How Arsenal legend Vieira and Chelsea loanee Gallagher have breathed new life into Crystal Palace
At Selhurst Park, pre-season talk was dominated by premonitions of doom.
Patrick Vieira’s muddled final year at Nice and his relatively underwhelming managerial career to that point, coupled with an anticipated tactical overhaul and a perceived lack of quality in Crystal Palace’s ageing squad, had many predicting they would finish rock bottom of the Premier League
But while it is far too early in the season to confidently assert that Palace will avoid relegation, or even a hard-fought battle against the drop, the early signs are extremely positive.
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The speed with which Vieira has transformed Palace from the most defensive team in the Premier League to an aggressive and assertive force is impressive, and their 3-0 victory over Tottenham on Saturday has given the Eagles an early benchmark for the campaign ahead.
The season-long data does not generally show a trend away from the Roy Hodgson era (although Palace’s possession average is up from 42.9 per cent to 51.4%), but that is only because the small sample size is skewed horribly by the opening-day 3-0 defeat to Chelsea, a game in which Vieira’s side were absolutely pummelled.
But that performance only makes the transition to what we saw last weekend all the more impressive.
Most of the analysis of the Spurs game has focused on what Nuno Espirito Santo’s team got wrong, most notably his lopsided formation and their inability to progress the ball through midfield with any coherence. Tottenham looked lost, unable to pass forward and ended the game with a 0.08 xG.
Their performance, though, was not all about Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg and Harry Winks being too negative, or Nuno failing - like his predecessor Jose Mourinho - to coach structured possession.
It was also forced by the brilliant pressing of Vieira’s team, who confronted the visitors high up the pitch and squeezed the space in midfield, forcing backwards or misplaced passes.
One stat tells the whole story: Palace’s PPDA (the number of passes the opposition make before a defensive action intervenes, measuring pressing) against Spurs was 7.7, the second lowest of any game in the Premier League this season.
This press is led by James McArthur, who isexpected to push forward more adventurously to defend, and by Conor Gallagher, one of the Premier League’s star performers so far this term.
The on-loan Chelsea midfielder embodies the box-to-box energy, the assertiveness, and the daring forward momentum of Vieira’s Palace.
Take out the data from that Chelsea game and Palace are playing 70.3 ‘progressive passes’ per game, according to WyScout, which puts them fourth in the league behind Manchester City, Liverpool, and Wolves.
In other words, they are not just holding a higher line and engaging teams more aggressively. They are also adventurous in possession and, again, Gallagher is the leader in this - hence his three direct goal contributions already.
It is hard to imagine Gallagher doing well under Hodgson, an old-school manager who sat his team in rigid and deep lines of four to block passing into the final third. The ex-England boss was praised for his ability to keep things ticking over and for countering rationally and carefully through Wilfried Zaha without ever really opening up, but his successor’s early results indicate this caution was not necessary.
Then again, Hodgson did not have the same players at his disposal. Crystal Palace’s recruitment has been very good this summer, most notably with Marc Guehi and Joachim Anderson instantly forming a strong centre-back partnership.
They are a considerable upgrade on the ball, allowing Palace to pass out from the back and install this new aesthetic, and have led to Cheikhou Kouyate moving back to his best position in midfield.
Kouyate is working well as the defensive screen, topping the Palace charts for interceptions and ball recoveries, which in turn allows McArthur and Gallagher to push higher - both to lead the press and to receive forward passes in dangerous areas.
Higher up the pitch, it has been a slower start for the new signings, or at least it was until Odsonne Edouard’s explosive cameo against Spurs.
Palace have needed a new striker for quite some time, and Edouard should relieve some of the pressure on Zaha, who looks a little freer than under Hodgson, starting the campaign brightly.
The good vibes at Selhurst Park will most likely take a hit this weekend, however, as Liverpool are likely to repeat what Chelsea did on the opening weekend.
The main area in which Vieiera must improve is tightening up against the big clubs; the financial divide between the elite and the rest demands a considerable switch towards defensive football for this kind of occasion.
Instead Vieira was expansive, and therefore porous, against Chelsea. We can anticipate something similar at Anfield on Saturday, as big gaps are left open for Liverpool’s in-form front three to spin, dribble, and dominate in the Palace penalty area.
But matches against the top four are not what will define Crystal Palace’s season. In this transitional year all they want from Vieira is to avoid relegation.
On their showing so far, that can easily be achieved.