turn and feed the wide areas or play a through ball to Villa.

Should their attacks reach either Pirlo or Moralez with time and space, City’s opponents struggle to deal with the threat. However, their attacks don’t always reach this point and so there are major risks to the tactical approach. Even if City had a defence filled with players who were very comfortable in possession, which they don’t, the odd mistake would be inevitable. Due to the strict salary restrictions in the MLS, City have focused on the more attacking positions when recruiting DPs (Designated Players). Some of their defenders meanwhile are not of a particularly high standard and so they often make costly mistakes when attempting to build out from the goalkeeper. Nevertheless, Vieira persists with his philosophy and the players appear happy to follow suit. Rodney Wallace had this to say: “The players buy into what he says. Even if sometimes it goes wrong, it doesn’t matter because he knows that at some point it’s going to work out.”

The high-risk, high reward approach is something that City’s club directors firmly believe in. Claudio Reyna referred to Vieira’s tactical knowledge and ‘familiarity with the structure of operations’ within the City Football Group as the main reasons for his appointment. It appears that each of City’s franchises, including Manchester City, are keen on developing a footballing identity. If Barcelona are recognised around the world for their possessional and positional based playing philosophy, City Football Group want their teams to be renowned for a combination of patient build up and direct, quick attacks. Under Pep Guardiola last season, we saw Manchester City play a similar game at times. Because of the individuals, Guardiola’s side were understandably more proficient at each aspect of the playing philosophy when compared to Vieira’s. Man City were 6% better both in possession stats (61%) and pass accuracy (86%). They also took 2.2 more shots per game. It’s fair to say, however, that they too experienced the same issues with the approach with mistakes in build-up and problems with playing such a high defensive line during established attacks. The GIF below shows an example of a mistake in build-up leading to New York conceding:

Another noticeable feature of the philosophies is the use of intelligent strategies for breaking teams down. These include creating 1v1’s out wide by building on the opposite side before switching the point of attack, runs from deep to find players unmarked in the final third, decoy runs to create space for teammates and the use of low crosses and cutbacks as a valuable way of creating quality goal-scoring chances. All of these tools can be recognised in both New York and Manchester City’s approach. Vieira’s attention to detail has also been noted during his spell in New York with pre-planned counter-attacks, plays and set pieces all commonly displayed by his team.

City also utilise pressing from the front in order to capitalise on mistakes and complete turnovers in threatening areas. Vieira’s men have been seen deploying lane orientated pressing to shut off their opposing defender’s options in build-up play and forcing a misplaced pass. They have also adopted man orientated and leeway pressure at different points throughout the season, with a fair amount of success. The GIF below shows them using man-orientated pressure to force a turnover and score:

When established in defence, as mentioned previously, NYCFC are perhaps lacking in individual quality. As a unit, they also make plenty of mistakes. On a number of occasions, the back line have been caught out pushing up to play offside, despite there being no pressure on the ball. Meanwhile aspects such as their spacing and positioning behind the ball in preparation for an opposition turnover could be improved. Vieira, having played at the highest level for so long, will surely succeed in improving the individual defenders as well as their compaction as a defensive unit over time. Their weaknesses at the back have led to some embarrassing defeats during Vieira’s tenure, the worst being a 0-7 thrashing at home to rivals New York Red Bulls last season. Despite also suffering a couple of heavy losses this term, there has been a slight improvement overall. City have conceded 1.4 goals per game so far this season, down from last year’s 1.7. Under Vieira, they have transformed into one of the best attacking sides in Major League Soccer but if they’re to have any realistic chance of winning the MLS Cup, they must make further improvements to their off the ball play. Vieira recently conceded as much: “Looking more at the balance of the team, in the beginning of season, we looked a little bit more balanced than we did last year. We have to get back to the basics of defending, especially when the ball is in our box. We just have to find the right balance between scoring goals and conceding goals.”

