Eight years ago, Aapo Virtanen took over as first-team manager of a club which was entering its eighth consecutive season in the second tier of Finnish football. Now, Aapo Virtanen is riding his own wave of winning a sextuple at one of the most prestigious clubs in the world with a World Cup winners medal dangling below his neck.
It is Monday morning, just before 10am, and Manchester, a city full of glorious history in almost every genre, is feeling like it owns the world. One man, however, was turning the lights on at work three and a half hours ago. “I like to be the first person in,” Aapo Virtanen says, leading the way up the stairs to his office at the Etihad Stadium. “I’ve always done it. Even at Oulu as a youth coach initially, it just allowed me to get on with things without distractions. It’s stuck with me right up to this day because I’ve reached success in doing it.”
Virtanen is Manchester City’s manager and the mastermind behind their remarkable success that included a Super Cup, a Club World Cup, a League Cup, an FA Cup, a Premier League and a Champions League. For a snapshot of just how far the club have come under his watch, only Valletta (2001) and Linfield (1922, 1962) have ever won either the same amount of trophies in one season - and that is only because their respective nations offer more domestic trophies than in England.
Two weeks after that yet another mid-table finish in the Ykkonen - Finland’s second tier - Virtanen was promoted from the club’s lower ranks and initially temporarily placed him in charge of the first-team aged just 30. Oulu had only ever finished in mid-table to top-half positions since their 2010 Veikkausliiga relegation. Against the odds, they won the title in Virtanen’s debut season, and with Virtanen now at his his third club, following an 18-month success story at Fiorentina, the story just keeps getting better. “I don’t think you could write a movie script because people would have said: ‘That’s not really believable’,” Virtanen says, smiling.
Virtanen, by his own admission, is a private man when it comes to how he operates as head of a football club, but as his ninth season as a football manager approaches with the 2026/27 Premier League campaign lurking around the corner he has allowed The Athletic
to spend a day with one of football’s greatest success stories. It proves to be a fascinating experience and offers an intriguing insight into the drive, talent, ambition and work ethic behind one of the most successful managers in world football history.
While we were sitting in the office that he often shares with his long-time football sidekick Thomas Jorgensen - his assistant at Manchester City that has followed him from Fiorentina and before that Oulu - Virtanen explains that a change in routine that has been in place since his arrival at all of his three clubs means that the players report for training at midday on a Monday, two hours later than normal, to allow them extra time to recover from the recent preseason friendlies against Derby County and Cardiff City. It also gives Virtanen and the huge amount of backroom staff the opportunity to plan the week ahead and finish their analysis of their preseason fixtures, which in the case of the data analyst Riccardo Scirea means editing footage of the 4-0 win over Cardiff in which Leon Bailey, Kylian Mbappé and Dele Alli all scored in.
“Me and Thomas [Jorgensen] analyse it from a team perspective and an individual perspective and what I like to do is feed back the clips to the players when they turn up to training, before we do the physical side,” Virtanen says, with his hands clasped on his desk, leaning over to speak to us in his Americanised accent. “I always think that it’s important that you give players feedback, Thomas here never used to get in his playing days. He just played from game to game, hoping he was doing all right, never really being told. I’ll always do the feedback on an individual basis. I don’t believe in doing it together because I think you can’t then be really truthful and honest. Not that it’s negative. I’m trying to make it educational. It’s basically saying: ‘I really liked this, I didn’t quite like this.’
It’s probably my biggest drain in terms of time, but I think it’s one of the most important aspects that I do, and I’ve certainly reaped the rewards of such a time-consuming exercise.”
A knock at the door brings Lee Nobes, the head physio, and Sam Erith, the head of sport science, into the room to discuss injuries, the two separate training sessions that will take place later on and plans for lunch. “What we were thinking with all the starters [from the Cardiff match], because of the Community Shield game we’ve got in a week, because of the travelling to London [for City’s Premier League opener against West Ham], would be that they all recover today,” Virtanen says to Nobes and Erith. “They can go outside but I don’t want them to be out there that extensively, I just think we’ve got to protect them at this stage.”
