Roberto Mancini made his first forays into the transfer market this week as Patrick Vieira agreed his return to England. The former Arsenal captain, 33, underwent a medical yesterday after Inter Milan boss Jose Mourinho confirmed the Frenchman had played his last game for the Italian giants.
But with the presence of Vincent Kompany, Nigel de Jong and Gareth Barry already at the City of Manchester Stadium, the imminent arrival of another combative central midfielder would seem unnecessary. Mancini’s predecessor Mark Hughes’ often employed two holding players in his line-up, usually Barry and de Jong, but with Stephen Ireland also angling for a place in the engine room, City would seem overloaded in that area already.
Much depends on how Mancini sets his team out in the future. At Inter, Mancio regularly employed a 4-4-2 system built around not only the guile of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, but also the never-ending stamina of Javier Zanetti, Esteban Cambiasso and Vieira, with dashes of flair from not only Ibrahimovic, but also the sublime Dejan Stankovic. The Daily Telegraph has reported Mancini intends to instil three distinct formations at Eastlands – a British-style 4-4-2, the 4-2-3-1 that was the preference of Hughes and a 4-3-3 which would depend greatly on the fitness of Shaun Wright-Phillips.
Vieira excelled in a 4-4-2 formation at Arsenal, but he left North London nearly five years ago, and Arsene Wenger has proven an excellent judge of when careers are on a downhill trajectory. Wenger’s Invincibles, of whom Vieira was a vital cog, were known for their rapid counter-attacks and many of them were led by the indomitable World Cup winner, but whether Vieira has the legs to carry out a similar role today remains to be seen. In the more deliberate world of Serie A, any loss of the explosive pace he once possessed would not have hamstrung Vieira too much, but such bursts of speed are as vital today in the Premier League as they were when Vieira left. A more cautious role could be given to Vieira by Mancini within the confines of 4-4-2, as both Barry and Ireland would make interesting partners for Vieira in the middle of the park.
Similarly, if Mancini continued with the 4-2-3-1 that has served City this season, a central-midfield pairing of Vieira and Barry or de Jong behind an attacking trident of Wright-Phillips, Tevez and Bellamy would provide a solid balance of attack and defence. With energetic full-backs including Wayne Bridge on the left and Pablo Zabaleta or Micah Richards on the right, Mancini clearly has options. In such a formation, Vieira could focus on one aspect of midfield play, protecting the defence, rather than be responsible for surging forward to support the lone striker, either Emmanuel Adebayor or Roque Santa Cruz. Asking Vieira to patrol the middle third of the pitch would give City an experienced head in a crucial area and protect the ageing Vieira, allowing him to contribute more to the City cause.
The final option Mancini has spoken of is the 4-3-3, which would again see a spot for Vieira that would exercise his talents. The ex-Juventus player would excel in the so-called ‘Makelele’ role protecting the back-four. With his immense physical strength and intelligent football brain, Vieira would not only provide great assurance to a City defence that has been vulnerable this season, but be a starting point for attacks from deep. However, with de Jong and Kompany also vying for a place in the starting XI, either of those talented midfielders could be selected in that role, freeing Vieira to play further forward. Both Kompany and de Jong are first and foremost defensive players, with limited vision and almost no attacking intent, but would be surrounded by more skilful players. They may be better options in the ‘Makelele’ role, and if Vieira is still capable of his trademark lung-bursting runs, using him there would be too limiting.
Perhaps most importantly, Vieira provides an off-the-field boost. Mancini knows him, having worked together for four years at Inter and can count on Vieira to provide leadership and set a winning example to the rest of the players. Vieira is a highly-successful athlete, having won numerous league titles in England and Italy, as well as trophies on the international stage with France. One of the most valuable commodities in football is a winning mentality and Vieira has that in spades.