“It was my intention before the game to take control of the midfield and he just did not allow me to do that”, said a 21-year-old Steven Gerrard about Patrick Vieira in 2001 after a FA Cup Final between Liverpool and Arsenal, especially envious of the Frenchman’s ability to dictate tempo from midfield. While there was a four-year age gap between the two midfielders, their careers were synonymous with the explosion of the Premier League in America at the beginning of the century. Representing an ever dying breed of energetic midfielders with the occasional wild streak, Gerrard and Vieira are now part of a group of retired Premier League stars pursuing their return to England as managers. Their transition from superstar player to paying one’s dues in the managerial circuit represents a contrast to Bundesliga wunderkind managers in their early 30’s born of analytics and technology, but the goal remains the same: manage at the highest domestic level. Thus, 41-year-old Vieira currently earns his stripes with NYCFC. The 37-year-old Gerrard, as of last week, will do the same at Rangers.
“My teams will be physical”, remarked Gerrard, staying on brand in discussing his managerial philosophy after taking over the Liverpool U-18s last year. Gerrard spent 16 months in various managerial roles inside of Liverpool’s academy before making the transition to Rangers. But more than physicality, the former Liverpool midfielder desires an intelligent side built to see out matches. He emphasizes the last five to 10 minutes of a match, when a player’s legs and hearts “are burning” to build the mental toughness needed to win matches at the highest level. Although his tactics at the youth level were informed as much by maximizing the players he had on his fluctuating roster than an overall stylistic philosophy, his sides played a three-defender backline with two wing backs and a playmaker. But most all, it was his inherent presence that raised the intensity amongst his youth players who grew up idolizing the midfielder.
Gerrard inherits a Rangers side who returned to the Scottish Premiership three years prior, handing rivals Celtic complete league dominance. One could question the wisdom of jumping from the U-18s straight to the senior side after a relatively short apprenticeship, but there is something tangible in the excitement and energy in his name.
The impact has been immediate. In what’s been dubbed the “Steven Gerrard Effect”, more than 30,000 Rangers supporters renewed their season tickets, with supporter passion described as “incomparable”. His presence has made Celtic supporters dream of big name signings for their club to snatch back the headlines. There is also a built-in narrative between him and his former Liverpool and current Celtics manager Brendan Rodgers to spotlight the league. And now comes Gerrard’s actual job description: getting results, and perhaps readying himself for a Liverpool return one day.
Currently in his third year as NYCFC manager, Vieira is on his own roundabout journey back to the Premier League. With the club part of the larger City Football Group, Vieira has a direct path to the top role at his parent club. And unlike Gerrard, we have more evidence for Vieira’s playing style. His sides play a methodical possession style centered on building play from deep and drawing opponents out of their defensive structure to create space for David Villa. His focus on possession and build up play is influenced by the football group’s overall philosophy, and indeed, Vieira was hired for his “familiarity” of the larger style as exemplified by Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City. As for results, NYCFC have finished in second place of the Eastern Conference in both of Vieira’s two seasons.
So how much longer does Vieira need to undergo his MLS apprenticeship before taking the leap to Europe? His name appeared in rumors after Arsene Wenger announced his departure from Arsenal, but former teammate Emmanuel Petit observed that it would be “premature” to hire him when compared to Max Allegri. Perhaps he replaces Guardiola once he leaves City? But then again, Guardiola’s assistant Mikel Arteta - another peer of Gerrard and Vieira’s during the early 2000s Premier League explosion - is on his own managerial path and has, if nothing else, has experience in clashing with Jose Mourinho in the team tunnel. In continuing the player tree of former Arsenal players on the managerial path, Roberto Martinez named Thierry Henry as an assistant with the Belgium National Team heading into this summer’s World Cup.
A common theme amongst this group is their training under the Football Association of Wales. It is where Henry, Arteta, Vieira and other Premier League stalwarts like Freddie Ljunberg, Jens Lehmann, Sol Campbell and Craig Bellamy received their UEFA coaching license. Henry stated that the way the Welsh see the game is “how I see the game,” while Vieira added that the courses gave him a greater understanding of the “kind of manager I want to be.” Campbell, currently coaching at the Arsenal youth level, sung its praises in describing its openness to new ideas while criticizing the closed nature of the English FA.
There is the debate across sports of whether managers need to have played at the highest level in order to relate to players. Osian Roberts, head of the Welsh coaching program and described as the most influential person in Welsh football, stated that while there is no replicating professional experience, a person’s humility and desire to continue to learn the game are vital in transitioning from world class player to impactful manager. Roberts mentions Mourinho as a great manager who never played at the top level, and Vieira credits Mourinho as an inspiration who wins no matter where he goes.
Attempting to win his third straight Champions League Final, Zinedine Zidane at Real Madrid represents the best case of a former great injecting his side with a presence and x-factor to see through tight moments that Gerrard initially described. And if football commentary foreshadows the future, Gerrard said the two lessons he took away from matchup against Vieira some 17 years ago was that he had to become more fit and more composed on the ball. Which, on the surface, appears simple. Gerrard’s present day challenge is to transmit that simplicity to eleven players of different ages, egos and parts of their career, to play in unison.
After he first took the Liverpool academy job, Gerrard stated it was important for him to make managerial mistakes “without getting judging in every single newspaper and every social media site.” Vieira discusses how there’s never been more competition to become a Premier League manager than today, and there is no specific blueprint for Gerrard, Vieira, Arteta and Henry to follow as they create their path in real time. There are only the basic principles: make mistakes now. Learn and pay for them, but not so much. Understand how to handle supporters and the media. And ultimately, return to the league they once defined.