Three Career Defining Games

New York City 4-3 Chicago Fire, March 6th, 2016 – This was Vieira’s managerial debut in the senior game and it was certainly a taste of what was to come. Following a pre-season of coaching the players with his methods, City displayed patient build-up combined with direct attacks right from the beginning of Vieira’s era. They managed to convert four of their impressive 20 shots and controlled 62 percent of the possession. However, defensive frailty was clearly carrying over from the previous tenure as the Pigeons struggled to contain the Chicago Fire attack. All in all, Vieira’s debut was a successful one and gave fans at the Yankee Stadium a glimpse into the future under their new manager.

Toronto 2-0 New York City, October 30th, 2016 – Despite going on to lose this tie 0-7 on aggregate and crashing out of the play-offs as a result, this fixture marked an impressive rise in a short space of time for New York. After finishing third from bottom of Major League Soccer’s Eastern Conference in the club’s first season of existence, City improved dramatically under the guidance of Patrick Vieira in 2016 and were rewarded with a playoff semi-final meeting with Toronto, following a second place finish in the league. Getting this far in his debut season in management illustrated Vieira’s huge potential.

New York City 3-2 New York Red Bulls, August 6th, 2017 – The Hudson River derby is a rivalry with little history but in the few years since both sides first faced off, it’s the Red Bulls who have dominated the spoils. A 0-7 loss was the most embarrassing outcome back in May last year. Last month however, City gained bragging rights with an hard-earned 3-2 victory thanks to a hat-trick from the talismanic David Villa. The win pushed them five points clear of their neighbours in the league table, while David Villa increased the gap in goals scored this season with Red Bull’s Bradley Wright-Phillips to four.

Three Key Players Developed

Jack Harrison – Following seven years with Manchester United’s youth academy, Harrison moved to the United States at the age of 14 due to his mother’s caution when it came to young footballers in England overlooking their education. It’s a move that has so far paid off. He went on to play for Manhattan soccer club before joining up with Vieira’s squad last season. Now 20, the pacey winger is viewed as one of the brightest talents in MLS. He is reportedly attracting interest from Championship and Premier League clubs in England and Vieira has no doubt helped him generate that interest.

Yangel Herrera– Immediately after joining Manchester City from Atletico Venezuela in January 2017, Herrera was loaned to New York City. He has impressed in his 14 MLS appearances to date and captained Venezuela’s U20s to a second place finish in the summer’s World Cup. The 19 year old is a combative midfielder whose game is focused on winning the ball back and giving it to his more attack minded teammates. Vieira has already helped Herrera progress as a player and he represents an ideal mentor for him to learn from over the coming months.

R.J. Allen – In 2015, Allen had virtually given up on making it as a professional footballer and began coaching youth teams instead. Shortly afterwards however he was offered his first MLS contract at the age of 25 by NYCFC. He has gone on to make almost 50 appearances, mainly as a right-back, and has been a consistently solid figure for the Blues. Born in New Jersey, he will be hoping to top off his rapid rise by earning a call-up to the USMNT. Should he achieve this, Allen will owe a lot to Vieira’s guidance over the past two seasons.


Vieira’s side remain in a good position to make the play-offs again this year and should they perform better this time around, the 41 year old will almost certainly draw admiring glances from Europe. He does, however, seem content in the Big Apple and who would blame him? MLS and New York City FC specifically provides Vieira with a better environment to learn and improve as a coach without the constant threat of being relegated or sacked. He recently acknowledged rumoured interest from Saint Etienne before reiterating his desire to continue his project in the US.

“I think to have my name linked with Saint Etienne or any other team is always flattering but it stops there. Of course I will stay here. I set out on a long-term project with New York City. The only thing is you can’t control reports from journalists. The thing is that it is a really interesting project and I am into it. I love every single day of it. Speculation is part of our world and I get used to it.”

Vieira may be happy to remain in the MLS for now, but considering how successful he was at the very highest level during his playing career, it appears a question of when, and not if, we see him take the helm at one of Europe’s biggest clubs. He represents a potentially ideal heir to Pep Guardiola at Manchester City, while a return to Arsenal would surely be well received by all concerned, too.

Patrick Mills

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