December 4, 2021, 16:56

Patrick Vieira is transforming Crystal Palace’s playing style ahead of Arsenal reunion on Monday Night Football

Patrick Vieira is transforming Crystal Palace’s playing style ahead of Arsenal reunion on Monday Night Football

A cursory glance at the Premier League table suggests little has changed for Crystal Palace this season. In fact, with only one win from their opening seven games, they are three points worse off than they were at the same stage of the last campaign.

And yet, despite middling results, the mood around the club is one of renewed optimism. Roy Hodgson provided stability but Patrick Vieira is striving for something more. It only takes a visit to Selhurst Park to see how supporters are responding.

Last month’s 3-0 victory over Tottenham, played in a feverish atmosphere in the south-London sunshine, offered a tantalising glimpse of what the future might look like.

In fact, the third goal, scored by Odsonne Edouard after fine work from Michael Olise and Connor Gallagher, was a neat encapsulation of the club’s change of direction under Vieira.

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Palace were the oldest side in the Premier League last season but there is freshness and vibrancy about them now. Edouard, Gallagher and Olise are 23, 21 and 19 respectively. Joachim Andersen and Marc Guehi, their new centre-backs, have a combined age of just 46.

Palace’s summer overhaul prioritised youth, with six new signings arriving at a combined cost of £78m and only one of them, former Watford midfielder Will Hughes, older than 25.

The average age of Palace’s starting line-up has dropped by almost two years as a result and the new additions have settled quickly.

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Andersen and Guehi have started the last six Premier League games together in defence while Gallagher has shone in midfield. Edouard has usurped Christian Benteke up front and there is a clamour for Olise to start too following a string of impressive cameos.

The make-up of the side is changing and so is the playing style.

Hodgson, of course, did an excellent job with limited resources during his Selhurst Park tenure – Palace spent £30m more this summer than in the previous seven transfer windows combined – but the football was functional rather than thrilling.

There was an appetite for change and Vieira is providing it.

Palace remain a formidable threat on the counter-attack but they are now seeking to impose themselves on games too. It can be seen in the numbers as well as on the pitch.

The Eagles have gone from averaging 39.9 per cent possession last season, the third-lowest rate in the division, to 50.1 per cent in the new campaign, lifting them into the top half.

Palace’s passing accuracy has jumped from 76.1 per cent to 81 per cent and they are averaging 407 short passes per game compared to 321 per game last season under Hodgson.

It is a credit to Vieira how quickly he has drilled his ideas into the players and what’s most encouraging for supporters is that Palace have been able to dominate games against strong opposition.

In the 2-2 draw with Leicester before the international break, Palace had 60 per cent of the possession and were unfortunate not to win. In the 3-0 victory over Spurs a few weeks earlier, that number was even higher at 62.3 per cent.

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Andersen and Guehi have had some awkward moments defensively, not least against Jamie Vardy and Kelechi Iheanacho two weeks ago, but their youthfulness leaves plenty of room for improvement in that regard and they are already excellent on the ball.

Their technical ability allows Palace to play out from the back.

So far this season, only two goalkeepers, Leeds United’s Illan Meslier and Leicester’s Kasper Schmeichel, have taken more goal kicks ending inside their own box than Vicente Guaita.

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33 of Guaita's 48 goal kicks have ended inside his own box

In fact, in just seven games, the Spaniard has taken more goal kicks ending inside his own box (33) than he did in the whole of the last campaign (31). In total, he has played 69 per cent of his goal kicks short, up from just 10 per cent last season and the highest percentage of any Premier League goalkeeper.

It is quite the transformation and Vieira has modernised the side’s approach without the ball as well as with it.

The injection of youthful energy during the summer has enabled Palace to dramatically intensify the way they press their opponents.

According to Opta’s advanced metrics, they have jumped from 17th to third among Premier League sides for pressed sequences, which are defined as opposition passing sequences of three or fewer passes which begin and end in their own half.

Palace’s numbers for high turnovers and PPDA (opposition passes allowed per defensive action) are trending in the same direction.

Palace were known for sitting back and absorbing pressure under Hodgson but the underlying data for this season brings their off-the-ball approach in line with sides such as Liverpool and Manchester City rather than Newcastle United.

Palace have become proactive rather than reactive, in other words. It is precisely the kind of evolution supporters craved.

They face Vieira’s former side Arsenal on Monday knowing defeat could leave them only a point clear of the drop zone. But the hope is that the change of approach will yield better results in the long-term and recent performances feed into that.

Image:
Michael Olise celebrates his goal in the 2-2 draw with Leicester

Jamie Carragher described Palace as “absolutely brilliant” in their 1-1 draw with Brighton, when Neal Maupay’s last-gasp equaliser denied them victory, and aside from a chaotic six-minute spell in the first half, they were similarly impressive in their draw with Leicester.

Palace would be seventh rather than 14th had they claimed the victories their performances merited in those games and there is further encouragement to be taken from their defensive efforts.

Indeed, while there were some costly individual errors against Leicester, most notably from Andersen, who was caught on the ball for Iheanacho’s opener then missed his interception for Vardy’s second, they have actually defended far better than their tally of 11 goals conceded suggests.

The implementation of a more adventurous playing style has not come at the cost of defensive solidity. In fact, Palace are giving up fewer chances than they were last season, conceding 12.1 shots per game compared to 14.2 per game in 2020/21 – and that despite already facing Chelsea, Liverpool, Tottenham and Leicester.

The expected goals data, which measures the quality of the chances rather than the quantity, reflects positively on Vieira too.

Only West Brom and Sheffield United registered higher totals for expected goals against last season. This time around, however, Palace have the fifth-lowest total in the division.

It is just another reason for cautious optimism about what lies ahead. Monday’s meeting with Arsenal will stir memories of Vieira’s glorious past. But Crystal Palace’s future is his focus now. It looks brighter than it has for some time.

Watch Arsenal vs Crystal Palace live on Sky Sports Premier League from 7pm on Monday; kick-off 8pm

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