Patrick Vieira was never a player to shirk a challenge. His eight career red cards in the English Premier League as the enforcer in Arsenal’s midfield is testament to that.
And the task he took on at Crystal Palace — his first managerial role in England’s top division — wasn’t for the faint-hearted, either.
Refresh the oldest squad in the league and overhaul its rigid, mostly defensive approach to become an attacking and expansive team playing, in Vieira’s words, “on the front foot.”
Four months into the job and the transformation has been stunning, even if Palace’s position in the league standings might not reflect that.
No way would a team managed by one of Palace’s recent managers — take your pick from Roy Hodgson, Sam Allardyce, Alan Pardew or Tony Pulis — have enjoyed 75% possession like Vieira’s did in a game over Newcastle last month.
Just last week, Palace scored three away goals in the first half of a top-flight match for the first time in its 116-year history in a fun-filled 3-3 draw at Burnley, during which Vieira’s players had 61% of the ball.
Already, Palace has beaten champion Manchester City 2-0 away and thrashed Tottenham 3-0 at home, and only drawn 2-2 at Arsenal after conceding an equalizer in the fifth minute of stoppage time.
Palace heads into Saturday’s home match against Aston Villa in midtable — 10th place in the 20-team league — but riding a seven-match unbeaten run and with players and pundits alike talking up the Vieira effect.
“It’s going fantastically for the club in a short space of time,” said Palace striker Christian Benteke, one of the players who have been rejuvenated since Vieira’s arrival.
Indeed, the 30-year-old Benteke is among the few older players to have survived following an offseason freshening-up of the squad that was badly needed. Vieira’s predecessor, Hodgson, had been able to maintain Palace’s nine-year stay in the lucrative Premier League but the squad's pool of players was aging and many were out of contract.
As part of a daring overhaul costing around $100 million, in came three young attacking players with an average age of 21 — winger Michael Olise, bustling playmaker Connor Gallagher, and striker Odsonne Edouard — as well as a 21-year-old center back in Marc Guehi. A fifth recruit, cultured Denmark center back Joachim Andersen, was 25 and also something of a statement signing given his ball-playing style that contrasted greatly with the direct approach most defenders have had at Palace down the years.
There was an inherent danger in what Palace was attempting. After all, the last time Palace hired a manager to bring in such a cultural change in the club, soccer-wise, Frank De Boer lost his first four games in charge — and didn’t even see his team score a goal — before getting fired at the start of the 2017-18 season. Hodgson came in as De Boer's replacement as Palace immediately reverted to type.
It’s early days, but Vieira is succeeding where De Boer failed and has quickly turned Palace into a possession-based, attacking team.
In Gallagher, who is on loan from Chelsea, Palace has one of the best midfielders in the league and he even got a first call-up by England this month, making his debut off the bench against San Marino. Gallagher has four league goals and set up three more.
Heck, Vieira is even getting a tune out of Benteke, the Belgium international who has been a shadow of the player in the last six years — spent at Liverpool and then Palace — to the one who was often devastating for Villa from 2012-15. Benteke heads into the match against his former club this weekend having scored four goals in his last five games.
In perhaps the biggest shift, Palace under Vieira is no longer so dependent on mercurial wide forward Wilfried Zaha to fire its attack. Previously, an opponent could adopt the “stop Zaha, stop Palace” mantra but not any more.
In Zaha, Olise and the returning Eberechi Eze, who is just back after rupturing his Achilles tendon in May, Palace has exciting wingers to supplement Gallagher in behind the resurgent Benteke and the highly rated Edouard.
Palace is drawing too many games — seven from 12 in the league so far — while the nine goals the team has conceded from set-pieces this season is a league high.
Otherwise, there can only be praise at the job Vieira has done given the task he was facing.
Who knows, given he was previously employed by the Abu Dhabi leadership of Man City as an academy coach at the club and then as manager of one of its sister teams, MLS side New York City, Vieira could yet be a possible replacement for Pep Guardiola if he leaves City as planned in 2023.
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Steve Douglas, The Associated Press