Patrick Vieira’s last kick of the ball for Arsenal was to win the 2005 FA Cup for them. The captain of their Invincibles side added to his popularity when his maiden win as Crystal Palace manager came against Tottenham.
If his second comes at the expense of his old club, it will put Palace ahead of Arsenal; perhaps it will plant a few thoughts that the Frenchman is the former Gunners midfielder best suited to managing them.
As it is, his new club have outscored his old employers. Indeed, while Palace have that lone win, plenty of other numbers show the progress they are making under Vieira.
Palace’s xG of 9.0 puts them in the top half. It also puts them above Arsenal (8.1) and if both sides can cite false starts to the season, with neither scoring in their first two games, Palace have had an added threat since then.
They had the lowest xG in the opening two weekends, but the sixth best since then. Their expected goals for their last five matches is 8.07, an average of 1.61 per match. It has only once been below 1.30, in defeat at Anfield. They have only won one of those five matches, but they have recorded the better xG in all three draws, as well as hammering Tottenham (2.88-0.10 on xG, 3-0 in the actual scoreline).
Palace have a positive xG difference whereas last season they finished with the third worst in the division, of minus 28.4 (Fulham, with minus 16.3, were relegated). Palace’s xGA in Roy Hodgson’s final year was 67.2, the third poorest, and it had been climbing by the year, from 55.6 in 2018-19 to 62.7 the following season. For now, it is 8.8, putting them on course to have an xGA of around 48 for the season. It is a small sample size but that would be a dramatic improvement.
From the third worst xGA in the division last season, Palace now have the sixth best, behind only Manchester City, Wolves, Everton, Brighton and Brentford (and thus better than Manchester United, Chelsea or Liverpool). Arsenal’s xGA of 13.1 is the fourth worst, even if much of that reflects their awful August.
Nor can Palace be said to have had an easy start: they have faced five of last season’s top seven, in Chelsea, West Ham, Spurs, Liverpool and Leicester. In the equivalent seven fixtures last season (and substituting Sheffield United in for Brighton), they had an xG of 5.46, so there is a marked improvement.
It reflects a promising start to the task of making Palace more attacking. They only scored 72 goals in their last 76 league games under Hodgson and contrived to finish 14th while only Norwich got fewer goals in 2019-20. Their goal tally now would be higher but for three glaring misses, chances with an xG rating of at least 0.60. They have missed the target too often.
Excluding penalties, they have only had 16 shots on target, the joint fewest with Newcastle. It shows that they have converted a healthy share, but also that too many efforts have been wayward: just 21.3 percent of their efforts have been on target, the lowest in the division. It shows where there is scope for improvement; between them, Jordan Ayew and Christian Benteke have had 20 shots and only one has been on target.
Vieira inherited both. The difference has come courtesy of his signings, who have got five of Palace’s eight goals. The catalyst has been Conor Gallagher. Palace’s central midfielders got three league goals last season; now – aided by a switch from Hodgson’s 4-4-2 to Vieira’s 4-3-3 – the loanee Gallagher has been liberated to get two.
His influence extends beyond that. His xG of 2.56 is the best of any midfielder in the Premier League and higher than any of Palace’s central midfielders registered in the whole of last season. He is averaging 0.87 shots on target per 90 minutes, whereas last year Luka Milivojevic (0.19) averaged the most for Palace.
Gallagher’s combined xG and xA per 90 minutes is 0.76; of players with 350 minutes in the division this season, only Michail Antonio, Mohamed Salah, Romelu Lukaku, Diogo Jota and Sadio Mane’s are higher, and none from midfield.
Gallagher’s willingness to shoot is notable: his tally of 15 is the highest of any central midfielder (given Bruno Fernandes is a No. 10 and Paul Pogba has largely played on the left). He also ranks joint 14th for shot-creating actions; last season, no Palace player was in the top 30 and only two in the top 60.
Now, including Wilfried Zaha, they have two of the top 20. Zaha has completed 17 passes into the penalty area, almost half his final tally for last season (36).
It helps that, as a team, Palace are having far more of the ball: from 42.9 percent of possession last season to 50.2 percent now, while their pass completion rate has risen from 76.1 to 81.0 percent. It explains why a team who were 18th for touches in the final third are 12th now and one who were 16th for touches in the box are now ninth, with only two fewer than Arsenal.
The Vieira revolution has made Palace more attacking and more threatening. The task now is to get more wins.