Arsenal legend Patrick Vieira has taken the Crystal Palace hotseat vacated by Roy Hodgson.
The 45-year-old Frenchman has signed a three-year contract with the Eagles.
Recruitment is the club’s number one priority at present, as 11 first-team players saw their contracts expire at the end of June.
Some of those are expected to pen fresh deals, though Vieira will need to make further additions – after the capture of Michael Olise (£5.5m) – if he is to implement his style of play.
After hanging up his boots in 2011, Vieira took over as the Elite Development Squad manager at Manchester City.
He stayed with the club until 2016, also coaching the reserve side, before taking the reins at City’s sister outfit New York City FC.
That led to an appointment as head coach at Ligue 1 outfit Nice in 2018, where Vieira completed two seasons – finishing a respectable seventh and fifth – before being sacked in December 2020.
In his first interview as Crystal Palace manager, Vieira talked up a good attacking game:
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 – to become even stronger.
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.
Because there is talent, and my responsibility will be to make that talent work well together. I want to see a team who is on the front foot.
However, his time at Nice tells the story of a coach who prioritised defence over attack.
In 2018/19, Nice conceded on 35 occasions – 17 fewer than they had let in the year before under Lucien Favre.
There was also a proportionate change in goals scored, with Vieira’s Nice managing just 30 goals compared to 53 with Favre at the helm.
The following curtailed season saw Nice up their goals-per-game average to 1.46, although that would still only roughly be mid-table in a typical Premier League season.
Vieira’s organised side defended through possession of the ball, as much as possible.
In his two full campaigns in France, only Paris Saint-Germain and Lyon kept the ball more than Nice in Ligue 1 – although his side ranked 13th and 10th respectively for attempts on goal in those seasons, suggesting something of a patient, potentially frustrating, style of build-up play.
George Swan, who played under Vieira at City, told the Athletic:
He’d like people to play through phases of play. You’d get it from the keeper, put it to the right-back and then he’d stop it and say, ‘the right-back has it, so you’re going to drop here and the midfielder is going to come here’. It was all about options. Everyone knew after time on the training pitch with him what was expected.
By contrast, only Newcastle (37.7%) and relegated West Brom (36.7%) kept less possession on average than Palace (39.8%) last season.
In May 2019, Nice goalkeeper Walter Benitez told France Football magazine of Vieira:
The overall idea of the coach is not to lose the ball too quickly, to keep it, to play and to have possession. The coach also adapts depending on who we are going to play.
Former Man City EDS captain George Glendon also recognised Vieira’s adaptability, telling the Athletic:
In the under-23s it’s all about development but in the senior team three points matter more, so he has balanced it out. But he is all about playing out from the back.
On beginning pre-season at the Selhurst Park club, Vieira himself said:
I think the first week is always important. To know the players, but [also] for the players to know how I want to work and the philosophy that I will want to implement in the football club.
The first week will be when I talk to the players individually, and try to understand where we are, what we want to achieve and explain to them the way I see the game and the way I want to build a team.
In an interview with BeIn Sports last year, Vieira also referenced his intention to lay down a blueprint as a head coach.
Going to New York and Nice allowed me to try things, to be more clear about things and the system I want to use and what I want from the players in that system. I have a big picture about how I want to play the game and how I am as a coach.
Despite all the positivity above, it’s worth mentioning this damning critique in Get French Football News upon his departure from Nice:
Despite an influx of creative talent, Nice were never truly convincing. Their defence, though solid, relied too often on the heroics of keeper Walter Benítez, and Vieira jumped from one formation to the next seemingly at random. Devoid of cohesion and creativity, Nice struggled to fashion chances for poacher Dolberg. Vieira’s philosophy was close to indecipherable.
As well as having the third-worst expected goals conceded figure in the division, Palace had the second-worst xG total.
A snapshot into that overall number is the Eagles’ 2-1 win away to Brighton in Gameweek 25, when they managed an xG of just 0.23.
Whether Vieira prioritises defence or attack, there is huge room for improvement in both areas at Selhurst Park.
As previously alluded to, transfers in are going to be all-important for the south London side.
“I have a really good idea about the team that we have. I think what we will need is to bring [in] players who can create chances; players who can score goals.” – Patrick Vieira
Vieira has already stuck to his word above with the signing of Olise, though Palace will need several more bodies – likely a mix of new and old – as the head coach looks to change the club’s style.
Fresh blood in midfield is also going to be required, particularly if Vieira has designs of implementing his own version of a 4-3-3 system at Palace.
The Frenchman largely used a four-man defence during his time at Nice, though did switch to a wing-back system at times.
“As midfielders it was, ‘one of you sit, two stay high, don’t clog it up by coming deeper’. When it came together, it looked really good. We also did a lot of work defensively on how to press the ball, which was a big learning curve. It was a very structured way of playing.” – former City youth midfielder Louis Hutton
As with any new manager, the proof will be in the pudding. We can look to pre-season for starter clues but it won’t be until the Gameweek 1 main course and beyond that we can really assess Vieira’s plan of action.
Given the slightly muddied picture painted above – the suggestion of tedious, low-scoring football at Nice married with Vieira’s comments about scoring more goals – it’s not the worst idea to stay clear of Palace for the time being, at least while the dust settles.
In truth, Fantasy managers will likely be targeting their opposition rather than the Eagles themselves: Vieira’s new charges sit bottom of our Season Ticker from Gameweeks 1-10.
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