LE SPIRO: VIEIRA LOOKS THE PART
By M. Spiro
Patrick Vieira is proving himself to be a highly competent manager after overcoming a host of obstacles this season in a trying season at Nice, writes Matthew Spiro.
Jose Mourinho said this week that Christophe Galtier, the Lille coach, has been his "man of the season" in Ligue 1 Conforama, and it's difficult to argue with the Portuguese on that one. Yet Galtier isn't the only manager to have performed brilliantly. Julien Stéphan has impressed during his first six months in the profession - even winning the Coupe de France with Rennes - while Bernard Blaquart (Nîmes), Thierry Laurey (Strasbourg) and David Guion (Reims) all deserve honourable mentions.
For me, however, the man who has flown under the radar despite doing a remarkable job in extremely testing circumstances is Vieira. The ex-France star is experiencing his first campaign in Europe having previously cut his teeth during two seasons with the Manchester City reserves and another two years in charge of MLS side New York City. Vieira doesn't talk much in the media. He doesn't make outlandish comments that create headlines and get the world talking about him. He just goes quietly about his work. This reserved, shy persona contrasts with his combative reputation. While Vieira the player was aggressive, in-your-face and happy to take centre stage, Vieira the manager is softly-spoken and generally stays in the shadows, happy to leave the limelight for his players.
Maybe this is one of the reasons that relatively little has been made of his achievements this season. That, and the fact there has been no sensational story. Nice have not won the Coupe de France. Nice have not qualified for the Champions League. Indeed, for a club that has finished 4th, 3rd and 8th in the last three campaigns, their current position of 7th does not even look particularly special.
As ever, though, the numbers don't tell the whole story. This was a campaign fraught with danger for the Côte d'Azur club. Great progress had been made under Claude Puel and then Lucien Favre, but Vieira joined the club at the end of a cycle. Leading players from the 2017-18 season - Jean-Michael Seri, Maxime Le Marchand, Alassane Pléa - were all sold, and a potentially disastrous power struggle had commenced behind the scenes.
Super Mario fiasco
Then there was the Mario Balotelli situation. Balotelli was also supposed to leave – Nice had given him the all-clear and the 28-year was intent on going. The trouble was the Italian was out of shape, his agent was playing hardball with potential suitors, and the saga rumbled on. Nice, therefore, couldn't sign a replacement. In the end Balotelli didn't move, and when he returned to training in September he was a long way from full fitness and clearly disappointed to still be at the club. Balotelli made ten appearances for Nice, looked unmotivated, failed to score, and eventually left for Marseille in January.
For any coach it would have been easy to turn on the player who simply wasn't performing, or to turn on his employers who had failed to provide him with a competitive strike-force. For a young manager finding his feet the situation must have been especially hard to digest. This, after all, was Vieira's big chance and yet he was being asked to succeed with at least one hand tied behind his back. Vieira kept his counsel throughout, refusing to complain publicly. He gave opportunities to his unproven, young strikers Ignatius Ganago and Myziane Maolida, and tried to keep their confidence up despite the fact they weren't ready to be regular starters and couldn't score goals.
Left with little other choice, Vieira built his side around the defence. After the team had managed just one goal in their first three games, worryingly losing 4-0 at home to Dijon, the coach decided he needed to go against his natural philosophy. He had intended to build on the free-flowing, passing football that Nice had developed under Favre, but it simply was not possible with these players. Away to Lyon in Week 4, he switched to a five-man backline, setting his team up in a 5-4-1 formation that gave nothing away. Nice won 1-0 and that game became the blueprint.
It feels somewhat appropriate that an Arsenal legend has got his team winning 1-0 on a regular basis, but it's important to emphasise that this is a method was borne out of circumstances. The way Vieira has succeeded in organising his troops and instilling such impressive discipline speaks volumes for his skills as a coach and a man-manager. Only bottom side Guingamp have scored fewer goals than Nice this season. Les Aiglons have found the net just 28 times, yet incredibly they had accumulated 53 points so far. With stronger options in attack there is little doubt Vieira would have got his men pushing for a position in the top five and possibly even the Champions League places.
Nice's problems in attack are a minor issue compared with the wrangling that has gone on behind the scenes. The summer transfer window was such a mess, club president Jean-Pierre Rivère decided to stand down and took his sporting coordinator Julien Fournier with him. Rivère felt he could not continue taking the club forward due to the differences he now had with Nice’s Sino-American owners regarding transfers. Since Gauthier Ganaye replaced Rivère as president, the climate has deteriorated further. Nice's fans are now adamant that a change of ownership is required. They have staged frequent protests in recent weeks, and the most influential supporter group has urged fans not to buy season tickets for next season unless there is an overhaul at the top.
In the middle of it all, Vieira has let nothing show, focusing only on the football. He has recently been linked with the Lyon job - and surely they're not the only top club that has noticed his fine work - but he has refused to give credence to any rumours surrounding his future. Ganaye is striving to keep Vieira content. By bringing in the coach's good friend Gilles Grimandi as sporting director, and also recruiting the former Manchester United scout Mathieu Louis-Jean at Vieira's request, he looks to have satisfied Vieira for now.
Those appointments have certainly given the 42-year-old peace of mind, but nothing has been easy for him this term, and this summer will need to be managed far better. His one quality attacking talent, winger Allan Saint-Maximin - the top-scorer this season with a meagre six goals - has made it clear he wants to leave. Like Balotelli before him, Saint-Maximin has not always behaved professionally. But again, Vieira has ensured his capricious players have caused minimal disruption to the team's unity. Brilliant wing-back Youcef Atal - who has flourished under Vieira's management - is attracting interest from Napoli, Chelsea and Atletico Madrid. Again, if he leaves, Vieira will rightly be expecting the money to be reinvested intelligently in his squad.
Credit where it's due
There is no question that this tall, muscular, imposing figure commands the respect of the Nice players. Yet we know that having a huge reputation and a wonderful playing career is not enough to guarantee success in management. Vieira's close friend Thierry Henry arguably had even more adversity to contend with than Vieira at Monaco, and he paid the price. So if Nice find themselves in the top third, and if they end up relegating their Côte d'Azur rivals on the final day, then one man - and one man only - deserves a huge amount of credit. Vieira has all the makings of a top-class manager, and Nice's priority this summer has to be making sure they keep their main man happy.