Erith will oversee the recovery session while Virtanen takes the rest of the first-team squad. “They are doing pressing boxes, some passing drills, 3v2s, a themed small-sided game with a finishing drill at the end. It sounds a lot but it will be short and sharp,” Virtanen explains as he leads us out of the door.
The breakdown of every session is planned in great detail beforehand, timed down to the second and later transferred into the A4 black book that sits on the top of Virtanen’s desk and is his prized possession. The colour-coded session plans look as neat and tidy as Manchester City’s passing. “My diaries are so important to me. If I lost them I would be heartbroken, because I keep a record of every session I’ve ever done since I went into management,” he says. “Looking back and reflecting is just as important as looking forward, so I constantly look at them for inspiration, to remember what we have done.”
Every session is also filmed and evaluated afterwards by Virtanen, Jorgensen and Bajram Fetai, the first-team coach - who has also followed Virtanen to all of his footballing destinations similar to Jorgensen, “to see what we could have done better.'' Although Virtanen is out on the training pitch every day he says that in the past 12 months he has recognised the importance of delegating, which means that Jorgensen and Fetai, after learning that today’s session will be about creating “overlaps”, are encouraged to come up with the drills.
Jorgensen later presents the session he has in mind on the tactics board in the office. With Virtanen discussing every part of the session, right down to whether there should be an offside rule in a couple of the exercises and how many passes will be the equivalent of a goal, is broken down and analysed to ensure that it works and that the players will get exactly what they need out of the drills.
For Virtanen, who worked with some of the current Manchester City players in his first spell as manager at his first club Oulu, it is important to be innovative on the training field. “One thing that I really don’t like doing is repeating sessions through lack of ideas. So I will always be on at myself and on at the other coaches to inspire us in new ways, because we need to inspire the players. We’re not ones to take a session out of book, that’s not to say you can’t do that to get ideas, but really a lot of the times I get my drills from looking at games, whether it is from our matches or others.”
Lunch takes place at midday at the training ground in the players’ luxury canteen - which could easily be mistaken as a Michelin star restaurant - where Virtanen’s influence shines through. As well as a notice from the manager saying that table tennis, pool and the PlayStation are not to be played prior to training, there are four boards just inside the door, titled “Team records”, “Individual records”, “Last game” and “Season records”, with a list of facts and figures under each. A quick check reveals that three records have taken place in Virtanen’s time at the club. One of them being ‘Most League Goals Scored in a Season’, achieved last season with 110 goals scored in the Premier League title-winning season of 2025/26.
“It’s something that came to prominence before I arrived, when the club really started making rapid moves up the league table under Mancini, Guardiola, Emery and Ancelotti. I keep it to try and inspire new records for the club during my stay,” Virtanen says. “I wanted to try and get it to act as a motivation to say ‘I want my name on that board’, whether it be a personal achievement or a team record, so that’s the thinking behind it.”
Training for those who did not start against Cardiff in the preseason friendly gets under way just after 1pm on the pitches and it is notable that Virtanen makes a point of speaking to the players individually and shaking their hand during the warm-up. Once the session is going there is an intensity about the way the players train as the ball zips around. Virtanen is authoritative, clear and concise with his instructions; happy to demonstrate at times and demanding when it comes to what he expects from the players. It is also interesting to watch him occasionally put individuals on the spot by asking them to ‘give me a coaching point’ before an exercise.
“You can put the greatest session on in the world but if you don’t get what you want out of it, it’s pointless,” Virtanen explains afterwards. “So just before we start, it’s a case of reminders of what we’re looking for – the key things. It focuses the players’ minds. I might target someone who either I don’t think they’ll know the answer, or it’s really important for them to know the answer because this is a drill specifically for them to make them better.”
