This preview appears in the August 2021 edition of FourFourTwo.
Crystal Palace have seldom embraced managerial stability, so this summer’s chaotic hunt for a new boss felt like a return to normality.
Nuno Espirito Santo and Lucien Favre both came close to taking the job, before the Eagles eventually appointed former Arsenal midfielder Patrick Vieira in early July. But now comes the hard part.
Replicating the achievements of Roy Hodgson, who kept the club comfortably clear of the bottom three throughout his four-year tenure, won’t be easy. Doing so while producing a more expansive form of football will be harder still, especially with so many senior players leaving at the expiration of their contracts this summer. That’s what Palace fans crave after four years of Hodgsonian pragmatism – but staying up remains the absolute priority.
On the plus side, this squad has been there and done it: Palace have finished at least seven points above the drop zone in each of the past five years. Vieira, most recently of Nice where he was sacked in December 2020 after two and a half years, is inheriting an experienced group – just as well given his own lack of it as a Premier League manager. Wilfried Zaha, James McArthur, Joel Ward and Luka Milivojevic know what it takes to survive in this division; even if the now-departed Gary Cahill has done much more than that.
Initially, Vieira will need to restore Palace’s reputation for defensive resolve. Only two teams conceded more goals last time out, a situation that could have been even worse but for Vicente Guaita’s player of the season heroics. The arrival of highly rated young Chelsea centre-back Marc Guehi (below) – excellent on loan at Swansea in the Championship last term – should help.
They weren’t much better going forward. Palace scored 41 goals but finished second-bottom of the xG table, while Ebere Eze – a rare bright spark after his move from QPR – will miss several months after tearing an Achilles. Vieira must find a way to replace Eze’s creativity, with the arrival of Reading’s exciting Michael Olise a positive step forward, and will hope to persuade Wilfried Zaha to stay another season.
It’s also worth asking what kind of manager Palace have embraced, however. When the flirtations with Nuno and Favre bore no fruit, many expected Steve Parish to turn to a tried-and-trusted candidate like Sean Dyche or Eddie Howe. Vieira is a more exciting pick than either Englishman, but he’s also a riskier one. His spell at Nice ended disappointingly, and he must ensure that he doesn’t repeat Frank de Boer’s mistake of trying to change too much, too quickly.
After four years of tranquillity under Hodgson, this is a season of unknowns for the Eagles. Buckle up...
The five-point plan
1 Get on the front foot
Hodgson’s methods helped the club to achieve their goals, and Palace played some good football at times during his spell. But while supporters continued to appreciate Uncle Roy’s efforts, last season was hardly thrill-a-minute. the Eagles registered the division’s third-fewest shots and averaged the third-lowest possession. More excitement wouldn’t go amiss.
2 Make Big Ben chime
Christian Benteke struck 10 goals last season – the first time he’s reached double figures since his debut Selhurst Park campaign in 2016/17. Six of those were headers; only Dominic Calvert-Lewin used his noggin to greater effect. Benteke is excellent in the air, but the Eagles haven’t always made the most of that asset. Supply him with the right ammo and the Belgian can deliver.
Benteke at his best! 📺 Watch on Sky Sports PL📱 Follow #CRYAVL here: https://t.co/zA0ojUD3N3📲 Download the @SkySports app! pic.twitter.com/rEBzJL8C0VMay 16, 2021
3 Clear the busy treatment table
The Londoners were one of the league’s hardest-hit teams when it came to injuries last term, with McArthur, Cahill, James Tomkins and Mamadou Sakho all absent for long periods. Hodgson was forced to select Cheikhou Kouyate at centre-back in 32 of the all-action midfielder’s 35 starts – a lorry-load of cotton wool would be an astute signing.
4 Sort out set-pieces
Last season’s downturn in defensive discipline was exemplified by Palace’s concession of 13 goals from set-pieces – only two teams shipped more. Meanwhile only Arsenal, Leicester, Sheffield United and Fulham scored from fewer dead-ball situations. There are more points out there if the Eagles take set-pieces seriously.
5 Sabotage the AFCON
The Africa Cup of Nations is back in its January-February slot, and that’s pretty bad news for Palace. Kouyate, Zaha, Jeff Schlupp and Jordan Ayew will all be Cameroon-bound, but could miss just a pair of Premier League games if their nations suffer early exits. Vieira may secretly cheer on the opponents of Ivory Coast and Ghana, if not necessarily Kouyate’s Senegal – the country in which Palace’s new boss was born.
FFT verdict: 20th
A summer’s upheaval may have Palace wishing for Roy Hodgson’s rhapsody in beige.
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