A casual glance at the Premier League table reveals that Crystal Palace has not altered much this season. In fact, with only one win in their first seven games, they are three points worse off than they were at the same point last season.
Despite the mediocre results, the attitude inside the club is one of renewed hope. Roy Hodgson gave stability, but Patrick Vieira aspires to more. It only takes a trip to Selhurst Park to observe how fans are reacting.
Last month’s 3-0 win over Tottenham, played in a frenetic environment in the south London sunlight, provided a tantalising preview of what the future may hold.
In fact, Odsonne Edouard’s third goal, scored after excellent work from Michael Olise and Connor Gallagher, was a perfect distillation of the club’s new orientation under Vieira.
Last season, Palace were the Premier League’s oldest team, but they now have a youthful vigour about them. Edouard, Gallagher, and Olise are 23 years old, 21 years old, and 19 years old, respectively. Their new centre backs, Joachim Andersen and Marc Guehi, are just 46 years old.
Palace’s summer reshuffling prioritised youth, with six new recruits costing a total of £78 million, with just one of them, former Watford midfielder Will Hughes, being older than 25.
As a consequence, the average age of Palace’s starting lineup has fallen by nearly two years, and the newcomers have settled fast.
Andersen and Guehi have started the previous six Premier League games together in defence, while Gallagher has been outstanding in midfield. Following a run of excellent cameos, Edouard has displaced Christian Benteke at the front, and there is a call for Olise to start as well.
The composition of the team is shifting, as is the playing style.
Of course, Hodgson did a great job with limited resources during his time at Selhurst Park – Palace spent £30 million more this summer than in the previous seven transfer windows combined – but the football was utilitarian rather than exciting.
There was a desire for change, and Vieira is delivering.
Palace remain a dangerous counter-attacking threat, but they are also looking to force themselves on games. It may be observed in the statistics as well as on the field.
The Eagles increased their possession rate from 39.9% last season, the third-lowest in the division, to 50.1 percent this season, moving them into the top half.
Palace’s passing accuracy has increased from 76.1 percent to 81%, and they are averaging 407 short passes a game, up from 321 last season under Hodgson.
It is a credit to Vieira that he has been able to instil his ideals in the players so fast, and what is most promising for supporters is that Palace has been able to control games against tough opponents.
Palace enjoyed 60% possession in the 2-2 draw with Leicester before the international break and were unlucky not to win. That figure was even higher in a 3-0 win over Spurs a few weeks before, at 62.3 percent.
Andersen and Guehi have had some uncomfortable defensive moments, most notably against Jamie Vardy and Kelechi Iheanacho two weeks ago, but their youth allows for plenty of potential for growth in that area, and they are already superb on the ball.
Palace can play out from the back because to their technical skills.
Only two goalkeepers this season have taken more goal kicks ending within their own area than Vicente Guaita, Leeds United’s Illan Meslier and Leicester City’s Kasper Schmeichel.
In fact, the Spaniard has taken more goal kicks ending within his own box (33) in only seven games than he did in the whole previous season (31). He has played 69% of his goal kicks short, up from 10% previous season and the greatest rate of any Premier League goalie.
It’s a remarkable turnaround, and Vieira has modernised the team’s approach both with and without the ball.
The infusion of fresh vitality during the summer has allowed Palace to substantially increase the intensity with which they push their opponents.
According to Opta’s advanced metrics, they have risen from 17th to third place in the Premier League for pressured sequences, which are opponent passing sequences of three or less passes that begin and end in their own half.
Palace’s high turnover and PPDA (opposition passes allowed per defensive action) stats are both moving in the same direction.
Under Hodgson, Palace were known for sitting back and absorbing pressure, but the underlying statistics for this season places their off-the-ball strategy more in line with Liverpool and Manchester City than Newcastle United.
In other words, the Palace has become proactive rather than reactive. It’s exactly the type of evolution that proponents hoped for.
They play Vieira’s previous club Arsenal on Monday, knowing that a defeat would leave them barely a point above the relegation zone. However, the expectation is that the new technique would produce superior long-term results, and recent findings support that.
In their 1-1 draw with Brighton, when Neal Maupay’s last-gasp equaliser denied them victory, Jamie Carragher praised Palace as “absolutely fantastic,” and aside from a chaotic six-minute stretch in the first half, they were similarly excellent in their match with Leicester.
Palace would be seventh rather than 14th if they had secured the victory their performances deserved in those games, and their defensive efforts provide more optimism.
Indeed, while there were some expensive individual errors against Leicester, most notably from Andersen, who was caught offside for Iheanacho’s opening and then missed his interception for Vardy’s second, they have really defended considerably better than their record of 11 goals surrendered implies.