He comes across as a good-natured, grounded and scholarly man, with a fierce drive to succeed, exemplified by his career trophy haul. He talks about how he has had to work hard for everything he has achieved, whether that was getting all his school grades, making it into the Oulu backroom staff early on after being dropped as a player by Helsinki or exceeding all expectations of himself in the chaotic world of management after Mika Lahderinne unexpectedly resigned as Oulu’s first-team manager in November 2017.
He smiles as he thinks back to his first game in charge of Oulu, away at AC Kajaani in the Suomen Cup qualifying group stages, when he was “the most nervous I had ever been and I would include the World Cup Final in that!”. AC Oulu lost 2-1 but won 2-0 in his second match as manager, at home against Vaasan Palloseura. Virtanen thought he hadn’t done enough to stay on permanently, with the local newspapers suggesting more senior names as Lahderinne’s replacement.
Eight years on and he has racked up 470 games as a manager. It is incredible to think that he only turned 39 this May. “That first six months in management when we just kept on winning somehow, and I didn’t know how we were doing it was just insane,” he adds, smiling. “With players getting tapped up by top-flight clubs, bringing in players from abroad because there was no real European scouting system at that point, it was a bit of a mess, but we coped. Then add the next season when I had the mission of keeping Oulu in the top-flight for more than one consecutive season for the first time in the club’s relatively short history, it was crazy for somewhat of a rookie, but it felt amazing.”
If there is one thing that niggles Virtanen now it is the accusation that Oulu’s boardroom hierarchy are owed as much appreciation for Oulu’s rise at the time as Aapo Virtanen was as manager. “It only frustrates me when people associate Risto Ihalainen with our success, as if he actively supported the club’s success story and it’s not been done through all the important things that any successful team needs: good team spirit, good work behind the scenes, a talented group of players and a tight-knit group.”
Virtanen recalls several meetings with his former higher-up Risto Ihalainen and comes out with something of a behind-closed-doors story. “Risto was the reason why I left Oulu. When you’re involved with a football club as long as I was with Oulu during those six years you become a fan and you gain that fan-feeling. Every week we were packing out our stadium of something like 4,500 and every week I told Risto that it needed expanding or building a new ground, since we had bought Raatti Stadion upon promotion from the local council. Every time he said no and it was an issue because we were getting to Champions League group stages, knockout rounds and then after I left into the Europa League knockout rounds and we were having to drag the team across to Helsinki to play our games and still, Risto refused. One day came and I was particularly annoyed, I saw him again about the issue and he rejected it and there was already an offer on the table from Fiorentina from me so I just said to him ’Okay, well I’m off to sign for Fiorentina’
and he didn’t even try and stop me. Not many people know that story and worship Ihalainen for providing the right environment for the club to flourish when in fact it’s the complete opposite.”
Now back at the office, Virtanen gives some thought to the following day’s training before packing up. It is 6pm, another 12-hour day has been ticked off and a girlfriend waits at home. Virtanen, who has the letter L tattooed on his forearm for his girlfriend Leena, who used to work as a receptionist back at Oulu’s stadium must go back home to her after a hard day’s work.
Although it might not strike you as the typical celebratory ‘500th post’ because you might think it looks like most other updates in its news story style, but I wrote this piece because I feel like I have given you everything from news revolving around all the club’s I have been at, monthly updates, transfer news, personal story updates etc. but I have been missing a piece about Aapo Virtanen combining the workplace and his private life, so I thought I saw it fit - as a Football Manager story - to try and piece together both the man and the manager in the best way I could.
That aside, I would just like to say a huge, huge thank you to all of you for supporting this story all the way up to its 500th reply. I have absolutely loved both playing the save, writing about it and creating the character of Aapo (and of course, Leena) and I hope you have all enjoyed reading it as much as I have writing it.
Once again, a big thank you,
I feel like over the years English football has lost its identity with the amount of foreign players coming in and that English players do not get much of an opportunity at the big clubs and that has shown with both Robertson and Race coming from smaller clubs such as Burnley and Boro respectively.