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A Rebuild at Selhurst Park: Patrick Vieira’s Crystal Palace

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Ever since their return to the top flight of English football in 2013, Crystal Palace have become a regular feature in the middle of the league table every season. Comfortable in recruiting players in the twilight of their careers, deploying compact defensive squads, Palace managed to constantly secure their place in the Premier League for the past decade. Until Patrick Vieira’s arrival.

BACKGROUND:

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Before the start of the season, after 3 years at the helm of the South London club, Roy Hodgson decided to draw the curtain on his managerial career at 73. With his departure, an era which was defined by a counter-attacking approach from Crystal Palace came to an end, too. Enter Patrick Vieira.

Similar to Graham Potter’s initial struggles at Brighton & Hove Albion, Vieira too had inherited a team completely alien to the football he wished to implement. His wish to practice a proactive style of possession-based play was massively hindered by the ageing squad available to him and the lack of technically adept players.

After obtaining players crucial to his system like the centre back duo of Marc Guehi & Joachim Andersen, Chelsea’s young midfielder Conor Gallagher, Michael Olise and Zaha’s backup Odsonne Edouard, he finally had a strong, young squad to execute his tactical blueprint through.

STYLE OF PLAY:

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Roy Hodgson’s love for setting his team up in compact mid & low blocks wasn’t just evident on the pitch but in the team’s statistics as well. Effectively retaining possession only 40% on an average in his last season, the retired gaffer’s team was heavily reliant on scoring on the break and Wilfred Zaha’s clinical performances in front of goal.

Since Vieira’s takeover, however, things have changed. After only being in charge for 3/4th of the season, the team boasts of a 10% increase in possession of the ball. Longer passing sequences, press resistant formations, the Eagles have become a team which isn’t scared to keep the ball & try to threaten the opposition through possession.

SYSTEM WHILE IN POSSESSION:

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The change in system has helped the likes of Ayew and Benteke participate more and contribute to the team’s attacking output. Occasionally dropping deep to make space for the midfielders in Gallagher and McArthur, the two have teamed up very well with Zaha and the two midfielders to progress the ball into the final third.

Connor Gallagher’s inclusion has proved to be the most important cog in the successful functioning of Vieira’s Crystal Palace. The 21-year-old is deployed as a box-to-box midfielder. His constant progressive runs from deep and prompt use of the half-spaces while receiving the ball make him extremely vital to the side. When he abandons the half-space to make a run forward, McArthur takes his place, freeing him to be a threat in front of goal. So far, out of the 39 goals Palace have scored in the league, 8 have come from Connor.

Kouyate, who has been often deployed as the “holding” midfielder, has played a crucial part in Patrick’s side too. He doesn’t often participate in the build-up play as the center backs look to play the ball forward through the wide fullbacks and wingers awaiting an occasional long ball. In situations when the team is pressed high, Kouyate slots right in front of the duo of Guehi and Andersen to protect the team from a counter-attack.

SYSTEM WHILE OUT OF POSSESSION:

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Another contrast between Hodgson’s Eagles and Vieira’s team is their shape out of possession. While Roy preferred to line his team up in mostly a traditional low block, attracting the rival team to attack, Patrick has deployed a 4-3-3 with a holding player in possession while constantly changing shape out of it. Shuffling between a 4-1-4-1, 4-2-3-1, 4-4-1-1, his team changes shape as per the opposition’s attack.

When they recently took on Man City in the league, the Glaziers sat comfortably in a mid-block deciding against challenging Guardiola’s fast build-up phase. This resulted in City struggling to break them down and a goalless draw.

However, their latest game against Everton in the FA Cup saw a completely different approach from the Selhurst Park residents. Pressing the Toffees high right from the start, with Connor leading the press upfront, they suffocated Lampard’s team for space. This resulted in constant change in possession and a heavy 4-0 trashing for Everton.

SO, WHAT’S NEXT?

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Collecting 34 points till now and sitting only 2 points away from 9th placed Aston Villa, the Eagles have done really well. Conceding only 38 goals at this stage surely points at their improved defensive performance from 20/21’s 66 conceded at the end of the season. Offensively, they have improved as well. They have already scored 39 goals in the league this season, 2 away from their tally of 41 from the previous campaign. The dependence on Zaha has certainly decreased.

All statistics indicate that the team has improved under Patrick Vieira. Setting up a semi-final date with Chelsea in the FA Cup, the Glaziers have come closest to a trophy they have in a while. This upturn in form could very well be rewarded with a little more patience. A good league finish and with some more upgrades they could even dream of competing in the UEL or Conference League soon.

CONCLUSION:

Patrick Vieira’s announcement as the new head coach was certainly not well received by the locals, sighting his poor outing with Nice in Ligue 1. A horrific cup run, expulsion from the group stage in the Europa league had cost him his job in France but since his return to London, things have only improved for him and Palace. With their FA Cup semi-final less than a month away, the hopes of the fans are high. A mid-table club finally dreaming big.

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