As Patrick Vieira continues to settle in at Crystal Palace training ground, the magnitude of the task he’s inherited is perhaps starting to sink in.
Appointed on Sunday after the club’s long-drawn-out search concluded, the Frenchman may still be saying the right things to the media, but there has to be an element of doubt beneath the unperturbed demeanour.
He’s not only taken over a club in transition with several playing personnel set to leave but there’s also an expectation to revamp the Eagles’ on-pitch approach. Premier League clubs submitted the list of players to be retained and released early last month and Palace stuck out like a sore thumb in the latter, with a staggering 22 players presumed to depart.
Of the top flight clubs included, Aston Villa's 12 came closest. Admittedly, the list isn’t definitive and some of the players included may still stay, but it demonstrates the scale of Vieira’s job at Beckenham.
Tasked with playing more front-foot football and reducing the oldest PL squad’s average age (29 and a bit last season), the former Arsenal star believes he’s up to the task.
“It’s a crucial period for the football club,” he told Palace TV after his first training session with the squad. “I think we’re looking forward to a new chapter, and I’m really proud and happy to be a part of it.
“What I really want is to put a philosophy in place that my players understand really well so that when they go on the field, they can express themselves.
“There is talent, and my responsibility will be to make that talent work well together. I want to see a team that is on the front foot. I want the team to score more goals, to have more shots on target than we used to, but at the same time to keep this kind of mental strength that the team has created in the last couple of years.”
Nothing screams talent more than Wilfried Zaha — the club’s talisman for several years — and Eberechi Eze — a gifted youngster signed from Queens Park Rangers last term, but Vieira may have neither next season.
The wantaway Ivory Coast star still wants out of his boyhood club to fulfil ambitions of playing for a top side and his recent, now-customary public declaration surprised few.
Whether a move materialises remains to be seen, but it is an utterly unideal situation to walk into as a new manager with the new season to begin in a month.
For Eze, the unfortunate timing of a serious Achilles injury sustained in training just before his debut season ended rankled. After a bed-in year without fans’ consistent galvanising influence at Selhurst Park, the Anglo-Nigerian was tipped to flourish in year two in the big time with supporters returning to grounds.
However, he’s now expected to miss a huge chunk of next season leaving a huge hole in the team.
Vieira broadly focused on scoring goals and creating a system that enhances the team’s final-third return, an approach that is hoped to get an unproductive Jordan Ayew firing.
The 29-year-old netted only once in the whole of last season, despite starting 23 of his 33 appearances. His only goal came in the 4-1 victory over Leeds United in early November, but the handwriting was on the wall at the backend of last season where the Ghanaian went eight successive games without scoring to end the campaign.
Having equally struggled for the Black Stars, ex-Netherlands midfielder George Boateng preached patience, citing the paucity of quality chances being fashioned out, especially at Palace.
Perhaps, the former Middlesbrough man is on to something…
Interestingly, Palace fashioned out a higher volume of big chances than only two clubs in 20/21.
A dive into the underlying numbers reveals that Roy Hodgson’s men rated lowly for nearly every other positive or attacking metric per 90: bottom for expected assists, third-bottom for key passes and second-bottom for passes into the final third. Furthermore, they ranked fourth-bottom for accurate passes into the box and 16th among all 20 sides for progressive passes.
Unsurprisingly, only two sides — West Bromwich Albion and Sheffield United — created fewer open-play shot-creating actions per 90 than the South London side. Both teams have now been relegated from the PL.
Regardless of reservations over the style, Hodgson got a stale side punching above their weight and it remains to be seen how Vieira makes things work.
In his only full season at Nice in 18/19, the Frenchman’s tweaked the style often — moving away from Lucien Favre’s dominant 4-3-3 — as he adapted in his maiden campaign in Ligue 1. Despite eventually settling on the same formation as his predecessor in the campaign’s denouement, he tended to utilise several variations of a back three.
While he finished in seventh — a place and two points higher than Favre’s final year — the variance in goals was striking. Vieira’s team netted 30 league goals — the lowest in the top half and only two more than cellar-dwelling Guingamp. However, their concession of 35 goals was bettered by only Lille.
The Arsenal legend retained his predecessor’s possession-based approach and his team interestingly created a higher volume of clear-cut chances (57-50), but they scored 23 goals fewer than the preceding season’s 53.
This can, by and large, be attributed to Alassane Plea’s departure for Borussia Monchengladbach and a public falling out with Mario Balotelli whose contract was terminated in January.
Having seen Plea and Super Mario contribute 16 and 18 Ligue 1 goals respectively in 17/18, Allan Saint-Maximin and Youcef Atal netted six times each the following year.
Viera’s Nice significantly underperformed their xG and they struggled to progress the ball into advanced areas at times, possibly an upshot of Jean Michael Seri’s departure to Fulham in the summer of 2018.
In only his third managerial job, the 45-year-old faces the daunting task of guiding the Eagles through their transition. Aside from an ageing squad and a desire for a free-flowing style, the new Palace boss has to manage a talismanic presence who wants to leave, a youngster whose form post Achilles injury is uncertain and a forward who seldom scores.
It’ll be interesting to see how the Arsenal legend fuses an imperfect setup and attempts to make it whole again.