In the opening passages of ‘When Eagles Dare’, the excellent documentary about Crystal Palace, chairman Steve Parish reflects on the struggles the club he supported as a boy has had to establish themselves in the Premier League.
“In the early 90s,” he said. “If you went to Selhurst Park and Highbury, you wouldn’t have had a different experience. We were in the same stratosphere. But we never seemed to grasp the moment.”
Such a comparison between Palace and Arsenal is a bit of a stretch given the respective histories of the two London clubs.
However, this season comparisons and contrasts will feel unavoidable.
Patrick Vieira is listed at number four on the list of Arsenal’s greatest players on the Gunners’ own website. But now he is a rival.
After spells with the Manchester City development team, New York City in Major League Soccer and Nice in France, the 45-year-old has returned to the Premier League as Palace’s new manager.
On Saturday, his first game in charge ended in a 1-0 friendly win at Walsall, Wilfried Zaha scoring the only goal.
‘Blank sheet of paper’
Vieira looked purposeful and business-like throughout but also found time to pose for a selfie with a steward and sign some autographs.
He maintained that relaxed air for most of the first half.
It was 33 minutes before he left his seat in the dug-out – for a word with Zaha, who was on that side of the pitch – which suggested he was using those 45 minutes as an assessment of the strength of his established squad.
After half-time, when the entire Palace team was changed and given a far more youthful look, Vieira was a regular presence.
Forward Jesurun Rak-Sakyi, 18, was given a lot of attention. It could have been because the former Chelsea academy player was closest to Vieira, but they did also speak again during the drinks break and the conversations appeared more instructive than directions given to his defenders.
It also reinforced the suggestion that Vieira is at his happiest when he is working with younger players.
Given the blank sheet of paper he has as a result of 10 Palace players reaching the end of their contracts last season at the same time as former boss Roy Hodgson, this might work quite well.
From the squad involved in Hodgson’s first game in charge, against Southampton in September 2017, five started against Walsall. Another three – Scott Dann, Andros Townsend and Patrick van Aanholt – only left when their contracts expired last month. Zaha was injured at the time, which shows how little the Palace personnel has changed.
Vieira will be wary of such a small number of established players. Nathaniel Clyne played at Walsall even though he is technically out of contract but Palace’s first significant signing of the summer, 19-year-old winger Michael Olise, an £8m arrival from Reading, fits the Frenchman’s template perfectly.
‘Keep the ball, pass the ball’
It was clear Vieira wants his team to respect possession but move the ball quickly.
Every so often, he would deviate from his usual position, leaning forward, elbow on his knee, finger to his lips, a study of concentration. He would point something out to his trusted coach Kristian Wilson, who has been with Vieira on every step of his coaching journey, starting at Manchester City.
One move started on the Palace right and was manoeuvred to the left with fast, accurate, short passes. Had Tyrick Mitchell found Zaha with his intended through ball, it would have been perfect.
“There has been a big emphasis on us keeping the ball more and creating more chances with the players we’ve got in the top third of the field,” said defender Martin Kelly afterwards.
“For us, it’s about working as a team to get the ball to those guys – our ‘danger players’ as such.”
The Zaha conundrum
It was not a surprise Zaha turned out to be the match-winner. His 180-degree turn inside the Walsall half was followed by a darting run to the edge of the box, a one-two with young striker Rob Street and a first-time finish.
Although he flitted in and out of the game and got frustrated at times, either with the referee, the opposition or his team-mates, he seemed to be playing on a different level.
Yet again this summer, speculation around Zaha will be intense. Yet again, the same question will be asked: will anyone be willing to meet the transfer fee Palace would want for a 28-year-old who still has two years left on a lucrative, watertight contract?
As previous transfer windows have shown, just because Zaha would like to test himself at a higher level again – after his short stay at Manchester United – does not automatically mean it will happen.
Avoiding a De Boer repeat
Vieira did not speak to journalists or Palace’s own media channels after the game and also ignored autograph requests at the end.
He did have one pretty significant conversation though, talking at length to Palace sporting director Dougie Freedman, who is credited with the Olise signing and will be responsible for future transfers.
The chat was amicable, as it would be at the start of the relationship. But Vieira is known for demanding high standards and keeping people on their toes.
What Palace certainly do not want is a repeat of the Frank de Boer fiasco in 2017, when the Dutchman was sacked after only four Premier League games.
The situation is undeniably similar, a legendary former player from overseas taking over from an Englishman known for organising sides brilliantly.
Where the Dutchman failed quickly and acutely after succeeding Sam Allardyce, Parish will hope the Frenchman enjoys considerably more success and a much longer tenure having succeeded Hodgson.
Lifting the Eagles alongside Vieira’s former club Arsenal might feel like a tall order, but it feels safe to assume the iconic former midfielder will not lack courage for his convictions.
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