‘Of course, I spoke with Arsène on the phone,” Patrick Vieira recalled in an interview with L’Équipe in April. “And one of the first things that he said to me was: ‘You are not a real manager until you get sacked.’”
On 14 August, it will be 25 years to the day since the France midfielder born in Senegal – one of the Premier League’s greatest players – signed for Arsenal. By quirk of fate, that date happens to be when Vieira will follow in the footsteps of his mentor, Arsène Wenger, and take charge of his first league match in English football as a manager. A day after Arsenal kick off their campaign at promoted Brentford, Vieira will be in the dugout at Stamford Bridge to face old rivals and European champions Chelsea in quite the baptism of fire.
Eight months after Vieira was shown the door by Nice having guided them to fifth place in Ligue 1 the previous season before it was curtailed by the pandemic, his determination to make it as a manager eventually persuaded the Crystal Palace owner, Steve Parish, to entrust him with the mammoth task of succeeding Roy Hodgson. Alongside maintaining the club’s Premier League status, Vieira is expected to implement a new attacking philosophy based on developing young players that has already led to the arrivals of the England Under-21 defender Marc Guehi from Chelsea and the exciting forward Michael Olise from Reading.
It is not a simple assignment – under Hodgson, Palace had by far the division’s oldest squad and a dozen players were out of contract at the end of June. The stalwart Joel Ward, who other than Wilfried Zaha is the only remaining member of the team that won promotion via the play-offs in 2013, has signed a two-year extension and Gary Cahill could follow suit, but the departure of Andros Townsend to Everton was symbolic of the direction Vieira is intending to take.
Vieira began coaching at Manchester City’s academy before he joined New York City after being interviewed by Newcastle with a view to succeeding Alan Pardew, and he has also learned plenty from Wenger about the importance of harnessing youth. The appointment of Saïd Aïgoun – who most recently worked with Paris Saint-Germain’s Under-17s – as development coach could be his most shrewd signing so far. Aïgoun’s coaching career began when he was only 16 and he has built a reputation for being one France’s best young coaches, having worked with players such as Kingsley Coman, Presnel Kimpembe and Christopher Nkunku at PSG. He has previously been at Paris FC and Auxerre and was recently a tactics expert on French television.
Aïgoun left PSG last year after growing frustrated with the lack of first-team opportunities for young players at one of Europe’s biggest‑spending clubs. It is understood Vieira approached Aïgoun at the start of the year when both were out of work to establish whether he would be interested in joining his staff whenever his next opportunity came, although the 37-year-old still had to be interviewed for his post at Palace after Vieira was appointed on 4 July.
“We need to continue that work with the young players who join us and who will have different needs to the senior players in the squad,” Aïgoun said on his appointment. “It is a role that is close to my heart in view of my career and which is very important for Patrick Vieira, who has proved everywhere he has been that he is capable of launching young players and making them play well.”
In a part of London teeming with talent that is perhaps comparable to the banlieues of Paris, he and Vieira have the platform to build a lasting legacy. Palace’s academy was granted Category One status last year and new £20m facilities have sprung up down the road from the first-team training centre in leafy Beckenham over the summer.
A six-part documentary series on Palace called The Academy, made by the producers of Educating Yorkshire, has been commissioned by Channel 4 and will be filmed over the next year and it is hoped that more young players can seize their moment in the manner of the defender Tyrick Mitchell, who signed a four-year deal in April after a breakthrough campaign under Hodgson. Twelve academy players have been part of Palace’s pre-season preparations, which included some exacting sessions at St George’s Park under the new first-team coach, Kristian Wilson, who Vieira also worked with at City, New York and Nice.
Yet if the future could be bright, the bad memories of the Frank de Boer experiment still weigh heavily in the minds of Palace supporters.
After Attilio Lombardo’s brief spell in 1998, the only other overseas manager in the club’s history left an indelible mark despite lasting only four Premier League matches before Hodgson steadied the ship with his usual pragmatism. Vieira, drafted in after Lucien Favre’s last-minute U-turn, will need to combine the experience of those who are left such as Zaha – who appears happier than he has for some time despite failing to land the big move he craves – with his youth revolution in order for things not to turn sour quickly.
“It’s a crucial period for the football club,” Vieira acknowledged when he took the job. “What I really want is to put a philosophy in place that my players understand really well, so that when they go on the field they can express themselves. Because there is talent, and my responsibility will be to make that talent work well together.” As Wenger would no doubt agree, bonne chance, Patrick.