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Last season, Patrick Vieira had one of the most difficult tasks in the Premier League. He took over one of the oldest squads in the division and one of the least proactive teams, and was asked to transform them.
Transform he did; the shift from 40 percent possession to 51 percent was one thing, but doing it whole overhauling the squad and taking Palace to within four points of the top eight is entirely another. Look at the most-used Crystal Palace XI in 2020-21 now: Gary Cahill, Patrick van Aanholt, Jairo Riedewald, Andros Townsend. It already feels like it belongs to a different age of this club.
There is little reason to think that transformation will not continue, even if Vieira was comfortable compromising a little on his possession principles in late season. Having started 2021-22 slowly – Vieira only won five of his first 25 league matches – Palace took 46 percent of their league points in the final 13 matches. With another full preseason, why can’t that form be maintained?
Crucially, in Cheick Doucoure they finally have the defensive midfielder that can allow one of the most exciting collections of attacking midfielders in the country to fly. All that progress last season was achieved despite Michael Olise and Eberechi Eze starting a combined 18 league matches. Keeping them fit will be key.
There is a likely ceiling on Palace’s potential (see the prediction at the bottom for evidence of that). They don’t have the resources or the uber-wealthy owner to make the next leap yet. But that only makes it more important to make the most of what they have and to have fun doing it. Which is roughly exactly where Palace are heading into 2022-23.
The lack of goals from their center forwards has long been a problem. For all the creativity of their attacking midfielders, Palace have also had to rely on them to score the goals as well as make them. Last season, Christian Benteke, Odsonne Edouard, Jordan Ayew and Jean-Philippe Mateta scored 14 goals between them in 5,026 league minutes. Vieira would surely rather have one reliable goalscorer than four half-solutions.
We are also about to find out just how much of a difference Conor Gallagher made to Palace. The statistics are clear: second highest chance creator, second most regular shot taker, second most dribbles completed, second most tackles made. But it is Gallagher’s infectious attitude and energy that will be missed most and nobody in this squad truly replaces him.
Finally, it’s hard to escape that Palace’s season was founded on fine margins. They drew 15 matches; no team in the Premier League drew more. They only won 11 matches, the same number as crisis club Everton. There is a nagging fear that second season syndrome may kick in for Palace without the brilliant dynamo Gallagher in midfield.
Doucoure will be the new holding midfielder, needed to replace the old guard. Palace are still looking for his central midfield partner, although there is talk of a bid for Lille’s Amadou Onana. Vieira’s biggest task might be persuading Doucoure, who does like to burst forward and play as a box-to-box midfielder, that he is better doing one job brilliantly rather than trying to do everything.
The other summer signing to date is Chris Richards, an American central defender bought from Bayern Munich but who has played the last two years on loan at Hoffenheim. Initially, Richards is likely to be behind Joachim Andersen and Marc Guehi in the pecking order. But that’s fine – squad depth and competition for places is everything.
Both signings fit the profile. Nine of Palace’s last 10 signings that cost more than £1m were aged between 19 and 24 (Will Hughes was the exception at 26). They have a strategy to overhaul an aging squad while retaining the key senior players – Wilfried Zaha, James McArthur, Jordan Ayew.
We were worried about Vieira at the start of last season. He was asked to oversee a mammoth task without a huge budget and without being pulled into trouble and losing the PR battle. He won one of his first nine league games. His previous history was hardly inspiring, a decent job at New York City and then sacked by Nice. He is at least in a better place now than then.
Is Vieira totally safe? Of course not. Things can change incredibly quickly in the Premier League’s bottom half. Palace face Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester City in their first three league games. Lose all three – it’s hardly unlikely – and that could create some pressure on their subsequent run of fixtures. But right now, Vieira is safer than we ever thought possible after a year in charge. He’s earned our faith.
I have them in exactly the same position, on probably a very similar number of points, as last season. 12th
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